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Mental Disorders

by Sylvia Plath
Caedmon Audio, 1963
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 5th 2004

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar is such a classic of modern literature of mental illness that it verges on the absurd to review it, but the release of an unabridged audiobook performance of Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel merits mention.  Furthermore, in a recent course I was teaching last year, I mentioned Plath in passing and I was slightly taken aback to find that a good number of psychology majors had no knowledge of her.  Maybe the forthcoming film, Sylvia, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, will raise awareness about Plath.  For others, the very title The Bell Jar may be such a symbol of young female angst that it just seems a cliché, and they might not even have read the book out of a sense that one can know what it is all about without opening it.  Those who are familiar with Plath's poetry, especially in Ariel, may think of her work as so scathingly angry and unrelentingly scornful that the prospect of reading a whole book by her is daunting.  However, the surprise in reading The Bell Jar now is how fresh and light it is in tone, even as it goes into details of suicide and insane asylums.  It still really needs to be required reading for anyone interested in mental illness. 

The story of The Bell Jar directly mirrors the events in Plath's own life.  An academically successful only child whose father died when she was a child, Esther Greenwood is an honors student at a New England college.  At the start of the novel, she is spending a month in New York City working at a national magazine, thrown together with a number of other young women all living in the same hotel.  She likes to think of herself as unorthodox but she soon realizes that in fact she is not as wild as some of the others.  She is nineteen years old, a virgin, and engaged to solid and dependable medical student Buddy Willard.  But she has no intention to actually marry Buddy, and indeed, she has a looming sense of crisis about what she will do with her life.  When she is attacked and nearly raped at an upscale party, she returns to her suffocating family home, and immediately finds that she did not get into a summer writing program she was banking on.  She has a breakdown and ceases doing anything, including sleeping.  Eventually, she starts seeing a psychiatrist, who says little to her but prescribes electroshock treatment.  Her mood does not improve, however, and she nearly succeeds in committing suicide.  As a result, she is transferred to a number of residential facilities, where she again undergoes electroshock treatment, but this time her condition starts to improve. 

The novel is set in the early 1950s, and was written before the feminist movement of the 1960s.  Yet the story clearly links Esther's unhappiness to the stifling culture in which women's freedom is limited.  Esther does not feel that she can fit in with the expectations others have of her, and her frustration and alienation are palpable.  Yet she has power; she is, for instance, able to fight off the man who tries to rape her, and she is dismissive of her suitor Buddy.  She knows she is talented and is able to resist the pressures to conform to other people's expectations.  In short, Esther is a complex character who resists simple labels such as mental patient, victim, or feminist.  The Bell Jar can be read just as easily as social commentary as memoir of mental illness, but what makes it as vital now as it was when it was written is the energy of the writing.  With every sentence, Plath's intelligence and humor shine through.  Even when she is describing her most desperate and self-destructive moments, her wry and sardonic tone makes her an appealing narrator. 

The performance of the book by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has appeared in the movies Secretary, Adaptation, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, does much to make the story feel contemporary.  Gyllenhaal has an appealing voice, young enough to be convincing as a 19-year-old, and yet subtle enough to convey the complexities of the prose.  Her tone has a slightly husky quality, which gives the reading a pleasing intimacy. 

 

© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.