It was 32 years ago when I first read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I was 16, young and impressionable, and not yet consumed by the mental illness that would over-take me in my mid-20s. I suffered from mild depression then, so I was able to easily identify with Esther. I didn’t understand the issues she had with men at the time because I had not even dated or kissed a boy yet. I had little experience with feminism, only the maiden lives of two aunts and the song These Boots Are Made for Walking by Nancy Sinatra to draw from.
When I sat down three days ago to re-read The Bell Jar, I didn’t know what a profound effect it would have on me now. I could relate more to the spiraling mental illness, the suicide attempts, the uneasy relationship between Esther and her mother, and the desire to “have it all,” but in her time, she knew prospects were limited for women. Although I knew early on in my life that I did not want children, I did want relationships, friendships, college and a career in writing. These options have always been available to me thanks to the feminist movement that was gaining momentum in Plath’s time. Like Esther, mental illness would prevent me from keeping relationships and friendships and having a career in writing. One can hope that Esther went on to have all of those things after her recovery, but since this book was semi-autobiographical, one is left pondering if Esther was really cured or if suicide was her ultimate fate. And I am left to wonder, what it also be mine?
Here is another woman’s reaction to reading The Bell Jar again after many years: