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Old Favourites: The Bell Jar

Eleanor Jones starts the New Year by sharing why she think Sylvia Plath's only novel is essential reading in this day and age

Sylvia Plath has never been given the recognition she deserves. Married to the well-known poet Ted Hughes, it is his poems which take centre stage in school curriculums and university courses. While Sylvia Plath is remembered for her tragic death, many do not realise that she also wrote a novel. ‘The Bell Jar’ is an honest piece of prose; it is down-to-earth and yet still beautifully written, and I think both the book and its author do not receive enough praise.

Photo Credit: Summonedbyfells

In an age where mental health issues are becoming more recognised in the media and society, ‘The Bell Jar’ is a relevant book for today’s generation. Although it was written in 1963, the modern woman can easily relate to the struggles of the female protagonist, and her character faces the same troubles many young people face today. Esther Greenwood is a girl from a working-class family, who gets the chance to work as a summer intern for a New York fashion magazine. She is given expensive clothes, taken to glamourous parties, and is introduced to the highest echelons of society. And yet she never feels like she fits in, and instead spends the summer obsessing over her future, and whether she will be able to pursue this career in journalism, or whether she should instead be finding a husband. At nineteen, she feels as though she has to make all her life decisions, and enormous pressure is placed on her by society.

Photo Credit: Mike Krzeszak

While today women do not face the same sexism as those in the 1950s, I think that this feeling of being overwhelmed by the pressure of deciding our future is something any young person at University can relate to, and certainly this sense of not knowing what you want to do after University is a recurrent issue for young people. Esther’s quote, “I didn’t know what I was doing,” can relate to any young person, uncertain of where they want to go, and feeling like everyone else around them knows exactly what they’re doing.

‘The Bell Jar’ is a semi-biographical novel, and if nothing else it deserves a place in school and university teaching for what it can tell us about the mental health system of the 1950s. Esther is admitted to a mental hospital early on in the novel after trying to take her own life. While the book still manages to stay uplifting and light in tone, it honestly portrays the mental health system, and shows the mindset of young women struggling with mental health problems- and often not getting the support they need. Never have I read something which was written quite a few decades ago, and yet still relates so much to the modern woman, and the mental health struggles of the current generation. It speaks to young people, telling them that it’s okay to be scared, and that even those who seem to have their life together are struggling on the inside.

So while this book may be about the deep struggles of a woman battling mental health it should also be seen as a story of a young person coming of age, understanding herself, and facing the pressures and obstacles of society in a way that any young student can relate to in their day-to-day life.

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