The Bell Jar
First edition cover, authored under Sylvia Plath's pseudonym, Victoria Lucas
|14 January 1963|
The Bell Jar is the only novel by American writer and poet Sylvia Plath, originally published under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas" in 1963. The novel is semi-autobiographical, with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef since the protagonist's descent into mental illness parallels Plath's own experiences with what may have been clinical depression. Plath committed suicide a month after its first UK publication. The novel was published under Plath's name for the first time in 1967 and was not published in the United States until 1971, pursuant to the wishes of Plath's mother and her husband Ted Hughes. The novel has been translated into nearly a dozen languages.
Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the suburbs of Boston, gains a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City under editor Jay Cee. Esther is neither stimulated nor excited by the big city, and the glamorous culture and lifestyle that girls her age are expected to idolize and emulate. Instead, her experiences frighten and disorient her. She appreciates the witty sarcasm and adventurousness of her friend Doreen, but also identifies with the piety of Betsy (dubbed "Pollyanna Cowgirl"), a "goody-goody" sorority girl who always does the right thing. She has a benefactress in Philomena Guinea, a formerly successful fiction writer (based on Olive Higgins Prouty), who will later pay some of Esther's hospital expenses.
Esther describes in detail several seriocomic incidents that occur during her internship, kicked off by an unfortunate but amusing experience at a banquet for the girls given by the staff of Ladies' Day magazine. She reminisces about her friend Buddy, whom she has dated more or less seriously and who considers himself her de facto fiancé. She also muses about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who are scheduled for execution. She returns to her Massachusetts home in low spirits. She has been hoping for another scholarly opportunity once she is back in Massachusetts, a writing course taught by a world-famous author, but on her return her mother immediately tells her she was not accepted for the course. She decides to spend the summer potentially writing a novel, although she feels she doesn't have enough life experience to write convincingly. All of her identity has been centered upon doing well academically; she is unsure of what to make of her life once she leaves school, and the choices presented to her (motherhood, as exemplified by the vacuous, prolific child-bearer Dodo Conway, or stereotypical female careers such as stenography) do not appeal to her.
Esther becomes increasingly depressed and finds herself unable to sleep. Her mother encourages, or perhaps forces, her to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon, whom Esther mistrusts because he is attractive and seems to be showing off a picture of his charming family rather than listening to her. He prescribes electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Afterward, she tells her mother she won't go back:
My mother smiled. "I know my baby wasn't like that."
I looked at her. "Like what?"
"Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital." She paused. "I knew you'd decide to be all right again."
Esther's mental state worsens. She describes her depression as a feeling of being trapped under a bell jar, struggling for breath. She makes several half-hearted attempts at suicide, including swimming far out to sea, before making a serious attempt. She leaves a note saying she's taking a long walk, then crawls into the cellars and swallows about 50 sleeping pills that have been prescribed for her insomnia. In a very dramatic episode, the newspapers presume her kidnapping and death, but she is discovered under her house after an indeterminate amount of time. She survives and is sent to a different mental hospital, where she meets Dr. Nolan, a female therapist. Along with regular psychotherapy sessions, Esther is given huge amounts of insulin to produce a "reaction", and again receives shock treatments, with Dr. Nolan ensuring that they are properly administered. Esther describes the ECT as beneficial in that it has a sort of antidepressant effect, lifting the metaphorical bell jar in which she has felt trapped and stifled. Her stay at the private institution is funded by her benefactress, Philomena Guinea.
Esther tells Dr. Nolan how she envies the freedom that men have and how she, as a woman, worries about getting pregnant. Dr. Nolan refers her to a doctor who fits her for a diaphragm. Esther now feels free from her fears about the consequences of sex; free from previous pressures to get married, potentially to the wrong man. Under Dr. Nolan, Esther improves and various life-changing events help her regain her sanity. The novel ends with her entering the room for her interview which will decide whether she can leave the hospital.
It is suggested near the beginning of the novel that, in later years, Esther goes on to have a baby.
- Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of the story, who becomes mentally unstable during a summer spent interning at a magazine in New York City. Tormented by both the death of her father and the feeling that she simply does not fit into the culturally acceptable role of womanhood, she attempts to commit suicide in the hopes of escape.
- Doreen, a rebel-of-the-times young woman and another intern at Ladies' Day, the magazine for which Esther won an internship for the summer, and Esther's best friend at the hotel in New York where all the interns stay. Esther finds Doreen's confident persona enticing but also troublesome, as she longs for the same level of freedom but knows such behavior is frowned upon.
