The nineteenth book for the book challenge was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I had read this book when I was in university for American Literature but reread it this past month because I too have experienced chronic depression and I was interested in Plath’s experiences with the disease.
The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel which chronicles Plath’s experiences with chronic depression and her suicide attempts which first began during her scholarship award to an editor’s post with Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. She describes her experiences in New York and the beginnings of her depression, the feelings of not being able to move out of her bed, of just lying there, staring at the ceiling, not doing anything. I too have felt these same feelings, a certain heaviness and could relate to Plath’s depression early on. She describes the feelings of futility of everything, of the illness she suffered from with food poisoning, with the problems of unwanted attentions from men. She had mixed feelings about her colleagues on the magazines. One took her to parties and to meet men. One was more wholesome. She was rather distant from the other girls.
She returned to Massachusetts, to her home outside of Boston after the month in New York was over. She describes her life at college and her love life with Buddy Willard, which was not satisfactory. She thought him a hypocrite because he played at being turned on by her while he was not a virgin and had been intimate with a woman on the Cape a number of times. Plath resolved to rid herself of her virginity but had trouble finding a suitable partner.
She continued her decline into mental illness as she lived at home in her mother’s house. The suicidal thoughts became overwhelming. Her mother took her to a psychiatrist and he saw her a few times and then order electric shock treatments, which proved to be horrendous for Plath. She refused to go back to him and her mother relented. Plath sunk deeper into her depression and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. She hid herself in the basement of her mother’s home and was not found for three days. She was then taken to the hospital and revived and eventually taken to a private mental asylum paid for by the woman who had endowed her scholarship at college (and who herself had suffered from mental illness).
At the asylum, she spent time at three different houses and had two different doctors. She also underwent electro-shock treatments there, but they were vastly different from the previous ones. She also received insulin treatments which made her gain weight. She liked her last doctor and trusted her. She worked her way into visiting privileges in town, and finally found a suitable partner to rid herself of her virginity, but she had considerable bleeding and it was rather traumatic. Her friend from the asylum house who was living in town then committed suicide.
But Plath continued to progress and was allowed to return to college for the winter semester. The book ends with her entering the interview room with the doctors who will review her request to be released from the asylum.
I was anxious to reread this book because I too suffer from chronic depression and I wanted to refresh my memory about this book and Plath’s experiences. I have had suicidal thoughts and know well the thoughts of heaviness, of not being able to move out of the bed. I could relate to much of Plath’s experiences and admired her beautiful turn of phrases in this book. Her prose is wonderful. While she is most often remembered for her poetry, her novel is splendid as well.