The 1950s was a bad time to be a woman or to have a mental illness. This can be seen in Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar. This is a semi-autobiographical novel about a woman’s struggle with depression and anxiety, as well as the pressure to conform to societal expectations of becoming a wife and mother, and how these factors work against her. It reads as both an outcry for social change and a cry for help from the author.
Quick Summary for Context
Esther Green is a college student who wants to be a poet. She goes to New York City for a summer internship as a guest editor at Ladies’ Day magazine, where she struggles with fitting in, her identity, and her mental health. She wants to attend a writing class after her internship, but when rejected, she returns home to her mother. She struggles to write, and her depression worsens.
After a suicide attempt, she is admitted to a mental institute. She goes to several more until she meets Dr. Nolan, a woman psychiatrist. Treatments help, but what changed Esther’s view on life was the suicide of her friend, Joan, who was also in the mental institute. The book ends with Esther, who has changed, finding out if she can return home.
Mental Health Struggles
Esther struggles with anxiety and intense depression, and the portrayal of these mental illnesses is hyper-realistic. She tries to fit in and be like her peers, but every time she tries, she feels alienated because she can’t experience things the same way. She feels alone when surrounded by others; she goes to parties, is abandoned, and cannot enjoy herself. She has many dreams, but her anxiety and depression hold her back, making her feel like she’ll never accomplish anything. This worsens her mental health in a vicious cycle.
Because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
It doesn’t matter what Esther does or where she goes — she is always trapped in her mind. She never has any form of escape from the thoughts and feelings that haunt her. It makes her feel isolated from others, and it suffocates her. She can’t care about the people, events, or places that she wants to because she can’t get out of her mind.
This book takes place in the 1950s, and there were a lot of restrictive expectations for women during this time. Esther desperately wanted to be a writer, but she felt a lot of pressure to start a family and stay at home. Her intelligence and ambition were frowned upon and mocked by her peers. Everybody kept expecting her to settle down and stop writing, and Esther knew that she could not satisfy both herself and those around her. This stress contributes to her failing mental health.
The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
In the novel, someone tells Esther that men are arrows, and women are where the arrows shoot off from. This means that women are supposed to support their husbands no matter what and never want or try for anything. Esther hates this and tries to fight, but everyone around her — men and women — mock her and pressure her to conform.
Despite the singular novel published in her name, Plath has made quite the impact on not only the literary world but also that of society. The Bell Jar, as well as books like The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, are referenced many times over in psychology classrooms and progressive sociological conferences as examples of the pains women have struggled with for equality, including socially, medically, and economically.
For more on Sylvia Plath, click here.