Fifty years after its publication, The Bell Jar is still one of those novels that has the ability to shock because of its brutal honesty and forensic depiction of depression.
Sylvia Plath’s only novel was completed just weeks before she took her own life so the authenticity of its execution probably elevates it into unique territory in terms of trying to find truth in art.
The novel itself feels like a stealth bombing. The first part mundane, but necessary, as Esther Greenwood, a young girl from Boston, travels to New York for an internship at a magazine. Esther’s first person narrative feels restrictive and there’s little in the way of narrative momentum or dramatic power as most of the other characters are dull or non-existent.
But slowly, Esther’s mask begins to slip and, once she suffers a skiing accident about halfway through the book, the novel hurtles at breakneck speed towards a blistering and harrowing climax.
The suicidal tendencies, the electric shock therapy and the well-meaning doctors are all-too familiar to anyone who has suffered mental illness in all its terrifying guises. You may say shock therapy has been consigned to the past but today’s anti-depressants are a more palatable form of the same bitter medicine.
The Bell Jar makes this helplessness so raw and so complete that you’re desperate for Esther to somehow come out of the other side and throw off the dark, all-encompassing blanket that’s suffocating her.
But it doesn’t happen.
And that’s why the novel still has an unrelenting power today. We are no closer to finding a magic pill for depression. Even more of us are suffering and the crushing loneliness of the condition can make it isolating and even more frightening.
Which is what happened to Sylvia Path. Or Esther Greenwood. Or was it Elly Higginbottom?
We can never be sure – because the author may not have known who she was when she wrote it. But one thing’s indisputable: this anti-novel is still a towering work half a century on.