Depression and suicide are commonly discussed in today’s society; however, in the 1950s, incidents such as suicidal feelings were not mentioned due to being deemed too risqué. Sylvia Plath is well-known for her poetry, yet her prose is equally as noteworthy. According to Frances McCullough, The Bell Jar is a “pre-drugs, pre-Pill, pre-Women’s Studies” (Plath xiii) novel, which focuses on weighty issues which were not typically discussed during the time period. The semiautobiographical novel deals with depression and suicide, as well as a search for one’s identity, feminism, and rebirth. Therefore, The Bell Jar tackles various issues which were not discussed during the time of its publication.
The novel follows the plight of a young woman, Esther Greenwood, as she begins a downward spiral in her mental health, slipping farther and farther away from reality. She delves deep into a depression, which is directly related to her search for her own identity. When one does not know one’s self, it becomes a struggle to develop relationships with others and succeed in life. Esther does not know who she is and this causes her to sink into a depression, leading to multiple suicide attempts. Esther is in a position in which she should be content, as a guest editor of a women’s magazine; however, she is not satisfied with her position:
I was supposed to be having the time of my life. I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me…I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. (I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surroundi...
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...ed closely by societal members, causing the impending state of depression.
The Bell Jar was the first novel of the time period to address such weighty issues as depression, suicide, sexual conduct, and feminism. Plath’s work impacted me greatly because, like many college students, I have gone through a period of searching for my true identity and could closely relate to the novel. Depression and suicide are often misunderstood by society; however, Plath’s semiautobiographical novel gave people an insider’s perspective “of what madness is actually like” (Plath xiii).
Kendall, Tim. Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study. New York: faber and faber, 2001.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Perennial Classics, 1996.
Plath, Sylvia. Tulips. Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, & Robert O’Clair. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
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