Title: The Bell Jar Audiobook
Author: Sylvia Plath
Publisher: Harper Audio Unabridged
About the author: from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/sylvia-plath
Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her mother, Aurelia Schober, was a master’s student at Boston University when she met Plath’s father, Otto Plath, who was her professor. They were married in January of 1932. Otto taught both German and biology, with a focus on apiology, the study of bees.
In 1940, when Plath was eight years old, her father died as a result of complications from diabetes. He had been a strict father, and both his authoritarian attitudes and his death drastically defined her relationships and her poems—most notably in her elegaic and infamous poem “Daddy.”
In 1950, Plath matriculated at Smith College. She was an exceptional student, and despite a deep depression she went through in 1953 and a subsequent suicide attempt, she managed to graduate summa cum laude in 1955.
After graduation, Plath moved to Cambridge, England, on a Fulbright Scholarship. In early 1956, she attended a party and met the English poet Ted Hughes. Shortly thereafter, Plath and Hughes were married, on June 16, 1956.
Plath returned to Massachusetts in 1957 and began studying with Robert Lowell. Her first collection of poems, Colossus, was published in 1960 in England, and two years later in the United States. She returned to England, where she gave birth to her children Frieda and Nicholas, in 1960 and 1962, respectively.
In 1962, Ted Hughes left Plath for Assia Gutmann Wevill. That winter, in a deep depression, Plath wrote most of the poems that would comprise her most famous book, Ariel.
In 1963, Plath published a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Then, on February 11, 1963, during one of the worst English winters on record, Plath wrote a note to her downstairs neighbor instructing him to call the doctor, then she committed suicide using her gas oven.
Although only Colossus was published while she was alive, Plath was a prolific poet, and in addition to Ariel, Hughes published three other volumes of her work posthumously, including The Collected Poems, which was the recipient of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize. She was the first poet to posthumously win a Pulitzer Prize.
Plot: Esther Greenwood who interns over the summer at a famous magazine in New York City. Disillusioned and bored, she returns to her native Boston where her depression worsens. At the urging of her mother, she sees a psychiatrist. She undergoes a series of treatments for her depression.
The character of Esther Greenwood is one of an awkward young woman in the modeling world who is bored and disillusioned. Narrator Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays the tender angst of the flawed, introspective Esther Greenwood beautifully. The audiobook starts out with “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.” Unlike other girls her age, the options of secretarial schools or hanging around until she gets married does not appeal to her.
Gyllenhaal is well-characterized as Esther, and gives a somber and unhurried performance. The character-driven storyline is set as a leisurely pace. Deadpan humor emerges as Esther talks of her awkward encounter with the finger bowl at the table. Filled with flowers, she assumed that it was soup. So she drank it. She likes her boss, Jay Cee and her friend Doreen. Esther’s mom tries to mold Esther into someone she is not.
The Bell Jar is symbolic of a glass jar over her that is suffocating her. The jar is depression. You can hear that suffocating depression on Gyllenhaal’s perfectly droll voice, almost as if Esther is world-weary.
The story was musically enhanced with piano music played in between chapters. The tone of the narration is one of a disturbing and moving reflection, with a lyrical and conversational style. Gyllenhaal portrayal of Esther is spot on.
Genre: semi-autobiographical fiction, modern classics, psychological fiction
Curriculum Ties: writing
Booktalking Ideas: The Bell Jar is set in the 1960s. How might Esther’s life be different in today’s world, with medical advances and women’s changing roles in society?
Challenge Issues: N/A
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- YALSA 100 Best Books (1950-2000)