The Bell Jar v. Belzhar

Posted 7 May, 2015 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 21 Comments

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Bell Jar vs Belzhar

Title: The Bell Jar | Author: Sylvia Plath
Published: 1963; Pages: 288
Genre: Fiction (semi-autobiographical)

Title: Belzhar | Author: Meg Wolitzer | Narrator: Jorjeana Marie
Published: 2014; Pages: 272 | Audio Duration: 8 hours
Genre: Fiction (YA)

I first discovered Sylvia Plath as a college freshman when I was required to read her poem “Daddy.” Since then she popped up here and there in various college courses and I was so enamored by her poetry that I bought a volume of her collected poems.

Sadly reading poetry on my own isn’t quite as fun as digging in with a class, so this book has gone mostly unread except for a few indulgent moments here and there. Her only published novel, The Bell Jar, escaped my reading attention, though.

I don’t remember when I first added The Bell Jar to my shelf, but it was within the last couple of years and was promptly forgotten. I saw the Sylvia Plath biopic with Gwyneth Paltrow, but it wasn’t until I listened to Pain, Parties, Work two years ago that I knew I needed to bump The Bell Jar up on my list.

So in typical Trish fashion, two years went by before I finally picked it up. And now I’m wondering why I waited so long! Because as people will tell you, The Bell Jar might be best read while you are in your twenties. Or possibly even before then.

The Bell Jar is a story of Esther Greenwood who spends a summer in New York on scholarship working for a woman’s magazine. Near the end of the summer, her world cracks open and after an attempt on her life she is institutionalized. I knew going into this book that the story was autobiographical, but after Pain, Parties, Work (which focuses on that summer in New York), I realized just how parallel Esther and Plath’s stories are.

While I wasn’t blown away by The Bell Jar (again, I think it would have been more impacting if I had read it a decade ago), I appreciated the candid look into the mind of a young woman who struggles with reality. I’ve had many of the thoughts that she has and have had periods of my own depression. It also struck me that Plath was 30 when she took her life…three years younger than I am now.

How impossibly young she was. How devastating. I cannot imagine the pain and torment she must have been experiencing. Depression is a deep dark hole and it’s hard to dig out of once you are within its hold. On the other hand, it is impossible to understand the depths of depression when not in the midst of it.

After I finished The Bell Jar, I decided to listen to Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer as a companion. I didn’t realize the two were connected until someone mentioned it (get it? Bell JarBelzhar) and I was curious how the two fit together. When compared the two together, I can’t help but be incredibly let down by Belzhar.

Belzhar is also the story of a young woman, Jam, who is institutionalized in a sense—during a period of deep depression after the death of her boyfriend, she is enrolled at The Wooden Barn, a boarding school where she can hopefully heal. During her time here she is selected for a class based on the works of Sylvia Plath.

I’m going to break my own rules and get a little spoilery from here on out. As I was just beginning Belzhar, another reader noted that this book might have some paranormal aspects. Seemed unfitting at the time of my reading, but sure enough the members of this special topics class were all about to visit their past through the process of journaling. Like actually physically be in the past.

Magical Realism isn’t a deal breaker for me and I didn’t think this was so incredibly far-fetched for me to write it off. In fact, I liked the idea of these young adults being able to glimpse back at the event that had so shaped their future to hopefully gain closure. I was totally onboard.

And here I get really spoilery, so really, if you don’t want to know…jump ship now! Totally onboard, that is, until we found out that the reason why Jam is so emotionally tortured is that she deluded herself into thinking she was in a relationship with this boy who did not like her in return and so she mentally concocted his death. What?

For some reason this revelation made me feel cheated, though even as I type this I feel as though I’m being unfair and that Jam’s misery was her own…and maybe that’s the point. That it is tough for others to understand the depth of the way that we process emotional circumstances. That when we are in a bell jar, our world is so incredibly distorted. As Esther says, “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream” (237).

What causes us to crack up, for our world to come tumbling down? How can we make sense of our world when we are living inside of a bell jar?

While I’m not sure The Bell Jar and Belzhar make perfect companion pieces, it was an interesting experience reading them in such close proximity. And maybe Plath’s deep introspection (through Esther’s eyes) is what made Jam’s situation pale in comparison–Belzhar doesn’t quite dig as deep under the surface.

A small note on the Belzhar audio: Jorjeana Marie does a great job reading the first person narrative and it definitely enhanced my reading experience. As I often do, I listened on 1.25x speed.

The Bell Jar, Belhzar. Have you read either of these books? What’s a book you’ve read that effectively portrays mental health issues?


