14 February 2011

Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Plath's semi-autobiographical novel is a fantastic work of literature, though not for the reasons you might expect. The start of the novel is nothing particularly special, though as the story progresses, there are vignettes which begin to appear giving insights of extraordinary self-awareness. The main theme that Plath explores is the isolation felt by someone going through depression and breakdown, which is very hard to express to those on the outside looking in. One of the ways in which she does this in the book is by having a variety of secondary characters who often seem to appear out of nowhere and then disappear quite quickly, only to reappear later on with little connection to their earlier cameos. Yet in these, there is the sense that the characters lack depth. This is quite a deliberate move by Plath, not an example of poor writing. When your world is insular and suffocating in an intangible bleakness, other people become two dimensional and plastic.

As the novel progresses, there are seeming gaps in the narrative where you suddenly find yourself in a whole new scene just seconds after having been somewhere else in an unresolved situation. This again is a way in which Plath sees the world, with yawning gaps in memory, something that is very common in people with depression. Once the reader has adapted to this writing style, the work is an utterly moving piece of literature. For the most part, I read this on the train over the course of a week, and at times had to dab the odd tear from my eye and try and disguise it from my fellow commuters.

* spoiler warning below*

As someone who has suffered from depression at times myself, there was much here to identify with, and it brought back some memories from a very dark time in my life. There is a point in the book where it all seems to have to a head and the deepest of fogs is taken to its logical conclusion. Knowing that Plath took her own life shortly after the publication of the book, it reads horribly like a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, perhaps in an effort to sanitise the book slightly, Plath pulls out at the last minute and gives her character a way out, with renewed hope, albeit with an uncertain ending. This does give the book an air of optimism that feels slightly out of place and I can't help but wonder if it might have been better had the book ended in the coal cellar.

To anyone who has ever suffered with depression, this is an absolute must read, and also to those who have ever had to try to support and understand someone else who has.

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