Sylvia Plath
(writing as Victoria Lucas),
The Bell Jar
(Heinemann, 1963; Bantam, 1981)

This haunting classic begins with our protagonist, Esther Greenwood (a veiled Sylvia Plath), working for a month in New York. The glamour and rush of living in New York, Esther's occasional dangerous outings and a bout with food poisoning set the stage for the downward spiral of her nervous breakdown.

Like so many intelligent and creative women, Esther feels that all of her achievements are a sham, and her skewed view of herself and the world are part and parcel of her nervous breakdown. A regular winner of prizes and scholarships for writing, Esther begins as part of the guest editor throng at a fashion magazine, working on letters, being feted and photographed, and receiving gifts that are truly promotions for the products involved.

This hyperactive pace is undermined by Esther's persistent inner feeling that she is undeserving of all these praises. At the end of the month in New York, Esther returns to her Massachusetts home, a vast contrast to her whirlwind activity in New York. There, her self-esteem plummets without activity, despite her mother's kindly instruction in stenography. This leads to a cycle of self-abuse and, eventually, attempted suicide. After an initial bout with psychoanalysis and poorly administered electroshock treatment, Esther feigns wellness, but her depression once again gets the better of her. Now in a private sanitarium paid for by the same woman who provided her college scholarship, Esther begins the road to recovery.

The plot itself is not what draws the reader into the book, but rather the intensely personal feeling given to Esther. The writing is emotionally tight, and I could not help but identify closely with the protagonist. Even with today's openness about mental illness and varieties of treatment, this book still is the ultimate raw portrayal of depression. I both empathized with Esther and wished to help her, wishing that the options of today were open to Esther -- and by extension, Sylvia Plath. This is not a book to read when depressed, but is a reading experience not to be missed.

[ by Beth Derochea ]

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