Beginnings: The Bell Jar
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
As a first line goes, this has to be one of the most perceptive and deft a person will ever get to read. Foreshadowing the main character, Esther’s electroshock therapy for depression, this line equates the treatment of mentally ill patients with those of convicted spies. (Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were tried and convicted of conspiring to pass on atomic secrets from the US to the Soviets under Stalin.) Mental illness becomes as horrid and isolating as criminality.
This first line also sets the location (New York), the time (summer) as well as shows Esther’s sense of disorientation. Quite an achievement in one sentence!
The Bell Jar was released in 1963 under Plath’s pseudonym of Victoria Lucas and Plath herself died by her own hand only a month after its first UK publication.
As an advocate for more openness in issues of mental health, I love The Bell Jar for beginning the conversation in a way that might have seemed impossible before. It is a book that made a huge impression on me when I was in a particularly dark place in my early twenties.
More importantly, I believe this first sentence still epitomises the stigma still associated with mental health more than fifty years later, which is why The Bell Jar remains a book everyone should have read at least once in their lives.
Have you read this important work and what did you think?