*Trigger Warning: This novel (and review) covers topics including depression, suicide, sexual assault, and mental illness.*
I always had this book on my radar, but I never really thought I’d enjoy it so I always pushed it off. Then recently, I saw a gorgeous copy of this book and thought, maybe I’ll add it to my Goodreads list. When I started planning what I wanted to read for my “month of classics”, I thought this would be a good one to finally knock out.
I listened to the audiobook, read by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and she absolutely nails the emotion and conviction in the voice of Esther Greenwood, the main protagonist based on Plath’s own experiences. As a young Smith college woman, Ester wins a scholarship to intern in New York City at a magazine. While there, she observes the oddities of society’s social scene and finds herself unexcited by the grandeur of it all, instead choosing to focus on her own goal of becoming a renowned poet. As Ester navigates life in the city while curating friendships and dating, she can’t help but wade into the depths of her own mind, trying to decipher just what is wrong with it. Slowly, the reader is swept into Ester’s mind as she sinks into depression, and follows along her journey as she figures out how to end the madness within.
I am amazed at Plath’s writing, at the beauty of which she describes a sinister issue. Ester is entirely relatable, but the way she perceives the world is so artistic and of course poetic. For example:
“There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room. It’s like watching Paris from and express caboose heading in the opposite direction– every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it’s really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and excitement at about a million miles an hour.”
Even as she sinks into her depression and discusses her train of thought and her experiences in the asylum, she still intelligently describes everything she experiences. I never felt like I was bogged down in the writing, even when Ester was experiencing being bogged down in her emotions. I find that extremely impressive and captivating.
So why is it a classic?
Plath had written this novel and waited several years before it was picked up for publishing because of the nature of it’s content. It was published in 1963, and at the time, mental illness wasn’t a common topic to address in public, let alone to publish an openly descriptive novel about a semi-autobiographical experience dealing with suicide and depression. On top of that, it was also controversial at the time for a woman to consider writing about sexism and the desire for a career instead of a family. Clearly, Plath was years ahead of her time, but this lead to her only novel being able to withstand the test of time and create generations of fans in her readership.
Because this novel is so heavy but so relatable to modern women today, I would absolutely recommend it, but with a caution to those who are triggered by depression, suicide, sexual assault, and mental illness. I also highly recommend the audiobook version, because having the auditory aspect of Ester’s (and Plath’s) story really makes the experience come alive for the reader.