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Why The Bell Jar is still relevant in 2018


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When she sadly passed away in 1963, aged just 30, Sylvia Plath would have no idea what legacy both her poetry, and her novel ‘The Bell Jar’ would leave behind. 

Image courtesy of Mike Krzeszak on Flickr

You won’t have to travel far to find somebody who’s life was touched by The Bell Jar. It formed a pivotal role in so many women’s lives, and the haunting tale is something that stays with you for years after you read the final pages. Once you’ve read it, Plath's novel becomes a part of your life, a part of your concisiousness - everyone who reads The Bell Jar takes a piece of Esther Greenwood through their life with them. 

The book follows protagonist Esther Greenwood, who moves to New York to undertake an internship at a prestigious magazine. Esther is supposed to be having the time of her life, she's just landed her dream job in the dream city... which begs the question, why is she so desperatley unhappy?

This closely mirrors Plath’s teenage years, as she herself travelled to New York for an internship at Mademoiselle magazine - the events of which led to a downward spiral which resulted in her first attempt to take her own life. The clever but claustrophobic writing within The Bell Jar takes you through Esther’s struggles so that you’re there with her - first hand, feeling what she feels, your heart aching for her.

Published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, just a few months before her death, The Bell Jar was Plath’s only novel and arguably the most eye-opening portal into her tragic life. Semi-autobiographical, it tells Plath’s story in a way that had rarely been done before in modern literature.

Talking so openly about mental illness has always been a taboo subject. Especially so in the sixties, when it was still common practice to subject people suffering with mental health issues to electroconvulsive therapy, something that Plath herself went through. Nobody talked about mental health issues, let alone a young woman.

Image courtesy of kisforkristina on Flickr

The Bell Jar gave teenage girls a voice, a voice that had been ignored and belittled for so many centuries before. Teenage girls who were branded hysterical and un-ladylike when they expressed their emotions, and were thought ungrateful if they complained. Plath gave those girls a voice and told them it’s okay not to be okay.

The Bell Jar also covers the topic of female oppression and the idea of never being able to have it all in a society that serves men. Although it would be great to think that over the 53 years since the book was published (and 63 since it was set) that the world has come on leaps and bounds in terms of equality, but we know that is simply not true. 

What would Esther Greenwood think of President Trump? The Brett Kavanaugh case? The Harvey Weinstein scandal? It’s utterly dumbfounding to think that the progression of equality for men and women hasn’t come far enough in 2018, that books such as The Bell Jar are still timely and relevant. Esther herself says; “I couldn't stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.” 

Next year, Kirsten Dunst is due to adapt The Bell Jar into a film, bringing it to a whole new generation of audience. The Bell Jar and Plath’s poetry are widely taught in schools, something that is a huge triumph for the stigma surrounding mental health. It opens a discussion that was closed off for so long; Sylvia Plath had something to say and sadly not enough people listened when she was alivebut we’re listening now. 

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