- Joan, an old friend of Esther, who joins her at the asylum and eventually commits suicide.
- Doctor Nolan, Esther's doctor at the asylum. A beautiful and caring woman, her combination of societally-praised femininity and professional ability allows her to be the first woman in Esther's life she feels she can fully connect with. Nolan administers shock therapy to Esther and does it correctly, which leads to positive results.
- Doctor Gordon, the first doctor Esther encounters. Self-obsessed and patronizing, he subjects her to traumatic shock treatments that haunt her for the rest of her time in medical care.
- Mrs. Greenwood, Esther's mother, loves her daughter but is constantly urging Esther to mold to society's ideal of white, middle-class womanhood, to which Esther feels a complete disconnection.
- Buddy Willard, Esther's former boyfriend from her hometown. Studying to become a doctor, Buddy wants a wife who mirrors his mother, and hopes Esther will be that for him. Esther adores him throughout high school, but upon learning he is not a virgin loses respect for him and names him a hypocrite. She struggles with ending the relationship after Buddy is diagnosed with tuberculosis. He eventually proposes to her, but Esther refuses due to the decision that she will never marry, to which Buddy responds that she is crazy.
- Mrs. Willard, Buddy Willard's mother, a dedicated homemaker who is determined to have Buddy and Esther marry.
- Mr. Willard, Buddy Willard's father, Mrs. Willard's husband and a good family friend.
- Constantin, a simultaneous interpreter with a foreign accent, he takes Esther on a date while they are both in New York. They return to his apartment and Esther contemplates giving her virginity to him, but in the end decides against it.
- Irwin, a tall but rather ugly young man, to whom Esther gives her virginity, which causes her to hemorrhage. He is a "very well-paid professor of mathematics" and invites Esther to have coffee, which leads to her having sex with him, which leads to Esther having to go to the hospital to get help to stop the bleeding.
- Jay Cee, Esther's strict boss who is very intelligent, so "her plug-ugly looks didn't seem to matter". She is responsible for editing Esther's work.
- Lenny Shepherd, a wealthy young man living in New York, invites Doreen and Esther for drinks while they are on their way to a party. Doreen and Lenny start dating, taking Doreen away from Esther more often.
- Philomena Guinea, a wealthy elderly lady, the person who donated the money for Esther's college scholarship. Esther's college requires each girl who is on scholarship to write a letter to her benefactor, thanking him or her. Philomena invites Esther to have a meal with her. At one point, she was also in an asylum herself, and pays for the "upscale" asylum that Esther stays in.
- Marco, a Peruvian man and friend of Lenny Shepherd, is set up to take Esther to a party and ends up attempting to rape her.
- Betsy, a wealthier girl from the magazine, is a "good" girl from Kansas whom Esther strives to be more like. She serves as the opposite to Doreen, and Esther finds herself torn between the two behavioral and personality extremes.
- Hilda, another girl from the magazine, who is generally disliked by Esther after making negative comments about the Rosenbergs.
According to her husband, Plath began writing the novel in 1961, after publishing her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. After she separated from Hughes, Plath moved to a smaller apartment in London, "giving her time and place to work uninterruptedly. Then at top speed and with very little revision from start to finish she wrote The Bell Jar", he explained.
Plath was writing the novel under the sponsorship of the Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship, affiliated with publisher Harper & Row, but they were disappointed by the manuscript and withdrew, calling it "disappointing, juvenile and overwrought". Early working titles of the novel included Diary of a Suicide and The Girl in the Mirror.
Style and major themes
The novel is written using a series of flashbacks that show up parts of Esther's past. The flashbacks primarily deal with Esther's relationship with Buddy Willard. The reader also learns more about her early college years.
The Bell Jar addresses the question of socially acceptable identity. It examines Esther's "quest to forge her own identity, to be herself rather than what others expect her to be". Esther is expected to become a housewife, and a self-sufficient woman, without the options to achieve independence. Esther feels she is a prisoner to domestic duties and she fears the loss of her inner self. The Bell Jar sets out to highlight the problems with oppressive patriarchal society in mid-20th-century America. The men in Esther's life are all oppressive, whether it is in a physical manner or an emotional one.
