The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar was the first book chosen by my new book group. I apologise for the length of time it has taken me to write this review (more than a month – I have just posted the review for the second book group choice!), but I was so busy with the Bookers that this review kept getting pushed to the bottom of the pile.

The Bell Jar was originally published in 1963, just a few weeks before the author committed suicide. I had avoided this book in the past, as I thought it would be a dark, depressing book, but I was pleasantly surprised. The book does deal with some difficult subject matter, but it never felt oppressive. I found myself smiling at several sections, and never felt sad.

The book begins with Esther Greenwood,  a young woman, heading to New York to begin an internship with a New York Fashion magazine. Despite being set in 1953 the writing felt very modern. The majority of this section could easily have happened yesterday and I was immediately drawn to her. 

Instead of enjoying her new life Esther quickly becomes overwhelmed by it. She spirals into a depression and makes several feeble, almost comical, attempts at suicide. The treatment she receives for her depression is a stark reminder of how much mental health care has improved in the last 50 years. There were also some interesting sections showing how life for women has changed over the years.

Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry somebody who wasn’t pure either. Then when he started to make my life miserable I could make his miserable as well.

This book was easy to read, and due to the large number of discussion points, perfect for book groups.




Have you read The Bell Jar?

Did you find it depressing?


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  1. Simon S says:

    I think its interesting what we all took from this book was different (great thing about books and reading) and yet we all sort of felt the same about it. That makes sense to me, ha! Was sorry to have missed the last book grop but will be at the next one.

    I sadly think this book gets a bad reputation for being depressing when its not, I would heartily recommend this and see why its become a cult classic.

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, I think that we all enjoyed reading this one (unlike Voice Over!) I don’t really know why people would say that it is depressing as I found it to be the opposite.

  2. Beth F says:

    I read The Bell Jar in the early 1970s and remember loving it. But I haven’t read it since, so I can’t talk intelligently about it. About the time Plath killed herself, there were several other female authors who committed suicide or who were thinking about it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, Several members of our book group re-read this book and found it much more enjoyable second time round. I think they appreciated it a lot more as adults. It might be time for you to read this again?

      1. Beth F says:

        You are probably very right. I’ll put it on the never ending list

  3. lilly says:

    I did start reading this book in my late teens or early twenties but didn’t finish because it just hit too close to home and I didn’t have the objectivity that I believe to possess now. I will be giving it another try soon.

    1. Jackie says:

      Lilly, I think you’d enjoy this book more now that you’re an adult. I hope that you find a re-read rewarding.

  4. Diane says:

    I recall enjoying this book when I read it. I just joined a face to face book group (first meeting October) and we will be reading Snow in August; Pete Hamill.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, I’ve not heard of Snow in August – I’ll keep an eye out for your review.

  5. Sandy says:

    I remember reading Simon’s review of it, and added it to my list. I’ll have to remember it for my new book group!

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, It was a great choice for a first book group meeting – so much to talk about, but no really contraversial topics to cause people to argue! I hope you enjoy your new book group.

  6. Steph says:

    I read this in highschool (the time of ultimate maudlin angst!) and really enjoyed it. Actually, I think an English teacher gave me a copy to read, but I don’t think she meant anything by it – just that I would enjoy it! I still have that copy in our apartment to this day, and would like to reread it (something I haven’t been great about, but I’m working on it!). I’m glad you enjoyed this one, and I can definitely see how it would be a good choice for a book club.

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed this if I’d read it in school. I think having more life experience makes this book much more appealing. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you do decide to re-read it.

  7. Mon says:

    Not depressing!?? lol Funny how we see different things. Plath suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. She was a dark writer. The Bell Jar is definitely a novel of dark emotions. But I agree that it isn’t oppressive.

    I read this in my teens and loved it. Re-read earlier this year, and still brilliant but enjoyed it less. I think I was in the mind-set for something more hopeful.

    1. Jackie says:

      Mon, I’m sure that your current emotional state will play a large part in how much depression you see in this book. I was in a very happy mood when I read it, so perhaps I just saw the positive side to it. Either way it is a great book!

  8. Jenny says:

    Ugh – I remember I read this shortly after (I expect I read it because of this) a close friend was hospitalized for depression & suicidal ideation. It was one of those reading experiences where I knew it was making me more upset and that I should stop reading it, but I just couldn’t stop reading it until I got through to the end. With all that emotional baggage I hardly remember the book itself, and I haven’t reread it since. Though maybe I should…

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I can see why this book would be a bad thing to read if you are going through those sort of difficult circumstances. I’m not sure whether I’d recommend a re-read – would it just remind you of it all again?

