Any avid reader knows that many of the books that are our favorites are often worth reading two, three, or more times.
After studying Sylvia Plath's poetry in high school I decided to read her one and only novel, The Bell Jar. I was struck by it's honesty and poignancy in addressing societal expectations, one's sense of identity, mental illness, and the issues that young women face in growing up.
I recently re-read this novel and was even more enraptured with the story than before. I think this is due to the fact that I am now at the age of the main character and am facing many of the decisions she herself faces in the course of the novel. Decisions surrounding her education, relationships with friends and family, and the direction her life will take.
The novel, which was published in 1963 under Plath's pseudonym Victoria Lucas, is semi auto-biographical as it details the troubling descent into mental illness of main character Esther Greenwood during her early twenties. Plath herself suffered from depression and even committed suicide one month after The Bell Jar's publication.
Set in 1953, the plot begins with Esther Greenwood, a Boston native, working as an intern for a women's magazine in New York City for the summer. Esther takes no pleasure in the lavish parties or lively night life offered to her in the city. She struggles to form relationships with the other girls and to impress her boss.
Upon returning home, Esther hoped to enroll in a summer writing seminar, but having been rejected, she spends her days in a quiet stupor, until her mother sends her to a psychiatrist who immediately orders shock treatments to cure her of her depression. These shock treatments only make things worse for Esther.
A series of events puts Esther in a deep depression. She describes herself as feeling as though she is trapped under a bell jar, struggling to breathe. In chapter twenty, Esther wonders, "How did I know that someday - at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere - the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again?"
After several failed suicide attempts she is put into a private mental institution, where she is administered therapy and shock treatments that help her get over her depression. She comes to terms with the choices she's made and is able to admit and discuss the things that bother her. The metaphorical bell jar that once held her down, is now lifted, allowing her to breathe.
Esther is a beautiful character in terms of the things she struggles with. As a young woman, she resents the expectations that society has placed upon her. She dreads the day when she'll be forced to marry and spend the rest of her days raising children. In chapter 7, Esther thinks, "maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state."
Despite the fact that she was a young woman coming of age in the 1950s, Esther longed for the freedom and enjoyment that a career would provide her. This way of thinking wasn't necessarily popular for that time.
Plath created, in Esther Greenwood, a character that is relatable to most young women. Not every young woman struggles with mental illness, but most of us struggle in some way with growing up, just as Esther does. Most of us have questions about our relationships, our careers, and the types of lives we're willing to lead.
If you haven't read "The Bell Jar" yet, it's definitely worth your while to read. If you have read it before, try picking it up again to see what it tells you this time.