“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” With that opening sentence, Sylvia Plath immerses us in the world of Esther Greenwood, the nineteen-year-old narrator of The Bell Jar. This opening sentence is prescient in that the reference to the Rosenberg’s electrocution foreshadows Esther’s electric shock treatments in the asylum; her declaration of aimlessness sums up the lack of direction she feels about her own life.
Esther is articulate, intelligent, talented, and penetratingly honest. Plath does a remarkable job of taking the reader inside Esther’s mind as she struggles with herself and evaluates her life from the standpoint of a detached observer. Plagued with despair, self-doubt, and feelings of inadequacy and futility, her flirtation with thoughts of death permeate the novel. Her almost clinical exploration of the possible methods of committing suicide is chilling enough only to be compounded by the knowledge that Plath took her own life two weeks after the novel’s publication.
Plath’s prose is threaded with elegant metaphors and unforgettable images that evoke her narrator’s frame of mind. The writing is descriptive, clear, poignant, and reflective of a sensitive young girl alienated from the world around her and feeling hollow inside. Esther describes herself as trapped in a bell jar, isolated, exposed, stifled, and . . . “blanked and stopped as a dead baby.” From inside the bell jar, the outside world appears to her as a “bad dream.”
Esther draws us into her life, making us her companions as she evaluates herself and the people around her with a jaundiced eye. She drifts from one sporadic event to another with no apparent purpose and no obvious connection. The effect is jarring and reflects Esther’s spiraling descent into depression, breakdown, and attempted suicide. Her unabashed honesty is compelling. Her dry sense of humor is endearing. Her voice is gripping. And her refusal to conform to the restrictive pressures society inflicts on her is heroic.
The novel closes with Esther’s appearance in front of the board that determines whether or not she is well enough to be released from the asylum. We cheer her on hoping she has extricated herself from the bell jar with its stifling, suffocating air and is now filling her lungs with air that is fresh, clean, and breathable. And we do so with the sobering knowledge that Sylvia Plath, the brilliant author who introduced us to this memorable character, tragically never escaped her own bell jar.