The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1971)
By Nava Atlas | On August 19, 2017 | Updated January 12, 2022 | Comments (0)
The Bell Jar was published in England just prior to American poet Sylvia Plath’s suicide, on January 14, 1963 under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. It was published in the U.S. under her real name on April 11, 1971. The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical, portraying the author’s real-life struggles with severe depression and a breakdown through her character, Esther Greenwood.
While living in London in 1961, Plath wrote to a friend about her desire to write a novel:
“I have been wanting to do this for ten years but had a terrible block about Writing A Novel. Then suddenly in beginning negotiations with a New York Publisher for an American edition of my poems, the dykes broke and I stayed awake all night seized by fearsome excitement, saw how it should be done, started the next day & go every morning to my borrowed study as to an office & belt out more of it.”
The result was The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath’s only published novel originally appeared in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963, and in the U.S. eight years later (1971) in accordance with the wishes of Ted Hughes, to whom she had been married at the time of her suicide (though the two were separated).
A concise analysis of The Bell Jar in Britannica observes:
“Initially celebrated for its dry self-deprecation and ruthless honesty, The Bell Jar is now read as a damning critique of 1950s social politics. Plath made clear connections between Esther’s dawning awareness of the limited female roles available to her and her increasing sense of isolation and paranoia. The contradictory expectations imposed upon women in relation to sexuality, motherhood, and intellectual achievement are linked to Esther’s sense of herself as fragmented. Her eventual recovery relies on her ability to dismiss the dominant versions of femininity that populate the novel.”
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The book’s original publisher, Harper & Row, described The Bell Jar in brief:
“This extraordinary work chronicles the crackup of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, successful — but slowly going under, and maybe for the last time.
Step by careful step, Sylvia Plath takes us with Esther through a painful month in New York as a contest-winning junior editor on a magazine, her increasingly strained relationships with her mother and the boy she dated in college, and eventually, devastatingly, into the madness itself.”
The reader is drawn into her breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes completely real and completely rational, as probably and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration in the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is far in any novel.”
Widely praised upon its American publication, it’s fascinating to read the original, in-depth review in the New Yorker:
“A biographical note in the present edition makes it plain that the events in the novel closely parallel Sylvia Plath’s twentieth year. For reasons for which we are not wholly to blame, our approach to the novel is impure; The Bell Jar is fiction that cannot escape being read in part as autobiography. It begins in New York with an ominous lightness, grows darker as it moves to Massachusetts, then slips slowly into madness.”
Following is another review from when the book first came out in 1971, typical of the praise and empathy it received.
A 1971 review of The Bell Jar
“When the Mind Becomes a Place of False Images” — June 27, 1971 review by Debora Powell in the Detroit Free Press: Poetess Sylvia Plath left a map of the pathways to insanity in her novel, The Bell Jar, published posthumously in the United States. The novel begins rather innocently with the episodes she encountered as the character Esther Greenwood, spending a month in New York City as an award-winning junior editor on a women’s fashion magazine.
From there the reader takes a journey through Esther’s mind: Scenes from a stifling suburbia flick past, followed by flashes of the campus of an Eastern women’s college, the long ride ending finally at a strange and unfamiliar depot — the psychiatric hospital, the forever rocking prison-palace for the disturbed.
Sylvia Plath’s first poems, in a collection titled Colossus, were written with discipline and control. But the tight grip was relaxed, the old style abandoned in her second collection, Ariel, published after her death. The result was a wave of images that gained a momentum of their own, producing a shockingly brilliant poetic work.
Between the publication of these two collections and after the publication of The Bell Jar in England, Plath took her life. The novel itself is like a foreword to her own death, a catharsis of everything that had germinated and grown rampant within her, a purging of all the ghosts that crowded her consciousness.
There is a parallel to be drawn between the patterns of her two collections of poems and the novel itself. As Esther attacks her month in New York, shifting through the dormitory-like rooms of the Barbizon Hotel, experiencing the artificial glee of fashionable working women, drifting in and out of bright social gatherings, she becomes increasingly lost.
In this first half of the novel the style and tone resemble Colossus. The reader feels harnesses to the writer’s obsessive descriptions of her world and longs to wrench away, to pull the cord and bring the train to a stop.
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In the second half of The Bell Jar, the author is on home ground. She absorbs the reader in the world of the almost insane. From her first obsessions with methods of committing suicide to the major attempt itself, we wander with her through dark corridors, feeling the live blast gnawing at her with relentless strength. Here the novel is like the poems in Ariel. There is no straining with words; she has relinquished her desperate hold on sanity and writes with the brilliance of madness.
The bell jar itself is the author’s image of a great force descending upon her, a glassed-in prison through which she is able to perceive only distorted images, breathing a stale and sour air. She feels the bell jar descending, but her alternatives are limited: The nauseous environs of the city, the binding atmosphere of the suburbs, the superficially stimulating college campus.
In the novel, Esther recovers. But she is like so many other patients sitting outside the door waiting her turn to perform before the doctors, like a child promising to be good. And we know that she will again attempt to take her life or return to walking the halls, eating in a room where silverware is counted.
In the biographical note at the end of her novel, Sylvia Plath is quoted as saying: “How did I know that someday—somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”
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More about The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
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