Manny's Reviews > The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
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Aug 19, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: too-sexy-for-maiden-aunts
Read in January, 1978

Warning: this review contains major spoilers for the movie Melancholia

The paradox at the heart of The Bell Jar is that Esther, the narrator, comes across as an engaging and indeed admirable person. She's smart, funny, perceptive and seems to have everything going for her. But she feels less and less connected with life, and in the end just wants to kill herself. Evidently, there must be something wrong with her. Perhaps she would have been okay if only she'd been prescribed the appropriate kind of pills?

I thought of The Bell Jar earlier this week when we watched the new von Trier movie, Melancholia. The central character, Justine, who's brilliantly interpreted by Kirsten Dunst, has a fair amount in common with Esther. She's beautiful, successful in her work, and just about to marry a charming man who adores her. We meet her on her way to a fabulous wedding, joking and laughing with her soon-to-be-husband in a white stretch limo which amusingly gets stuck on a narrow road.

All the same, it soon becomes clear that Justine isn't enjoying things. Her sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourgh, keeps telling her to be sensible. Claire's fears are well-grounded. As the evening progresses, Justine behaves more and more erratically. She walks out of her own reception, gratuitously insults the boss who's just given her an unexpected promotion, has random sex with a stranger. Her new husband abandons her as a bad job before the marriage is even a day old. But Justine doesn't seem to care at all.

What she's really worried about, we discover, is the mysterious blue planet Melancholia, which is heading towards Earth at an enormous speed. It becomes larger every day. Claire is worried about it too, and sneaks off every now and then to look things up on the Web. Her husband reassures her that scientists have done the calculations. It seems scary, but Melancholia is going to miss us. We'll be fine.

Justine knows it won't be fine. She's had a dream where various signs appear. At the end, Melancholia collides with the Earth, destroying both worlds. The prophetic signs have begun to turn up, and she is certain her dream will become reality. The knowledge paralyses her. After the disastrous wedding reception, she moves in with Claire, who does her best to look after her. Justine is clinically depressed. She can't even summon up the willpower to get into her bath, despite Claire's coaxing. Claire makes her favourite meat-loaf. Justine, weeping, says it tastes of ashes.

Melancholia comes ever closer, and is now a monstrous shape in the sky. It's finally obvious to everyone that things are not going to work out. Claire goes to look for her husband, hoping he'll once again find words of reassurance, and discovers he's taken an overdose. She is beside herself with fear and grief and runs around hyperventilating, clutching her small son to her. But, to her surprise, Justine has lost her lethargic air. She's full of a grim new energy.

With impact now just hours away, Claire does her best to summon up some dignity. She suggests to Justine that they should go out on the terrace with a couple of glasses of wine and wait peacefully for the end.

"So we should have a glass of wine?" asks Justine.

"Yes," says Claire, completely helpless.

"How about some music? Beethoven's Ninth? Perhaps some candles?" continues Justine remorselessly.

"I just want to do this right," whispers Claire.

"You know what I think of your plan?" says Justine. "I think it's a piece of shit."

Needless to say, there is no huge blue planet on a collision course with Earth. And if Esther had only been given the right kind of pills, she would have been fine.
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Comments (showing 1-39 of 39) (39 new)

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Jessica Manny, What parts of the book did you like? Also was your view of the book colored by Plath's life?


Manny It is kind of impossible not to think about her life when reading it. I am also a big fan of Ariel, which I have read many times. More recently, I thought the movie with Gwynneth Paltrow was good too.

My favourite parts of the book... well, to be honest, the bit that I liked best was when she loses her virginity to the creepy translator. There is something about it that really makes me ashamed of being male, but it's also so interesting to see things from the female viewpoint. Similar feelings about the episode where Buddy exposes himself to her. "Turkey gizzard and turkey neck", if I recall correctly. I do sometimes wonder why women put up with us at all.

After that, the nausea attack at the beginning and the depression/suicide attempt sequence at the end are powerful. It's not a healthy book, but it's a very good one.


Spider the Doof Warrior I love this book. I do not like von Trier movies though. They tend to make me long for absinthe laced with laudanum and a firing squad by the end of them no matter how good the acting and cinematography.
Man, because of him Bjork is never going to act in another movie. She was so good! And how can one even eat a dress?

Also, Buddy showing her his bits was rather icky.


