Esther Greenwood hasn’t washed her hair for three weeks. Personal hygiene seems futile when the days glare ahead ‘…like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.’ This sombre path is walked by one of literature’s most infamous characters in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The iconic writer’s portrayal of a young woman’s mental breakdown ties in perfectly with our Read With Your Teen challenge. Time to put your preconceptions on hold while sharing cross-generational thoughts on the novel’s oft-cited morbid self-obsession and stirring feminist observations.
We begin in 1950’s New York, where Esther has won a month’s internship at a fashion magazine. As a gauche nineteen-year-old, she’s hoping that some of the city’s glamour will rub off on her, but is left feeling inexplicably empty and directionless. Knowing that many girls would envy her, Esther can’t understand why her heart is so numb. Failing to get onto a chosen writing course she faces the prospect of a suburban Boston summer with her uncomprehending mother and a calamitous slide into mental illness.
Partially based on Plath’s own life, this 1963 classic retains its power to shock.
Pills, razor blades, drowning, hanging. Esther’s grim contemplation of suicide makes for painful reading, along with her chilling description of the crackling blue light of electroconvulsive therapy. Often accused of romanticising depression, Plath offers so much more. She depicts Esther as frustrated by her time and place in history. Desiring sexual adventure and a career, 1950’s America women were fobbed off with a job in the typing pool followed by marriage, after which they ‘..went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.’
Will Esther find the strength to overturn contemporary expectations of womanhood?
Sometimes overshadowed by its gloomy reputation (the reader will encounter dead babies and graveside howling) this is also a novel of humour, dry observation and considered analysis of mental breakdown. We’d love to know how you fare reading it alongside the teen reader in your life.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is published by Faber and Faber, 240 pages.