The Bell Jar – A Lesson of Empathy
The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.
To cut a long story short, The Bell Jar is the tragic tale of the deterioration of one Esther Greenwood’s mental well-being, and her steep uphill battle to overcome it. I won’t ruin the ending but what I will say is this: The Bell Jar is a very raw, very human story, that is not necessarily exclusive to one person’s encounter with the darker corners of the human psyche.
It’s a story that we can all feel a part of. And more importantly, it teaches us the power of empathy.
I’d always heard that The Bell Jar would change the way you see things. And it did, for me. I realised that mental health issues are not exclusive to select individuals who should be labelled and defined by their emotions. Anyone can fall into a battle for mental stability.
Everyone gets sad sometimes, feels down; we all have come face to face with the blank emptiness of depression at some point in our lives. Some just feel it more intensely, and more frequently, than others.
Yet for some reason this leads us to label such people with some kind of a “problem”: an issue with their mental health that instantly peripherises them to the outskirts of society, a rusty joint in the chain that we call community. My question is, where is the sense of community in judging, alienating, and excluding our fellow humans?
One of the problems Esther struggles with is she doesn’t feel anything – or rather, she feels dead and void. Ironically, this is what makes The Bell Jar so emotionally violent – Esther’s striking descriptions of feeling dead, empty and meaningless.
Plath utilises the image of Esther trapped under a bell jar to illustrate the sense of isolating depression arguably both she and the character feel. This metaphor works so well at conveying the intensity of depression that even we, the readers – passive bystanders to Esther’s experience – can identify with her feelings.
Although desperate to overcome this sense of meaninglessness, Esther feels extremely alienated and isolated in her misery. We feel the raw struggle she deals with as she desperately tries to break the spell of the bell jar and integrate back into society.
It’s not a matter of “getting over it” as those outside the jar often think. Overcoming a battle with mental instability should not be a burden left on one person’s shoulders: it is a problem best solved through unity, and more to the point, empathy.
As Esther’s struggle progresses, our emotional approximation to her intensifies. Through a resonating first-person narrative, Plath takes us down the bleak and tumultuous path of mental instability.
In so doing, the ideas expressed in The Bell Jar extend beyond the borders of the page and into our daily lives. Plath teaches us the importance of empathy with the intention of preventing others from suffering as much as Esther and herself, in her own life, do.
I read Plath’s words as a reminder that we are a community, with an emphasis on unity, and should reach out to one another. We should not refrain from expressing ourselves, and to withhold our thoughts and our emotions is inherently destructive.
“The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.” Plath subtly reminds us the importance of not only listening, but speaking up, and how beneficial this can be for each and every one of us, especially during trials and hardships we encounter in life.
Perhaps that’s why she wrote The Bell Jar. To be heard, to speak out, and to emphasise the importance of relating to one another in our own life journeys. The human experience is unique to everyone, but not so unique that we should pursue it in isolation.