Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Bell Jar

This book was borrowed to me by my good friend CMS. I was a little reluctant to read it, because I thought it would pretty depressing. And it was, but not in an awful way. Just sad. I don't know much about Sylvia Plath, but I did know she suffered from mental illness and killed herself and I was pretty sure The Bell Jar told her story, or at least mirrored her real life.

The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther, a college student and talented writer who receives a great opportunity to intern at a big magazine in 1950s NYC. During that summer Esther's mental illness begins, and the story then follows Esther back home and eventually to a mental hospital. (From the mini biography in the back of the book and from other sources I've read, this is pretty much what happened to Plath.)

The writing is fairly good, but parts of the New York story line dragged for me. For me, the story picks up more when she really starts to falter mentally. Which is weird; why, when I knew it would be depressing and when I was actually sad reading the book, would it "pick up" for me when the character's at her worst? I feel awful for this woman (Esther, Sylvia, whomever). How lonely must it have been?

The most important thing about the book, though, is it shines light on mental illness and health care, back then and in general. And to me, this is interesting to think about. There has always been mental illness. Since the dawn of time. And yet still, there's a stigma. Back then, the electroshock treatments, the lobotomies - it's all incredibly disturbing. How could doctors really think they were doing the right thing? But then, perhaps people will look back at our current medical methods and question just what the heck we were doing with some of our therapies? But anyway, people have always, always suffered with depression in all forms. And you always have the people who just want them "to get over it." There will always be those of us who don't quite understand, but hopefully more and more of us learn empathy and sympathy instead of denial and frustration.

For another wonderful take on this book, see Bending Bookshelf.

5 comments:

CMS said...

Some of the thoughts that stayed with me after reading the book:

1. So that's what a bell jar is ...

2. Now I understand why some mentally ill people don't feel the need to shower.

3. How could some shock treatments have been good? Weren't they all universally bad?

4. I love this quote: "I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart. I am, I am, I am."

5. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

6. I wish no one had to hurt so much that suicide seems like the only way out. :(

A. said...

CMS-

1. You're funny! But I had a similar reaction when she described the feeling that came over her, like a bell jar.

2. She was really able to describe what she was feeling and make you understand. I liked that.

3. I think in the end, they didn't work. Maybe they did for a little while, but the patient always ended up feeling depressed again. There was no lasting effect. No true cure. Same with the lobotomies. Some people were completely disabled after them, others were just never ever the same.

4. That is a nice quote.

5. So true. Even if you're just a little magazine editor, a little doubt can paralyze you in your cube.

6. Me too.

Charley said...

I appreciated that this book encouraged me to look outside of myself. I had to constantly remind myself that, as frustrating as Esther's behavior was to me, her depression was causing her to operate from a completely different mindset from that of an emotionally stable individual. I found the image of the bell jar to be quite powerful in helping me to understand how she must have felt. Thank you for linking to my post about this book.

willikat said...

I STILL haven't read this book. I want to!
Electroshock treatments are still considered primary AND last-resort treatments for some mental conditions. True story. And, some people do get relief from them. But overall. YIKES.
Also, have you read My Lobotomy? It's completely fascinating. I cried, and it's sad, but it's also kind of uplifting. I can lend it to you if you want to read it.

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