Parallels of Plath's life to the novel
The book contains many references to real people and events in Plath's life. Plath's real-life magazine scholarship was at Mademoiselle magazine beginning in 1953. Furthermore, Philomena Guinea is based on Plath's own patron, author Olive Higgins Prouty, who funded Plath's scholarship to study at Smith College. Plath was rejected from a Harvard course taught by Frank O'Connor. Dr. Nolan is thought to be based on Plath's own therapist, Ruth Beuscher, whom she continued seeing after her release from the hospital. A good portion of this part of the novel closely resembles the experiences chronicled by Mary Jane Ward in her autobiographical novel The Snake Pit; Plath later stated that she'd seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see "mental health stuff," so she deliberately based details of Esther's hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward's book. Plath was a patient at McLean Hospital, an upscale facility which resembled the "snake pit" much less than certain wards in the Metropolitan State Hospital, which may have been where Mary Jane Ward was actually hospitalized.
In a 2006 interview, Joanne Greenberg said that she had been interviewed in 1986 by one of the women who had worked on Mademoiselle with Plath in the college guest editors group. The woman claimed that Plath had put so many details of the students' real lives into The Bell Jar that "they could never look at each other again", and that it had caused the breakup of her marriage and possibly others.
Janet McCann links Plath's search for feminine independence with a self-described neurotic psychology. Plath's husband has at one point insinuated that The Bell Jar might have been written as a response to many years of electroshock treatment and the scars it left.
The majority of early readers focused primarily on autobiographical connections from Plath to the protagonist. In response to autobiographical criticism, critic Elizabeth Hardwick urged that readers distinguish between Plath as a writer and Plath as an "event". Robert Scholes, writing for The New York Times, praised the novel's "sharp and uncanny descriptions." Mason Harris of the West Coast Review complimented the novel as having a "distorted lens of madness [which] give[s] an authentic of a period which exalted the most oppressive ideal of reason and stability." Howard Moss of The New Yorker gave a mixed review, praising the "black comedy" of the novel, but added that there was "something girlish in its manner [that] betrays the hand of the amateur novelist."
Legacy and adaptations
The Bell Jar has been referenced by many popular sources in the media including Gilmore Girls and The Simpsons. As Iris Jamahl Dunkle voiced in her article, “often, when the novel appears in American films and television series, it stands as a symbol for teenage angst.” 
Larry Peerce's The Bell Jar (1979) starred Marilyn Hassett as Esther Greenwood, the protagonist and featured the tagline: "Sometimes just being a woman is an act of courage." In the film, Joan attempts to get Esther to agree to a suicide pact, an incident which is not in the book. Joan is implied to be a lesbian in Plath's novel.
- McCullough, Frances (1996). "Forward". In The Bell Jar. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. p. xii. ISBN 0-06-093018-7.
- Dunkle, Iris Jamahl (2011). "Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar: Understanding Cultural and Historical Context in an Iconic Text". In Janet McCann. Critical Insights: The Bell Jar. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-58765-836-5.
- Plath, p. 6
- Smith, Ellen (2011). "Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar: Critical Reception". In Janet McCann. Critical Insights: The Bell Jar. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press. pp. 92–109. ISBN 978-1-58765-836-5.
- Perloff, Marjorie (Autumn 1972). "'A Ritual for Being Born Twice': Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar". Contemporary Literature (University of Wisconsin Press) 13 (4): 507–552. doi:10.2307/1207445. JSTOR 1207445. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
- Bonds, Diane (October 1990). "The Separative Self in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar" (PDF). Women's Studies (Routledge) 18 (1): 49–64. doi:10.1080/00497878.1990.9978819. Retrieved 19 March 2012.
- "Two Views of Plath's Life and Career", by Linda Wagner-Martin and Anne Stevenson
- Correspondence with Frank O Connor & Seán Ó Faoláin, "O’Connor [traveled] to the States to give his famous course on Irish Literature at Harvard (Sylvia Plath was an aspiring student whom he refused a place on his course to)."
- Beam, Alex (2001). Gracefully Insane. New York: Public Affairs. pp. 151–158. ISBN 1-58648-161-4.
- "I'm gonna tell on her. I shouldn't but I will." Appearances in a Rosegarden, Interview with Claudia Cragg. Podcast produced April 5, 2006. Register with site for full interview. Accessed 2010-07-06.
- Wagner-Martin, Linda (1988). Sylvia Plath, the Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge. p. 101. ISBN 0-415-00910-3.
- McCann, Janet (2011). "On the Bell Jar". In Janet McCann. Critical Insights: The Bell Jar. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-58765-836-5.
- Hughes, Ted (1994). "On Sylvia Plath". Raritan (Rutgers University) 14 (2): 1–10.
- The Bell Jar at DMOZ
- A page of Bell Jar book covers
- Faber profile
- The Bell Jar—BBC profile
- "Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar", Salon, 5 October 2000
- "The Bell Jar at 40", Emily Gould, Poetry Foundation