50 Years Since Plath’s Death: 5 Books like The Bell Jar

11th Feb 2013

Sylvia Plath

Despite The Bell Jar being technically fictional and published under a pseudonym, awareness of the autobiographical elements in the novel have lead to her life and work being irrevocably interlinked.

Studied in schools and universities all across the world, and subject to adoration from both professional critics and lovers of literature alike, Plath’s legacy has paved a way open for discussion of difficult subjects from people of all backgrounds.

The Bell Jar is probably her most recognised work, and has transitioned from a small, widely acknowledged publication to a modern classic that explores a wide scope of topics.

Women’s liberation, psychiatric treatment, the pressures to succeed and, of course, the effects of mental illness on all aspects of life are covered in this novel, along with so much more.

Through the eventual success of The Bell Jar, Plath has given countless readers an insight into these complex issues, pioneering a subsequent movement of books exploring similar subjects.

Mental health and its associated issues have become incredibly popular topics in literature, with publishers and readers alike, so let’s take a look at five more contemporary books that chart similar territories:

My Mad Fat Diary by Rae Earl

Recently adapted into an incredibly popular drama on E4, My Mad Fat Dairy is the real diary of 17 year old Rae Earl. Rae, who is overweight, sexually frustrated and attempting to deal with life after a mental breakdown, is just as concerned with boys as she is her own appearance. The diary shows us that just because you are trying to live with mental illness, it doesn’t mean it has to dominate your life.

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Another real-life account of depression, and an exploration of what is and is not normal. Exploring the experiences of patients treated at the same clinic as Sylvia Plath herself, it’s a memoir with a direct connection to Plath both as an artist and as a patient. Describing incidents in the 60s and published in the 90s, it remains relevant and powerful, and helps illustrate how much attitudes towards mental health issues have (or haven’t) changed.

Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel

Much like Plath, Wurtzel describes in this memoir how she lives with depression whilst attempting to succeed as an academic and a professional writer. The novel has been cited by many as an illuminating insight into life with depression as Wurtzel takes us through an incredibly personal journey that doesn’t pull any punches.

Smashed by Koren Zailckas

This memoir centres around the life of a teenage girl spiralling rapidly into alcoholism. It deals with the manner in which young adults are often encouraged by their peers into excessive drinking, and the problems this can cause when true addiction develops. A fascinating insight into the pressures of teenage life, it is a must read for people of any age – whether they’re feeling the pressures of life as a young adult, or want some insight into what it’s like.

The Madolescents by Chrissie Glazebrook

A For Books’ Sake favourite, this novel provides a very different story to the other real-life accounts on this list, but is no less powerful for being fiction. Following a group of teenagers who meet at group therapy, the novel perfectly captures life as a young adult living with family problems, addiction, a penchant for theft and a whole host of typical but under-discussed issues faced by teenagers today.

Which other books should we add to this list? Which books best portray mental illness, whether they’re fact or fiction?

Gina Kershaw


  • Katie says:

    Love this list, like so many girls my age I was a huge fan of The Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted growing up, possibly because they were the only books I could find that represented women as more complex than future wives and mothers.

    A couple of years ago I finally got round to reading Valley of the Dolls and it really reminded me of reading The Bell Jar because of the way it accepted that for a lot of women, striving to be “perfect” is the cause of their mental demise.