21 Responses to “The Bell Jar v. Belzhar”

  1. I have always planned on reading The Bell Jar and never have. Am way past my 20s now but still want to read it, especially after your comments even though you weren’t blown away. Like the idea of you listening to the two books side by side.

  2. I really liked Belzhar, mostly because the reveal felt so very real to the way I’ve seen teenagers react. Obviously, situations like that aren’t commonplace, but everything is magnified 900%…especially when connected to relationships. I like that it acknowledged that and did the work of both validating those feelings and helping to show teenagers (especially girls) that they’re not necessarily the end all, be all.

  3. I read the Bell Jar a million years ago and then listened to Belzhar last year. I liked Belzhar more than you did, but I didn’t read the two books together. I remember thinking that The Bell Jar was intense or emotional or ?? It’s been too long.

  4. I read both books last year, about 6 months apart. First came The Bell Jar for Classics Club spin… but I’m afraid it was really decades too late. Would have loved it in my 20’s, but in my 50’s it was just meh.

    Last fall I picked up Belzhar on a whim – mostly because I loved The Interestings, but also because The Bell Jar was fresh in my mind. YA and magic realism usually turn me off, but I loved Belzhar!

    Pain, Parties, Work is on my wish list. Maybe I’ll listen to that one…

  5. I love that you read these together. I read The Bell Jar a few years ago (during a summer home from college, I think?) but I still want to read Belzhar…and Pain, Parties, Work!

  6. Reading the Bell Jar was one of the most visceral reading experiences of my life. It was a book I highly suggested only be read by people who were already no overly prone to depressive thoughts. I’ll have to check out the audio for Belzhar because I like your comparison!

  7. I read Bell Jar a great number of years ago, not sure I’d do a re read. It was more significant as a class read, I haven’t read Belzhar maybe… thank you for your thoughts, I love to hear what you think.

  8. I do want to read Belzhar and plan to at some point, so stopped reading your review once you mentioned spoilers. But, I have also never read Plath. How is that possible? I wonder how someone who doesn’t have the Bell Jar comparison might view Belzhar…if that different perspective would change things. I’ll experiment on myself at some point :)

    • I definitely don’t think you need to read The Bell Jar before reading Belzhar. I had actually hoped that there would be more parallels between the two but your reading definitely wouldn’t be lacking by skipping the Plath (though I do think the Plath is the better written book). I’ll just go ahead and look forward to Wolitzer’s adult novels…

  9. The Bell Jar is on my TBR though like you I’m probably a little too old to fully get it (and I’m completely okay with that!). While this doesn’t make me want to run out and get Belzhar it does interest me that the two are connected. I’ve been wanting to read Pain Parties Work and it sounds like you did increase your enjoyment by reading them kind of back to back. Soon I’ll get to this! Really I will!

  10. Bex

    I have a love/hate thing with Sylvia Plath’s poetry but I really liked The Bell Jar the first time I read it and got even more out of it when I reread it last year, there’s just a lot of insight in it. I haven’t read Belzhar yet but I do plan to despite hearing a lot of mixed stuff about it!

  11. Both of these books are on my TBR, but seeing your review makes me think I should read the books together as they seem to really complement one another.

  12. I haven’t read The Bell Jar yet. Your review definitely pushed it up the list. Thank you for your honest thoughts on Belzhar. I dislike doing that so I’m very appreciative when others do!

  13. A couple things:

    1. I read The Bell Jar when I was 20, and yes, it was the perfect time to read. Having read it several times since then, I can see why I wouldn’t have loved it nearly as much without that experience (though the audio version that Maggie Gyllenhaal does actually made me appreciate it from a mid-30s perspective a whole lot more, especially with my kids approaching Esther’s age).

    2. I’ve never been interested in Belzhar, to be honest, but your spoilery thing makes me think I might want to read this after all, mostly because of a connection to a line I remember from the Sylvia Plath biopic you mention. Maybe I could ask you a few spoilery questions through email?

  14. Sorry to hear that Belzhar was disappointing. I’m not very into magical realism either. I liked The Bell Jar when I read it decades ago. I think it could be time for a reread.

  15. I’ve yet to read anything by Wolitzer that I thought was as deep as she seemed to be shooting for so I guess I’m not surprised that this one isn’t either. Then again, I suppose it stands to reason that a novel based on real life would have more depth, being so in touch with the emotions.

  16. I’m always glad to see someone reading and enjoying a book I love and want more people to read. I was totally, completely, blown away by The Bell Jar. I’m with Sara on it being a visceral experience. It was also a terrific novel. I kept thinking why isn’t this book as read or more red than Catcher in the Rye? The two struck me as cousins, but for my money, Bell Jar is the better book.

    That’s a class I’d love to sit in on; one reading The Bell Jar and The Catcher in the Rye.