RAD Book Club review: The Bell Jar

17 Apr 2019

For our seventh read this season RAD Book Club read The Bell Jar by American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963).

In this semi-autobiographical roman à clef, published in 1963 under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas”, Plath explores the experience of depression as well as the themes of suicide, mental health, sexuality and a woman’s aspirations within the constraints imposed by the society of her time. Eight of us met to discuss this modern classic.

This is the first Book Club read that all attending members unanimously enjoyed! Many appreciated the sheer pleasure of the language used and the fact that the story was told clearly and skillfully. Despite the bleak nature of the novel’s subject, we found that Plath managed to convey the complexity of Esther, the main character, and the oppressive, constraining effects of the situation around her, insightfully, concisely, and poetically. To some people’s surprise, the book includes some dark humour and we enjoyed how fantastically sarcastic and ironic Esther could be. We felt that all the characters were well depicted, well rounded, and alive, and how well they seem to serve a purpose in the novel.

The way mental health was treated in the novel was very believable and relatable and we could almost feel what the life of a young woman with Esther’s aspirations, contradictions and background might have felt like. We valued the real, raw tone with which  her insights and experiences were presented, which at points made reading this book a challenge as it forced us to confront some difficult truths about life. We felt touched by Plath’s treatment of depression which made us reflect on some issues Esther struggles with and with which many of us said we could relate.

Some of us admired how Esther’s life experiences were presented in a way that was neither entirely obvious nor completely ambiguous, and was not overly dramatic either. The disparity between different elements in the novel was, for a few of us, an indication of the conflict in Esther between how she saw herself, how she wanted to be seen, and how others saw her. Unlike some trauma narratives, Plath’s does not dwell on cause and resolution of situations, in real life these are seldom clear-cut anyway, but instead hints at their causes and conditions, many of which are expressed symbolically, and only suggests what the future might hold for Esther.

We could hardly come up with anything negative to say about this novel so, instead, we mentioned how the novel had been received and concluded that this book is not only about depression and it is certainly not only relevant to female readers. We compared The Bell Jar to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Ryewhich inspired Plath, and mentioned some key differences. The rest of the discussion focused on the character of Esther, which struck us as contradictory, naïve at times, tending to extremes, self-centred, judgmental, but also sharp and intelligent.

As a group we gave it a score of 8.5 out of 10.