The Bell Jar: Feminist masterpiece or outdated and overrated?


Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Jar

Charlotte Mahoney (she/it), Staff Writer

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, published in 1963, has been gaining notoriety and popularity ever since.  In 2021 it’s still being read by many, and some claim it as one of the greatest pieces of feminist literature ever written, but others reject that notion for many reasons.

One of the most prominent flaws of The Bell Jar is its overt racism against people of color, which alienates some of the most prominent activists of second-wave feminism, women of color.  Plath’s casual racism in her writing delegitimizes a lot of the social commentary and criticism of societal norms.  A memorable example of her racism was a scene where the main character, Esther Greenwood, looks at herself in a mirror and compares herself to an “old Asian woman” because of her wrinkles and bags under her eyes.

Speaking of aging terribly, there is a plethora of social commentary in this book that is irrelevant to our modern-day society.  It doesn’t mean that the commentary given is worthless, it’s always important to look at the past, but it makes it even less of a “must-read” in my opinion.  As mentioned earlier, many feminists cite this book as a necessary read, but I’d have to disagree.  If you’re looking to get into feminist literature I’d recommend reading something more modern before reading The Bell Jar.

Many argue that The Bell Jar isn’t feminist literature at all, saying that it’s a critique on feminism instead of supporting it; the main character isn’t free from her misery until she decides to settle down and marry, in a somewhat underwhelming conclusion.  Of course, comparing this to Plath’s own life is rather disheartening, as after having kids and marrying a man in England, much like Esther, she committed suicide, which beckons a different interpretation of the text, an interpretation where Esther isn’t truly happy with her decision at all, and only succumbing to what society asked of her.

Another large aspect of this book is Esther’s mental health issues.  Many are much more skilled in mental health and literary analysis than I am have recognized a possibility of Esther (and Plath herself) having schizophrenia, as well as showing signs of NPD and depression. 

The climax of the book involves Esther’s suicide attempt and subsequent check-in to a mental hospital.  Despite some outdated language, this part of the book ages quite well, (most likely because it was the part most based on Plath’s own life, with her mental health struggles.)

On a personal level, as a white transfeminine person reading this book in 2021, I enjoyed both the first and second times I read it.  I would not, however, call it “essential feminist literature,” I enjoy it more as a character study of a neurotic woman struggling with misogyny and mental health issues in the ‘1950s.  The racism is too intense and common throughout Plath’s writing for me to recommend it as an essential reading experience.

All in all, The Bell Jar is an intense book covering intense topics that is mostly a product of its time, in both good and bad ways.  It is important to understand and recognize the mistakes of our past and the struggles people of the past have gone through.  Unfortunately, oftentimes it is hard to sympathize with these people because of other aspects of their time, in this case, racism.  I wouldn’t call The Bell Jar a masterpiece, but I certainly wouldn’t call it outdated and overrated either.  I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the premise and is able to stomach the large issues with racism in Plath’s writing.