Esther Greenwood was supposed to be having the time of her life. She had a year until college graduation, pursuing an honors program on a full scholarship and enjoying a vacational internship in Manhattan. Yet she was crumbling on the inside.
The problems were too numerous. She yearned for independence but could not discern any specific path of her goal. She was self-loathing but also self-sympathetic. She was depressed but did not know it. Rather than a stepping stone towards the future, her time in Manhattan was a self-exploratory journey gone wrong, exposing all the existential, gender, and socioeconomic problems she had been suppressing for too long.
Sylvia Plath was a powerful writer, especially in her narrative of depression and female oppression. Even before she elucidated the bell jar as the socioeconomic, gender, psychological and social barrier that will forever act as Esther’s personal Sword of Damocles, I had a sense of this gooey, suffocating iridescent purple gel that loomed over the entire book. Whenever I picked it up, it was as if I were holding a piece of airtight grey cloud that was ready to burst.
While I was reading, I kept imaging this plastic ballerina doll strapped to her pole and her mouth opened wide in a silent scream. I had considered it the product of her latent depression, but at the end of the story, I realized that it was also one of her obsession with the appearance of self-possession.
While we might not all have personal experiences with depression, many of us also twirl beneath the same burnished bell jar. On it might be a hologram of effortless perfection, but within we are choking on its fatal purple film. The antidote? Probably unobtainable, but if there were an immediate solution, it would be the willingness to at least wipe the illusion of perfection and unite our ambitions and accomplishments with our insecure, imposter-syndrome-filled selves.
I would have given this book 4 stars had it not been for the racism. While some might say that using derogatory words targeting African, Chinese, Indian and other minorities was a “norm” for Sylvia Plath’s time, the protagonist and narrator, Esther, only uses these words when she wishes to highlight her physical and aesthetic deficiencies.
So we know that Esther, and probably Plath herself (since this work is semi-autobiographical) holds some curious racial connotations concerning beauty and appearances. It is not “just slurs.”