The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath was the book discussed at October’s meeting and quite poignant that it was read in the month that covered Mental Health Awareness Day.
Yes, another mental health book – apologies to all that we seem to have covered more than our fair share of these, but I think we were all in agreement (at least those in attendance!) that this was an important one to read.
This was the only novel written by the American writer and poet, Sylvia Plath and mirrored her own descent into mental illness, which culminated in her committing suicide a month after this book was released. For some of us, this made the reading of this book, quite uncomfortable and incredibly sad.
The book was definitely a read of two halves. At first I didn’t quite understand the relevance of the first half, as it seemed to be about very little. What it did show was an ordinary girl’s life; someone who struggled to fit in or be the sort of person that society expected her to be, which made her descent into mental illness all the more frightening. We were split in the sense that some of us thought that the descent happened quite quickly whilst others noticed the flags and thought it happened over a period of time.
The main protagonist of Esther Greenwood was a character we struggled to like, even though we were empathetic towards her. Some considered her to be naive, cold and calculating. But was it her illness and the mannerisms associated with this, that prevented us from liking her?
We struggled to find any positive male characters within the book, with the thought that it was a difficult time for any man in the sixties due to the changing roles of females within society. Certainly this book could definitely be deemed as a feminist novel, of which the red cover of most of our copies was considered controversial when first released as it was deemed too ‘chick-lit’ for such a worthy novel.
The most shocking aspect was definitely the treatment for mental illness, with the introduction of electric shock treatment, which was common place in that era. Even more shocking was the fact that Doctors now believe that aspects of ‘mental illness’ where in fact just a vitamin deficiency, which could have been cured quite simply.
Although the novel was relatively short, we felt it covered a lot of ground and certainly gave us the impression that it occurred over a few years. We felt that the ending was hopefully, which poignantly for the author turned out to be not the case.