Manny Ah, you should give this one a chance. Even though it does end in the graphic destruction of the entire Earth, critics are virtually unanimous in regarding it as more upbeat than usual. And Kirsten Dunst not only turns in the performance of her life, but also appears nude in two scenes.


message 5: by Manny (last edited Aug 19, 2011 07:48AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny Wait... I see you're female. Maybe you won't be that interested in seeing Kirsten Dunst dressed in less than usual. But it could still be a good date movie.


Spider the Doof Warrior No, I don't mind seeing her not wear much. I'm open minded like that.

Also, dang, you know his movies are bummers when the most upbeat of his movies shows the world ending. Dang. Maybe I'll buy a bottle of absinthe to smell and not drink because the scent alone will get me drunk and give it a chance.


message 7: by Manny (last edited Aug 19, 2011 07:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny Hm, I think if you're going to drink absinthe while watching Melancholia then you ought to mix it with champagne to get Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway's signature cocktail. You'll definitely make an impression on your date.


message 8: by Chris (new)

Chris Your description of Melancholia underscores the contrast between the average American special-effects-fest treatment of this topic (Armageddon, Deep Impact) and its treatment by other film traditions. Have you seen the Canadian movie Last Night? The world will end at midnight, and the movie shows what its characters do on that last night knowing that the end it coming. No special effects budget at all. (This movie was part of my Y2K New Year's Eve "world is going to end" double feature with Miracle Mile, a smaller American movie which showed the spreading panic of knowing nuclear bombs are on the way.) And, shallow I know, but I just went and watched the trailer for Melancholia and wondered WHY Keifer Sutherland couldn't channel Jack Bauer and save the world one more time. That would be quite the cultural crossover.


Manny Chris, I'd never even heard of Last Night or Miracle Mile! Thanks, will look out for them. And I completely agree about the contrast with Armageddon, though, to be fair, Deep Impact wasn't nearly as bad.

And, shallow I know, but I just went and watched the trailer for Melancholia and wondered WHY Keifer Sutherland couldn't channel Jack Bauer and save the world one more time.

I was wondering if that piece of casting was meant to be ironic. If so, it was a good joke :)


Manny Thank you Emir! Has the movie reached you yet? The release dates seem to be all over the place...


message 11: by Inna (new) - rated it 5 stars

Inna Shpitzberg I thought that she got pills. I'm not sure now.


message 12: by Manny (last edited Aug 20, 2011 02:13AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny In the book, she gets various kinds of psychiatric treatment including electroshock, and it sort of fixes her up for a while. But you are left wondering if that was the real problem.


Manny I liked Melancholia as much as Breaking the Waves. Your daughters have a point, but I still thought the movie was pretty universal.


Spider the Doof Warrior I still haven't seen Melancholia. I do have the movie poster though because it's awesome. His movies make me so MOTION SICK too.


Manny Thank you Joyce, and I agree about the distinction you're making here! Von Trier does indeed seem to come down on the right side of the line. His younger colleague Nicolas Winding Refn has developed the ideas in an interesting direction. Just saw the Pusher trilogy... spectacular film-making, though not for the faint-hearted!


Spider the Doof Warrior Too Sexy for Maiden Aunts? That is an amusing name for a category.


message 17: by Manny (last edited Sep 19, 2012 11:06AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny I'll review Pusher if I can find a place to put it :) Quite agree about the Vikings!


Spider the Doof Warrior I do like Dimmu Borgir :D


message 19: by Taf (new) - rated it 5 stars

Taf Mupfumi Manny I live by your reviews, and as a big fan of Trier(I've watched melancholia some 30plus times now) I'm glad you made the connections between the two characters and I totally agree. This is subject matter I relate to greatly, as one who has a tough time adjusting to what's expected of a normal person, unable to overcome the constant dread of knowing that at some point a personal black hole will put an end to my singular narrative, unable to choose a course, or be happy even though I'm provided with nothing but opportunity..wasted potential(whatever the fuck that is), disappointment etc Sorry I'm rambling, just thanks for another good review.


message 20: by Manny (last edited Sep 04, 2014 07:33AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny Thank you Taf. And I don't know whether to say I'm disturbed to hear that you're identifying so much with these stories, or congratulate you on your clear vision. As you probably know, it's considered inappropriate in polite society to suggest that we're about to collide with a huge blue planet, but a few people have noticed this all the same.


Spider the Doof Warrior Melancolia was pretty good. Depressing though.


