The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Mental Health and Maturation

  To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.

Esther Greenwood is young,  intelligent, talented, and successful. In the midst of an impressive academic career, Greenwood lands an internship at a popular women’s magazine in 1950s New York City, where she gets a taste of glamour and sophistication, jumping between work and parties–all the while being showered with gifts from the program’s sponsors. Esther has everything a girl her age would want. Right?

Not quite. Rather than have the time of her life, Esther finds herself in a constant state of crisis, caught between pressures to rebel against or conform to social conventions, while agonizing over the uncertainty of her future.

When Esther returns home to find that she’s been rejected from a writing course, her uneasiness transforms into a complete breakdown: she can’t sleep, she can’t eat, she can’t write, and she can’t read. Her identity, which she had based largely on academic success, begins to deteriorate until she descends into an obsession with suicide that leads her to a mental hospital.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, originally published in 1963 under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas,” is an especially important text because it portrays mental illness in a way that is empathetic, rational, and honest. Many critics credit this to Plath’s own struggles with clinical depression (and eventually suicide); consequently, the novel is often considered semi-autobiographical. Though Esther “goes mad,” as critics often say, Plath maintains her protagonist’s humanness by placing the construction and deconstruction of her identity at the center of the novel. This novel gives a voice to the mentally ill, as opposed to sensationalizing the character and her mental state as an unhuman perversion, as freakishness. By allowing us into Esther’s mind, Plath depicts the illness (some say it is schizophrenia, others say it is depression) as an experience, a process, as opposed to a gross defect. 

In addition to illustrating mental illness, The Bell Jar is a classic bildungsroman–a story of formation, or “coming-of-age” narrative. In the foreword to the Harper Perennial’s Modern Classics edition, Frances McCullough revered the novel as “a female rite-of-passage novel, a twin to Catcher in the Rye.” Interestingly enough, critics also highlight the deterioration of Holden Caulfield’s mental health. Considering that two of the most read and discussed coming-of-age tales in contemporary American fiction explore (or rather, question) the mental and emotional stability of their protagonists, one might ask, how does one’s mental health transform throughout the process of maturation?

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