fiction, review

The Bell Jar

Indonesian edition’s cover

What becomes our problem, is what see as a problem. But, what is exactly our problem? As I read The Bell Jar, it seemed to me that Esther Greenwood sees everything in her life as a problem. The truth of my introductory sentence earlier is quite debatable, I must admit, but when you read the whole story of hers, will you feel the same? Trapped in a bell jar? This Sylvia Plath’s only novel is said to be one of must-read feminist novels, but I, as a woman, couldn’t honestly relate to it in any way. Is it really about being a woman, or is it about being unable to make peace with yourself?

Being a semi-autobiography, The Bell Jar can be thought to be presenting the life story of Sylvia Plath in disguise. It focuses on Esther Greenwood, a young woman who seems to have everything every woman wants, even a man she’s been admiring for so long. She makes her way to New York, getting an internship at a big magazine company, living in luxury, having a good, though not trusted, friend. Half the women in the world are willing to sacrifice anything to get all that she has and yet she’s not happy about any of it. To her, everything is a lie, what she chooses, what transpires around her, people she meets and has acquaintances with, even the man who becomes her lover, Buddy Willard, is a complete body of lies. She wants to get out, and her simplest way of doing so is to try to commit suicide. Over and over she tries to take her own life, only to fail then and there. Her constant attempts on her life eventually drag her to a mental hospital, though, looking at her narration, she doesn’t look like a mentally ill person at all. Unfortunately, the situation turns for the worse for her at the hospital, as its occupants pack even more lies than she’s already witnessed in the outside world.

Through her painfully depressing narration, Sylvia Plath portrays the character of Esther Greenwood with sharp realness, treating the reader to a concrete display of thoughts and feelings which shapes the entire narrative we perceive. The diction Plath uses to describe Esther’s restlessness and bottled-up anger and inability to make a choice of her own is so unbearably sweeping. She doesn’t make Esther a flat-out fruitcake, but slowly arranges her tiny pieces into a puzzling picture we might see as an incomplete, dissatisfied, resentful person. Along the book, readers are relentlessly presented with all the reasons why she wants to kill herself, all the things that symbolize her inner disapproval of the way of the world and thus define how she thinks and where she stands. Her character is so gloomy, troubled, difficult, emanating sadness and helplessness. No wonder she always thinks of committing suicide, though all those traits don’t necessarily determine her subtle mental illness.

To be honest, I don’t see The Bell Jar as a feminist novel in any way. It focuses on a female character, yes, with all her restless thoughts and melancholy feelings, but I don’t think Esther’s problem is particularly a woman’s problem. Depression is a state of psyche that can possibly happen to anyone of any sex and gender. It’s not a picky mental condition. Moreover, the book is set and written in 1960s’ America, where rebellion of any sort had been unrestrictedly possible. Her sense of confinement in New York, the way I see it, is more of her reluctance to be the victim of capitalism and falsehood than of her anxiety as a woman. Her unspoken hatred toward her boyfriend Buddy Willard for his hypocrisy seems to me to be off the mark, for she herself won’t speak up her volcanic mind. Some hapless women indeed cannot say no, but for a woman like Esther Greenwood, it should be an easy thing to do. The story, and portrayal, of Esther Greenwood only put me in mind of a person who cannot make peace with themselves and can decide nothing more than committing suicide.

The Bell Jar is beautifully written, actually. The narrative is so poignant and depressing, moving me into a gloomy mood I never expected to feel in the beginning of reading it. The narration of what happens from page one fuses very well with the characterization of Esther Greenwood that they really become one seamless unity. The plot runs very smooth as well, packed with fast-paced, short scenes. Plath doesn’t waste any words on long, useless descriptions, but effectively arranges sentences to form every scene and elaboration of secret feelings. Through her simple yet rich narrative, we can understand Esther’s character and the story without much difficulty. The Bell Jar is an indescribably picturesque tale of a life, only it’s too sad to enjoy.

At the end, I would say that The Bell Jar is a great book as a whole. I liked the story, I liked the comprehensive portrayal of the main character, and I liked the way Plath describes the thoughts and feelings of said character. I just disagree that it is named as one of must-read feminist novels, since I didn’t find anything wrong with her womanhood.

Rating: 3.5/5