I have not yet finished reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, but I already feel compelled to write about how incredibly important it is for young, mentally ill women to read it. It is so hard to find true depictions of female depression in literature, and everything about this book, the tone, the language, the pacing, and the plot itself, rings true. I live with mental illness that feels very much like it has stripped me of everything good or meaningful, and reading the breakdown of those truths in detail was cathartic for me.
Sylvia Plath imbued most of her writing with the realities of a woman living with depression in a male-centric world, but I never bothered reading her work because I didn’t think that her Whiteness would allow her narrative to reflect mine. Esther Greenwood’s (aka Sylvia Plath) story, however, is relevant for all female writers who feel that breaking through the block of mental illness and trauma has held them back creatively and professionally. It is a phenomenal representation of how women historically repress the trauma of living under sexist structures and how it slowly breaks us.
The Bell Jar is Plath’s only novel, a fictional narrative that was based on her own struggle with mental illness. It begins with the main character, Esther Greenwood, finishing a stint serving on the editorial board of a fashion magazine in New York. The novel follows Esther’s dark descent into depression and her fall from grace, a descent that mirrored Plath’s losing battle against her depression. She eventually died by suicide in 1963 after a lifelong struggle with mental illness. Knowing Sylvia’s history makes The Bell Jar hauntingly real.
The language Plath uses is intentional without feeling pretentious. The tone is unembellished and pragmatic, but Plath manages to send the reader on an unprecedented emotional journey with just a few sentences of blunt honesty:
“The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly. It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next. It made me tired just to think of it. I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.”
That passage hit me like a truck. “That’s it,” I thought. “That’s exactly what depression is.” I have gone weeks without showering, not because I am a dirty person who enjoys filth, but because when you live with depression, basic routines turn into marathon exercises that require energy that you simply don’t have.
When I was in college, I found myself in Esther’s shoes. The depression sneaked in on the shadow of the terror that descended upon the realization that I had to begin my life anew. I was so intimidated by the impending “real” world lifestyle I would have to lead that I withdrew into a state of confusion that transformed me into an amalgam of fearfulness, self-hatred, and insecurity.
What I understand now is that the combination of a troubled home life and the subtle, but omnipresent restrictions I felt caging me in identity boxes contributed to my feelings of hopelessness. I had been living a facade of success and happiness that never felt real for me; life gets old fast when you live it in default.
Things fell apart quickly for me as they did for Esther, and her story was parallel to my own. I had the world at my fingertips: scholarships, prestige, education, unlimited potential and the investment of my teachers and mentors who all believed I was going somewhere great.
I ended up going down a rabbit hole of unfathomable apathy and unhappiness. I knew I should be doing something better, but instead, I sat in my dorm room and stared at the wall for six hours a day, ignoring the nagging worry that nothing mattered anymore. I lost my ability to write. I couldn’t even read. That deep low lasted for three years.
Esther’s mental illness was a slow burn, and its full intensity isn’t felt until there was nothing but the depression. Entire chapters are dedicated to her lackadaisical contemplation of suicide, and in those dull moments of absolute surrender do we recognize just how much the disease has stripped from her. The transition from brilliant budding scholar to meandering corpse is so subtle that the reader almost doesn’t realize it’s happening. That’s the point.
The story is written like everything is normal. Esther’s sexual assault is horrifically blasé; the shock treatment she receives never really registers as shocking, but rather a painful inconvenience that Esther would rather not have to endure again. These small tragedies and veiled injustices mirror the repression that leads up to the eruption of her depression. Esther is constantly at the mercy of rigid gender roles, and that is a truth that remains for modern women.
The Bell Jar is a representation of depression that is neither glamorous nor beautiful, and that taught me to understand how to live with my own illness and accept that it can change how I interact with the world. I learned to write again, and create around the impenetrable wall of nothingness that used to convince me that my work and life was meaningless. The Bell Jar helped me to celebrate the simple victory of staying alive when existing feels counter-intuitive.