the bell jar

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: Identity and Mental Health

I know how highly raved this book is. But I have to say that I initially didn’t enjoy the first few chapters. I think this is because I felt that it lacked a little bit of context. In hindsight and after Googling more about the book, I have to say that it’s rather “smart” for the author (if it’s intentional) to write it in such a manner. Because I feel that it somehow reflects how people don’t really understand mental health illnesses and often brush it off as a person being lazy, eccentric or just plain weird. To me, it kinda puts readers on the spot for them to examine their own misunderstandings, assumptions, and judgments about those dealing with mental health issues. 

Even its own characters including the doctors had judgements in varying degrees throughout the book. You could always tell their (somewhat negative) attitude towards mental illness. You could tell that Esther initially had difficulty in surrendering to the treatment because of Doctor Gordon’s almost nonchalant attitude. It just made me wonder how one is supposed to heal when you feel unsafe in your healing process? 

“…as if he could see something I couldn’t, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out.”

Moreover, the treatments were incredibly questionable with the use of Electroconvulsive therapy. Of course, there is so much progress to be made in terms of awareness and treatment now. But it just seems a lot harder then. It’s definitely commendable how Sylvia Plath is able to write a book that readers have called “modern” in the 1950s. I think to have that kind of insight into mental health in a time where there was none is truly remarkable. 

I do like how the book ended in an open-ended way. Though I felt that the story felt a little rushed at times, one of my favorite parts is definitely towards the end with the reaction towards Joan’s death and Esther’s attempts to move on with her life. I feel that it depicts an important part of the struggle that people oversee, unless you have mental health issues, which is that any treatment or therapy is not a cure. Your issues are a constant battle and you will fall back into pits of darkness despite all the progress you’ve made. It’s really a process with no real end in sight. 

I can’t say that I can relate to everything Esther has gone through in the book. From her almost rape to her actual suicide attempt, I do really empathize and feel for her and everything that she was put through. Personally, I do relate to her many struggles with her identity, handling her expectations together with societal pressures and suicidal thoughts. 

The societal pressures on womanhood

Throughout the book, Esther struggles with her own identity and the societal pressures of what it means to be a woman. She tries to become a stereotypical pure lady who will settle down into her picket fence home with her husband. Her many attempts to try to love Buddy Willard and the other men she attempts to connect with. But she just couldn’t bring herself to accept their flaws. She rejects the fantasy idea of marriage and the stagnation that follows. This is definitely an extremely relevant portrayal of attitudes of many women (and maybe even men) today. These “modern people” seem to want a life without feeling guilty for not wanting to be “bogged down”. 

“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and  to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”

Esther also highlights the unfair treatment of women in society in instances when she finds out about Buddy Willard not being a virgin and her interactions with Eric who associates love with chastity while behaving like an animal himself. She feels almost betrayed at how women are supposed to be pure but men are allowed to do as they pleased without any repercussions. 

Identity and Mental Health Issues

“I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it. “

The other major societal pressure she faces is how success is defined. Esther is described as a straight-A student who has achieved rather remarkable things in her life including a scholarship for a summer in New York. Yet, you can almost sense her dissatisfaction with the success she has achieved. There was a part where it’s described how she felt happier to stay in her hotel than go enjoy a night on the town. She didn’t make any real attempts to be that straight-A student who would have still worked her butt off to do anything extra in New York. Sadly, her inability to reconcile her identity without her successes may have led to her downward spiral into depression. 

“It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.

It made me tired just to think of it. 

I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.”

You can see how she constantly searches for her identity. Sometimes even in the reflection of other women around her like Doreen, Betsy, Dodo Conway, Joan, and even her own mother. She was rather judgy towards them and their choices in life. She had so much opinion and thoughts going through her mind about herself that it just led to so much anxiety and chaos. Maybe this is why you see such high numbers of people with mental illness now. Identity has somewhat become so fluid and all-encompassing that people are unable to figure who they are.

The amount of internal stress she goes through is something I could definitely relate to on a personal level. The swirling of your thoughts, people’s opinions, and society’s expectations can easily lead to your feelings of inadequacy and how you are somehow unworthy of this life. You almost lose the will to do the basics of tasks like bathing because what’s the point? It’s definitely a dangerous combo and a deep dark pit that is difficult and sometimes feels impossible for one to crawl out of. 

Nature-nurture interaction

From this book, there could be a huge nature-nurture argument. Did her rejection and other failures in life lead to her depression? Did she already have suicidal tendencies and a disposition to depression? Not to dive too deep into psychology, but I do see various interactions of her personal experiences that “interacted” with “her disposition to be depressed and suicidal”. 

I want to put forth this nature-nurture argument because I feel like it would be incredible unfair to people with mental illness. To equate her downward spiral into depression and suicide solely on her failures would seem naive and unfair. You would essentially be saying that all people with mental illness are unlucky in life to experience an overwhelming failures and disappointments. It might be true that their inability to cope with negative feelings could be a stressor. But, in my humble opinion, it’s unfair to them. They’re not unlucky in life. They’re just dealing with it differently. 

My favorite quotes from The Bell Jar

  • If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed. – Esther Greenwood
  • What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinite security, and what a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from. – Buddy Willard 
  • I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it. – Esther Greenwood
  • I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance but as soon as he moved closer, I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all. – Esther Greenwood
  • That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and  to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket. – Esther Greenwood
  • A small, answering point in my own body flew towards it. I felt my lungs inflate with the inrush scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’ – Esther Greenwood
  • …as if he could see something I couldn’t, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I was being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out. – Esther Greenwood

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