  9. Dorte H says:

    Yes, I have read it – 15 years ago perhaps. And like you, I was surprised that it was so much more positive than I had expected. It is so sad she didn´t live on and write more great books.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dorte, I agree – a shame such a talented writer didn’t continue producing great books or live to see her success. Would she have believed we’d still be reading her book 50 years on?

  10. I have a pending review on this as well!

    I didn’t think it was depressing either, and it was a much easier read than I had initially deemed. It’s interesting though, due to it’s autographic nature, and I wonder how much of an insight it gives us into the thoughts of Plath herself.

    I was a little tentative about starting this book, as her poems were way too dark and metaphoric for me, and I don’t think I’m intelligent enough to understand them. It went wayyyy over.

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, How much of this book is autobiographical is a great talking point. I have a feeling that most of it is, but sadly we’ll never know. I haven’t read any of her poems. I’m not a big fan of poetry, so I think I’ll avoid them.

  11. Dan Holloway says:

    The Bell Jar’s a funny one. I remember form school it used to be the subject of real debate – it was almost like the bogeyman, or Marilyn Manson. Everyone read it, and it was on the syllabus, but staff were terrified of it because they genuinely thought half the sixth form would kill themselves. So by the time we got to it, it was a bit of a come down.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dan, I suppose that teenagers are more easily influenced by this sort of thing. I didn’t read it in school, but I wonder why the teachers put it on the syllabus if they were so scared of it?!

  12. kay says:

    I read The Bell Jar for the first time in January of this year, and really enjoyed it (as much as a book this depressing can be “enjoyed”, that is!) I think it’s a book that brings a lot of discussion, but also a book with which many people can relate too, and in so many different ways!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kay, Yes it is a great book for everyone. We discussed that at our book group. For the first few chapters I thought it was a book which would only appeal to women, but by the end everyone loved it.

  13. She says:

    Oh, yes. I read this book earlier in the year and really, really enjoyed it. I don’t feel as though I was depressed by it as much as I was annoyed by the situations. I am tempted to buy it and read it again– it seems like one of those books that would be good on a bookshelf. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      She, I think this book is a great addition to the book shelf – I’m sure you can read it again and again, finding new bits to enjoy each time.

  14. Violet says:

    I think you’re the first person I have heard saying that this book was easy to read. Mostly it’s about how very depressing it is. Last weekend, when I was in the bookstore, I almost picked this book up, but then I remembered that we have a sale next month, so I put it back. I’ll buy this later, maybe. Really glad to know you liked it though.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, I was always under the impression that this book was hard to read and really depressing, but it wasn’t either. Perhaps some of it comes from her poetry? I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, so I hope it is reduced in the sale for you!

  15. Rebecca Reid says:

    I do have this on my list to read. I’m sure it is depressing to read about someone who is depressed, but Sylvia Plath interests me… for some reason.

    1. Jackie says:

      Rebecca, I didn’t find it depressing at all, but she is a very interesting character. I hope you enjoy reading it.

  16. It’s a good thing that I’m not in your book group because I hate this book so much. :)

    Here’s my review:

    1. Jackie says:

      J.T. Oldfield, I loved your review! I wish you had been at our book group – I love passion for a book – positive or negative!

  17. I love this book but it’s been several years since I’ve read it, so I can’t remember if it depressed me or not!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I think this is the sort of book everyone can enjoy. Perhaps the fact you can’t remember means that it didn’t depress you?

  18. patti says:

    We are discussing the bell jar at my book club, wednesday sept 16th. Do you have some insightful questions for me to present? I loved the book, and like you didn’t find it depressing, I found it surprisingly humorous, sardonic for sure. It will be a great discussion.

    1. Jackie says:

      patti, We didn’t use questions at our book group. We found it worked really well just to talk about the book without restricting things to a set list of questions.

      I think remaining focused is a big problem with bookclubs. We are lucky in that our group is packed with people who really love books. We are there to talk about them and so aren’t distracted by other things. I really hope your meeting goes well and that you have a great discussion.

  19. patti says:

    Any suggestions of what works for your bookclub to keep everyone focused on talking on the book of the month.


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