Manny Compared to what?


Spider the Doof Warrior But all von Trier movies are pretty depressing.


message 24: by Manny (last edited Sep 04, 2014 07:50AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny I found this one oddly uplifting. I can't quite say why, but the ending is sort of positive in an unusual way.


Spider the Doof Warrior Kind in a (view spoiler)


Manny Not really... more that Kirsten Dunst turned out to be right, and finally she was enjoying life again.


Traveller Have you seen Betty Blue?


Manny I was just thinking the other day that I should watch that again...


message 29: by Lily (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lily I thought Dunst was amazing too. The ending was intense and peaceful. I think Plath's story is truly tragic. All the therapy and medication made her worse. No doubt about it.


message 30: by Ivonne (new) - added it

Ivonne Rovira Von Trier's movies are so uncommercial that I can't believe he doesn't destroy the careers of all of his stars.


Manny @Lily: Hey, that's good! I really like "intense and peaceful". And yes, evidently no arguing about the tragedy of Plath's life. Have you seen the movie? I thought it was quite good, even if the whole world sneered at it.

@Ivonne: Yes, you feel that should happen, but has it? Emily Watson seems to have done well after Breaking the Waves, and he's made four movies with Charlotte Gainsbourg...


Spider the Doof Warrior Emily Watson is so underrated as an actress.


Traveller Manny wrote: " it's also so interesting to see things from the female viewpoint. Similar feelings about the episode where Buddy exposes himself to her. "Turkey gizzard and turkey neck", if I recall correctly. I do sometimes wonder why women put up with us at all..."

Um... no. Just no. Please don't see the quoted bits as anything near representative of the straight female sexual experience. If all women were like that, it would be a great wonder that men put up with us at all....but thank heaven, we're not.


Manny Thank you Traveller, that's a relief! I've been worrying ever since I read these passages as a teen.


Traveller Manny wrote: "Thank you Traveller, that's a relief! I've been worrying ever since I read these passages as a teen."

Ha! You wondered if women really thought that about seeing you nekked? I was going to say that... well... that if you really wanted to, you could also compare the female anatomy to all kinds of critters, but then i decided not to go there...


message 36: by Manny (last edited Jan 21, 2015 01:55PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny Well... I was being facetious, but only partly. My guess would be that some women who have had the opportunity have felt the same as Sylvia Plath, and others, I'm pretty sure, felt differently. I thought she was a good spokeswoman for the first group.


Traveller Hopefully people are more familiar with the human anatomy from a much earlier age these days. ;)
Especially where a household has siblings from both genders it's pretty hard not to sometimes spot your sibling naked- especially when the one is quite a bit younger and mommy changes the baby's bottom or bathes him/her.

Certainly my children have been at least rudimentarily educated from around toddler age, and, well, later on, as you grow up, what with the internet and so forth, it would be kind of hard to reach your twentieth birthday without knowing what the opposite gender looks like!

Not to mention that during sex education classes at school these days, poor teacher fills in the gaps that shy parents might have left in little Johnny or little Sally's education. XD


[Name Redacted] Not sure what the actual discussion is about, but my parents' approach was to teach me the facts of human reproduction at such a young age that I have no memory of it; no euphemisms, no cute metaphors, just facts. They also gave me access to medical manuals all throughout my childhood, so i could look up anything I wanted.

This meant that the "verboten" aspect of sexuality was never a factor for me, a consequence of our religion's pro-sex, pro-science attitude. Additionally, this meant that I never felt the apparent fear/revulsion many men seem to feel vis-a-vis things like menstruation; eg: I had roommates who couldn't bring themselves to buy their gf's tampons or pads, so i would go out and do it for them.

I'd say it's one of those rare things my parents' did unreservedly well in raising me. ;)


message 39: by Traveller (last edited Jan 22, 2015 03:21AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Traveller [Name Redacted] wrote: "Not sure what the actual discussion is about, but my parents' approach was to teach me the facts of human reproduction at such a young age that I have no memory of it; no euphemisms, no cute metaph..."

Yip! That's the way to go about it, of course, and as I was trying to say, in Europe, this tends to be how it is done these days, though I know that sadly Bible-belt America still has a similar puritan keep-it-in-the-dark approach to the human anatomy and human sexuality of the 30's 40's 50's era in which Plath lived. ..and shame, scorn, and self-flagellation is more often than not the result of such an approach.


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