A brilliant, brilliant account of succumbing to depression and mental illness. I’ve never suffered from either but the narration was so authentic, so immediate, powered by such skill that it was impossible not to feel the bell jar descending upon you with all its hopelessness – in a book where feeling is so deficient as to be practically non-existent.
There are no feelings in The Bell Jar. There isn’t even reference to any. You infer what feelings could have arisen in a given situation from dispassionate descriptions or allusions to physical actions and reactions. And even those are marked in a curious roundabout way – e.g., it says the ground leapt and hit her back, instead of saying she fell on her back; this provides a further measure of distancing from what is happening, as though Esther is not only absent from her own situation, but a stranger to the whole frame of reference of the regular world and its workings. And yet this is one of the most intense books I’ve read, where you can almost touch the textures, see the colours, be blinded by the whiteness of the snow, feel the dull pain of inescapable emptiness.
Plath died from suicide three weeks after publication and this makes it especially poignant. You can’t help but feel it was a cry for help, the way Esther hopes someone will hear her amongst her numerous failed or aborted attempts and help her out of the blinding stillness of her condition. Seen from that perspective, the ending is a small mercy because you can fill it in and decide she got well, became a famous poet and never gave the rest of the figs a second thought.