Shortly after moving to New York, I slid into a deep depression. Initially, I fought it as one might fight to stay awake after a long day, my head nodding or a car honking the only things that could jolt my eyes back open. But, eventually, the weariness triumphed, and I found myself trapped in a leaden, aimless slumber from which I struggled to wake up, every day, for months.
One morning during this lonesome period, my feet dragged me to the Strand Bookstore, where I picked out Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar from a “modern classics” table near the front. While some men might turn to self-isolation and brewskis when feeling blue, I wanted a confidant in misery. Esther Greenwood, the sharp-tongued yet fitfully disturbed young woman at the center of the novel, could be that confidant, I thought. I wanted to commiserate with someone who was wrestling with similar burdens—career satisfaction, societal expectations, New York disillusionment. But what I really wanted, I realized, was to know that, unlike Esther and the writer who created her, in the end, I would get better.
First published in London in January 1963 under a pseudonym, The Bell Jar is Plath’s only novel. And, as with her two poetry collections, The Colossus and Ariel (her magnum opus), it is impossible to read without the specter of Plath’s death by suicide looming over its every word. In its tragic, headline-grabbing nature, this event, which occurred just weeks after the novel’s publication to tepid reviews, launched her to international fame and subsequent tortured genius stature. The Bell Jar, then, became the story of a woman who fails to end her life inscribed by the woman who succeeded in ending hers.
But apart from the roman à clef’s status as a pseudo-documentation of the inner mechanics of a sickly, wildly inventive mind, The Bell Jar is at its core a fierce coming-of-age novel. Esther is a college student whose writing pedigree grants her a prestigious summer internship at a sophisticated women’s magazine in New York. She’s wiser and haughtier than the other girls living in her hotel, though significantly less worldly: she questions how much to tip a cab driver and orders a plain glass of vodka on a date because she’d once seen it in an ad. From fine dining excursions to fashion shows and parties, Esther lives out a million girls’ dreams of life in 1950s Manhattan. But something is wrong with her. As she says, “I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
What, particularly, is wrong with her is spelled out gradually. Within the pantheon of modern female literary figures, Esther may be most casually associated nowadays with the crackly melancholia of Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway or Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier. But her constitution contains something these characters lack: a fury within her chest that drives her destructive behavior. Her shrewd dissections of New York’s high society are reminiscent of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, with his penchant for rum ‘n cokes and distaste for “phonies,” though Esther’s judgments remain less cantankerous and decidedly more inward-facing—and feminine.
And yet, her depression is rooted in an individual and inexplainable set of circumstances and biology, even while the invisible cultural and sexual politics that circle her like vultures undoubtedly contribute to her despair. After a date that ends in a violent sexual advance, Esther simultaneously composes herself and unravels as she throws her tarnished clothes off the roof of her hotel: “Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.” Where the novel’s plot, like its narrator, sometimes meanders and becomes redundant, The Bell Jar regains its footing in its prose. Crystalline yet filled with a treasure trove of funereal imagery, Plath’s voice is strongest when attending to these ferocious comparisons, the same stylistic distinctions that epitomize her most haunting poetry and have left her readers both emotionally gutted and nourished for over half a century.
That’s not to say that The Bell Jar is not bristling with wit; its tip is dipped in a pot of fine black humor. During one of several suicide attempts, Esther searches for a suitable location in her mother’s house to hang herself, but she grows frustrated with her inability to carry out her self-strangulation: “I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash.” Even formally, Plath’s sparse paragraphs, unwavering in their anguish, tumble forward one after another with an urgent, almost maniacal frequency, as an animated friend nowadays may vent to you via a rapid series of text messages.
The Bell Jar celebrates its first publication’s sixty-year anniversary this January (it wasn’t published in the United States until 1971). I was admittedly quite aware of how it’d stood as a linchpin of second-wave American feminism when I picked it up, but upon reading it, sequestered in bed often late into the night, swaddled by my own depressive cycle, it struck me just how prophetic Plath’s intimate concerns were.
Gender roles for young, cosmopolitan women have evolved and psychiatric treatment has grown decidedly less barbaric since the 1950s (electroshock therapy aids Esther; cognitive-behavioral therapy rejuvenated me). Yet the frankness with which Plath outlines her protagonist’s outsized emotionality and thirst for direction speaks to generations of young women—and men, clearly—navigating the formidable task of ensconcing themselves in an ever-changing world. Though Plath was dubbed by some as overly sensationalist during her lifetime, her no-holds-barred renditions of the tolls mental illness takes on young people made her a trailblazer for contemporary depictions of early womanhood, found everywhere from Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why to Billie Eilish’s quasi-schizophrenic soundscape.
Though Plath took her own life, what she gave was language—for me, for young women, for all her readers—to the horrific, exasperating civil war waged within one’s skull that is mental illness, and the capacity for resilience of those battling its onslaught. It’s a motion that knows no bounds, no gender constraints. “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream,” Plath writes toward the end of the novel. But like a bad dream or an aimless slumber that ends when waking up, the bell jar, suffocating as it may be, is just glass. It can be broken.
Michael Savio is an editorial intern at Paste Magazine based in New York. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree at NYU in media and humor studies.