I honestly don’t know why I have never read The Bell Jar. I read quite a bit of Sylvia Plath’s poetry when I was a teenager having been exposed to some of her work at school. I have also read quite a bit of Ted Hughes’s work over the years too, so I’m slightly puzzled as to why it has never occurred to me to pick up Plath’s only, but still iconic novel. My university-age daughter read it a while ago and gave me a copy for Christmas.
The Bell Jar was published under a pseudonym in January 1963, just a few weeks before Plath took her own life at the age of thirty. She had already separated from Hughes by this time (following an extra-marital affair that he had) and her two children were very young. Plath had had a history of depression, however, and had made several attempts at suicide.
The Bell Jar is considered largely autobiographical. Its central character and narrator is Esther Greenwood whom we first meet in New York City, on an internship at a magazine. Esther is both fragile and an intellectual and although she is studying under a scholarship awarded in the name of a woman poet, she receives several academic and professional disappointments.
Set in the 1950s, it is clear that little is expected in the way of career success for Esther. Indeed, she is encouraged to consider such ideas as stuff and nonsense and to simply submit to the inevitable – marriage, having children and being a housewife. She is in a relationship with a boy from home, Buddy Willard, a paragon of mediocrity, who is studying to become a doctor. When Buddy falls ill with tuberculosis and spends months in a sanatorium, Esther visits him and begins to realise that a future with Buddy is her idea of hell. Furthermore, when he confesses to her that he has had a sexual liaison, but expects her to be ‘pure’ when they marry, it sets off an internal rage at the different ways men and women are treated. She feels oppressed and imprisoned.
This is a catalyst for Esther’s further deterioration until finally she attempts suicide. Much of the second half of the book is an account of the brutal psychiatric treatment she undergoes, including electroconvulsive therapy (which Plath herself endured) and being detained in a mental health facility.
The Bell Jar is a painfully intimate book. Plath draws you into her character’s state of mind and all the other characters are seen entirely through her eyes. The writing is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Reading her prose descriptions it is clear that she is first and foremost a poet (although she is said to have been working on a second novel at the time of her death).
Cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths. Wrapping my black coat round me like my own sweet shadow, I unscrewed the bottle of pills and started taking them swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one by one…..The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.Esther Greenwood’s account of her overdose in Chapter 13
Plath herself described writing The Bell Jar as taking a collection of episodes from her life and throwing them down on paper. Plath’s mother sought to ban publication of book and it was not available in America until 1971. Plath remains a feminist icon because of her loathing of the status afforded to women of her generation and the opportunities denied women like her. It is also widely believed that Plath was forced to set her own creative ambitions aside in favour of her husband’s.
Despite their being separated at the time of her death, Hughes arranged for Plath to be buried in the churchyard of Thomas a Beckett church in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, an area of personal significance to Hughes.
2 thoughts on “Book review – “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath”
Thank you for this helpful summary. I didn’t realise “The Bell Jar” was published just before Plath’s death – at least she managed to get this into the public domain. Your final point about her burial at Heptonstall emphasises how far Hughes sought to control her image.
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