I remember my Remarkable Literary Journeys Professor at American University, stating that more women went into insane asylums during the 1950s than during any other decade of U.S. history. It is unknown as to why exactly - perhaps the stringent world of the 1950s and the pressures put on women to be the stereotypical smiling housewife in high heels proved to be too much, for more than one woman.
The Bell Jar (2005 Edition) by Sylvia Plath begins, "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions." This is a very odd way to begin any novel. One would hope the novelist to be stupid about executions. The alternative of being an expert at executions and all the procedures therein has yet to become novel worthy. "It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves. I thought it must be the worst thing in the world."
Ester Greenwood, the owner of the thoughts on execution is a lost soul in New York, having won a scholarship with a high end fashion magazine to come to N.Y. for a month and jumpstart a career in writing by serving as a guest writer and editor. The trip includes invitations to a variety of high styled events, all expenses paid. Ester is not spending so much time writing as she is going to parties and being hung over, vomiting with a girlfriend, getting food poisoning from crabmeat, and thinking too much about the meretriciousness of her world.
Ester's character is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield and how he hated everyone for being a phony. She does not want to do anything the way others do it. Ester has a constant element of outcast to her. She is not a hit with her boss, Jay Cee at the magazine due to her lax work habits and she doesn't seem to have any normal friendships with the other girls. She spends time with Doreen, who is also on scholarship with the magazine, ditching a party to go to a bar with some random men and Ester becomes the third wheel, as Doreen hooks up with one of the many notables of N.Y. at the time.
Ester returns from the New York trip, where she was a bright, straight A student with high expectations among a sea of equally if not more qualified girls. She lives in Boston and is certain, upon her return, that she will spend the rest of her summer working on a writing course. But her mother informs Ester she did not make the course. There is a language class for Ester to take and Jay Cee did suggest that to become an editor she must speak a couple of languages, but Ester decides not to enroll in any course at all that summer.
Ester seems to have trouble sleeping and does not really want to do anything. And so she descends into a horrifying world of the mentally ill. At one moment in juncture Ester writes a letter to a friend but considers her own handwriting to be too odd and tears the letter to small pieces. She puts the remains in her pocketbook and brings them to an appointment with her psychiatrist and wonders if he would want to see them. It is as if with a mentally ill person the line from Point A heads toward Point B, but never gets there. The line instead goes off into space and no one knows where. Still, Ester's illness does not merit her for the treatment she received.
She is given shock "treatments" such as electroconvulsive therapy and insulin based therapies. The treatments are as crazy as the patients' behavior. It also seems the patients have no rights and in a certain way, Ester is like a baby who is under the control of everyone but herself. She cannot say no to shock therapies. Her meals are all doled out at the same times. If breakfast does not come it means the patient is receiving treatment. Ester watches for her meals, terrified that one day, her breakfast will not come.
The world of mental illness is vast, convoluted and barbaric. It just seems that anyone considered mentally ill, or crazy, is left at the whim of medical professionals to be screwed with. Her initial foreboding thoughts on the Rosenbergs prove to be accurately prophetic, as the shock treatment is a type of death from which a person may or may not recover.
Ester succumbs to being considered mad. It is difficult for the reader to swallow her descent as she is such a talented girl who is nice enough, even sweet, and one wants her to essentially suck it up and stop being so weird. But she doesn't. Her mental despair does not add to her artistic talents. It only detracts and robs her of a good quality of life. Her world clearly depicts a kaleidoscopic vagueness that is mental illness.
Ester's character is not only difficult to digest in terms of frustration to the reader dealt by loss of promise, but there is also an irritation factor to consider. One annoying aspect is that she either has been affected by some malediction or is a hypochondriac. During the course of the 244 page novel with a setting that spans in time over the period of about a year, Ester gets; sick from over drinking, food poisoning from crab meat, ill from mental strain, sinus infections, a broken leg from skiing, and the first time she has sex she begins to hemorrhage. The medically related drama serves as a nuisance as it does not seem to add to plot, though it perhaps drives formation of character.
The novel's interesting denouement is that the final outcome of Ester is unknown. She is about to meet with her psychiatrists to see if she is allowed out of the institution she is in. "The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room."
By Sarah Bahl