Why ‘The Bell Jar’ echoes 50 years on

Sylvia Plath’s relationship with her most famous work was not easy, but it retains its power after five decades

The American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) in 1961. New York Public LIbrary Picture Collection.

The American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) in 1961. New York Public LIbrary Picture Collection.

Fri, Mar 29, 2013, 06:00

When Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar was published 50 years ago this year, it marked a crucial turning point in the career of the 30-year-old writer. Plath had already been publishing for almost 20 years.

Her first poem went to print in a local newspaper when she was only eight years old, and she had supplemented her family’s income for years with fees earned for stories published in magazines such as Mademoiselle , Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s . After graduating from college, she won a prestigious scholarship to Cambridge University, where she met and married fellow poet Ted Hughes.

Her first collection of poetry, The Col ossus , was issued by William Heinmann in 1960, securing her critical attention, financial patronage and a measure of creative security. However, the seeds of a novel had been stirring inside her since her days at Smith College, when she had been advised by her sponsor and mentor Olive Higgins Prouty, a prolific and astonishingly productive writer, to use her own life as the starting point for a longer fiction.

With the publication of The Bell Jar , Plath finally achieved what she had begun all those years ago, and it was to those intense days of coming-of-age that Plath was to look to for her inspiration.

Plath’s relationship with the book was not an easy one. The reason it took so long to come was because of the painful history of depression it tapped into, but once she began, she finished the manuscript in 70 days.

Its heroine is Esther Greenwood, a young writer who travels to New York to serve an internship at a prestigious magazine. The narrative charts her dramatic plunge from a glamorous world of fur coats, flirtations and flings to the isolation wards of a mental hospital, where she undergoes electroconvulsive therapy in an attempt to shock her out of her torpor.

The book was written from Plath’s own experience with mental illness, and dangerously skirts the boundary between fiction and autobiography; in certain cases, Plath didn’t even bother changing names.

If the real-life context suggests a novel of adolescent sensationalism, one of the most striking things about The Bell Jar is how dispassionately its narrator remembers her descent into madness. There is no big drama, no single event to which Esther can attribute her breakdown, which is drawn as the inevitable consequence of individuation; she is trying to forge an independent identity in a social world that will not accommodate her ambition.

Esther wants to be a writer, but she is not sure how to reconcile conventional expectations of domesticity and motherhood with her desire to dedicate herself to art.

“If a neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time,” Esther says, “then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”

But the overarching metaphor of the book is the titular bell jar, which seals Esther off in caged stillness as depression strikes. She describes herself as “numb as a trolley bus . . . still and empty, the way an eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullaballoo.”

The Bell Jar was released in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath may have raided her own life for the book, but it was not without reservation.

In order to protect those who might be injured, Plath had made an agreement in her contract with Faber and Faber that the book would not be published in America until after the death of her mother, Aurelia – but Plath was to predecease her mother by 30 years. Three months after the book’s publication, the bell jar descended upon her again, and Plath took her own life in the flat she shared with her two young children.

Plath’s fears about the potential damage The Bell Jar might wreak upon her family and old friends, meanwhile, were not unfounded. At the time of her death, Plath was separated from Hughes, who had been having an affair with another poet, Assia Wevill. She was writing furiously, inscribing rage and betrayal on to the page in dozens of poems that would eventually be put together by Hughes as the posthumous collection Ariel .

American publication
In the vampiric tendency of popular culture, Plath’s suicide had made her work more marketable, but the book remained unpublished in her native America. It had been originally rejected as unfocused and undramatic; as one editor wrote, “we didn’t feel you used your materials successfully in a novelistic way”.

In 1971, however, Hughes put the novel on the market in America, against the wishes of Plath’s mother, who saw the novel as “the basest ingratitude” to those who had nursed Plath through her depression, including herself. It was published by Harper & Row under Plath’s own name, and it quickly became a classic, a Catcher in the Rye for a female audience.

It is a dangerous practice to substitute biography for critical reading, but Plath wrote from her own life, factually and emotionally. “I am a fool if I don’t live it, don’t recreate it,” she noted in her journal when composing The Bell Jar , although it bears noting that she did not keep a journal for most of 1953, the year in which she suffered her own breakdown.

Even so, in light of the struggle to reconcile the personal and creative selves that she documented throughout her life, there can be “few innocent readings” of the novel, as one commentator has suggested.

In The Bell Jar she describes this conflict as a fig-tree laden with fruit.

“From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.

“I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Ultimately, Hughes was the fig that Plath chose, but for her, marriage and motherhood were poisoned fruits.

“I desire the things which will destroy me in the end,” she wrote in one of her final journal entries; it seems there was no hope of reconciliation for her creative and domestic selves.