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Under The Bell Jar: It's Hard to Fight Insanity When You're Depressed

(For a brief explanation as to why I’m commenting on novels about mental illness, see Books As Insight Into Mental Illness.)
This is a bell jar:
A Bell Jar
Imagine living inside one of these. Not just the top of your head, mind you, but all the way down to your toes. It would be like wearing one of those awful plastic Halloween masks only worse. Worse because there are no air holes. Worse because it would fog up. Worse because there would be no air circulation but you couldn’t just slide it easily to the top of your head and let it rest. Worse because it wouldn’t be worn by choice, for fun, but instead against your will and for no fun reason at all.Bell Jar
It is this object, this functional device turned torture device, that Sylvia Plath chose as the symbolic title of her 1963 novel. It’s an apt title. It represents mental illness itself, a heavy, stifling, confining jar that descends over one’s very mind and impedes the ability to fully, freely live.
The novel’s main character, the young woman who sinks deeply into mental illness, is one Esther Greenwood. She muses over this thing that she doesn’t fully understand, this illness that has covered her and seeped deep within, and the description she gives is telling: “…wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” For Esther, like so many who live with mental illness, the problem isn’t where in the world she is. The problem is the stifling, oppressive bell jar that has fallen down upon her, and even in an exotic location there it would be.
Sylvia Plath wrote a fiction novel. However, it was slightly autobiographical. Esther, while indeed a separate entity, is representative of Plath herself. Sylvia Plath struggled with mental illness, and, tragically, she took her own life in 1963, the same year The Bell Jar was released (originally under a pseudonym). In the novel, it is Esther’s attempted suicide, the result of inner torment, that lands her in psychiatric hospital after psychiatric hospital.
The terminology used in The Bell Jar is very much indicative of the lack of understanding typical of the era. To be sure, the fields of psychology and psychiatry existed. Modern psychology had been ushered in by Sigmund Freud over half a century before. The American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual existed but was in its infancy; the first edition was released in 1952, and while it provided a uniform terminology, there was much that went unmentioned and more that was misunderstood. (In fact, the manual is still being updated and revised as we advance our understanding of the brain; the fifth version was released in 2013, and it most certainly won’t be the last version.)
In the 1960s, the time of The Bell Jar, so little was fully known that Esther is simply considered to be “insane.” She stays in an “insane asylum” where she is not so much treated but managed and controlled. She receives a series of shock treatments, very common back then and used much more recklessly than they are today. The reader gets the feeling that these treatments aren’t quite administered with accuracy and purpose. It seems more as though the doctors are trying what they can to jolt, force, shock, shake Esther back to the world of the sane.
And indeed, this is how it often was. Sadly, people didn’t really know enough about the brain, mental illness, and psychiatry to truly be helpful. Thankfully, people wanted to know more, so they researched and studied and listened until we have arrived where we are today. Oh, we still have a long way to go as both scientific and lay communities, toward fully understanding, treating, and accepting mental illness. At least, though, the term “insane” isn’t applied as a blanket term for someone experiencing mental illness and most people aren’t controlled and most people aren’t shocked recklessly and against their will (electroconvulsive therapy does exist, but it’s not like the shock treatments to which Esther was subjected).
Because of the lack of true understanding and the use of the term “insane,” Esther never does receive a more specific diagnosis. (Which explains why she wasn’t helped very well; how can one be helped if no one understands what’s going on?) I only know what is revealed to me by Esther, of course, so I can’t make an official diagnosis for her. That said, it seems evident that Esther was experiencing major depressive order, commonly known as depression.
More than one thing points to depression as the culprit for Esther’s immense suffering.
The entire book (told by Esther) has a detached feel. She is completely disengaged from life around her. She has no desire for connection with those around her or even for simple conversation. She shows little emotion, other than occasional irritability or anger.
Esther shows us how depression can feel: slow; separate from reality, as if things are happening around her but she’s not fully part of it; powerless to take action, which is fine because she doesn’t want to anyway; a confused detachment from the world, as though watching people parade around you, saying strange, incomprehensible things.
Misinterpretation of the world:
In the hospital after her suicide attempt, she is visited by her friend George. George just wants to see her, but Ester is hurt and angry, believing that he only wants to gawk at her as if she’s an animal in a zoo. She “knows” he wants to see what a crazy girl who tried to kill herself looks like. He tries to convince her otherwise, to no avail. She screams at him to get the hell out and never come back.
Later, in a different hospital, another patient by the name of Miss Norris is completely silent. Esther is hurt by this silence, and she believes that the staff told Miss Norris that Esther is stupid and bad and so now Miss Norris is ignoring her.
She even misinterprets her mother. She is hurt and angry because she thinks her mother is ashamed of her and embarrassed to have a daughter in an insane asylum. She goes so far as to throw away the bouquet of roses her mother gives her on her birthday and then order her mother to leave.
Many forms of mental illness, depression among them, make it difficult for people to interpret the world accurately. Thought patterns are different than they would be without mental illness, and the stigma attached to mental illness can make it easy to believe that others are judging you.
And speaking of stigma! It existed in Esther’s world as it does still in ours today. I believe a simple quote from The Bell Jar will say it all. The comment was made by one Buddy Willard when he stopped by briefly to see Esther (or, more accurately, to make sure there wasn’t something he did to land her there). Buddy and Esther had previously dated, and at one point Buddy was interested in marrying her. Buddy had recently been released from a year-long stay at a special hospital for people with tuberculosis. (Those facts amplify the impact of his statement).
Buddy to Esther: “’I wonder who you’ll marry now, Esther. Now you’ve been,’ and Buddy’s gesture encompassed the hill, the pines, and the severe, snow-gabled buildings breaking up the rolling landscape, ‘here.’”
The Bell Jar is a powerful novel for many reasons. It takes us inside the mind and heart of someone experiencing “insanity”—or, if you will, depression. It’s powerful, too, because it leaves us with a sense of hesitancy yet hope.
Says Esther, “But I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” And another time, “…all I could see were question marks.”
And that is so accurate. With any mental illness, there’s always a shadow lingering, a fear that things might get bad again. And again. And that a good spell is only temporary. Yet Esther’s statement is significant. She’s thinking ahead. She’s envisioning college and Europe. No matter where the bell jar may be, there is possibility. There is hope.

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Hello,
    I am a student currently studying The Bell Jar and wish to cite this article. I have, however, been unable to find a date of publication other than some tentative reference to 2018 that I am hesitant to believe as I doubt the article is that recent. I would appreciate if you had a date or estimation for me.
    Thank you for your help.

    1. Hi Lucy,
      Thank you for your interest in citing this article and for contacting me about the date. Feel free to use the posted date with either 2014 or 2018 as the year. I originally published it in 2014, but it’s one of the articles that was inadvertently deleted and restored recently in my process of redoing my website. If your instructor requires validation, please have him or her contact me for verification. I’d be glad to explain what happened with the date.

    1. Hi Zarina,
      Thank you. I think The Bell Jar is a timeless classic and such an important read. Thanks for the link. It’s a very thorough and useful article!

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