On Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

When I read Plath’s The Bell Jar as a student in college decades ago, I knew little of the author’s biography.

Having studied her background now and her brief life, her reading regimen, and her lifetime of writing, I now have a fuller, deeper appreciation for her writing and her soul’s anguish. It is unfortunate, in my view, that her suicide overshadows her literary contributions. I know of few people who can speak intelligently about Plath’s poems and prose, but of several who bloviate about her suicide. That is indeed depressing to those of us who appreciate Plath’s gifts to the world that came by way of her pen.

I completed reading The Bell Jar again this week, and it details the shock therapy her stand-in protagonist endured, the misunderstandings she endured, her ambitions, her isolation, and the respite she found in logotheraphy. For Plath, her only salvation came via literature, poetry in particular.

She penned many caustic rebukes, especially towards Roman Catholicism’s system, and she was not much kinder to some Protestant abuses she saw and endured via some professing adherents. Some of her black humor in The Bell Jar is seen here:

“Of course, I didn’t believe in life after death or the virgin birth or the Inquisition or the infallibility of that little monkey-faced Pope or anything, but I didn’t have to let the priest see this, I could just concentrate on my sin, and he would help me repent” (164).

There are many examples of Esther (the main character in the novel) calling out false systems and of religious hypocrisy in the novel, all of course as the protagonist’s reasons for wanting to end her life. She’s literally sick of the lies and comes to view death as preferable. Sadly, the protagonist’s struggles and laments were carried to fruition in Plath’s own life just a few months after her novel was published.

Life imitated art in tragic form.

It is not uncommon today to hear so much about mental health. Well, we might do worse than reading and grappling with the writing of Sylvia Plath, both for her literary importance and for the light her literary corpus may shed upon spiritual, psychological, and emotional spectres that haunt not a small number of people.

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