Acclaimed one of the 100 best novels by The Guardian, The Bell Jar by American poet Sylvia Plath is a classic that couldn’t be any more relevant nowadays. Plath tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a young lady who is – in theory – living her best life in New York but after moving back home suffers a sharp fall in her mental health. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel, the only one by Plath – she had only published one volume of poetry entitled The Colossus before – and was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in the UK, in 1963, not even a month before she committed suicide.
Three years later, The Bell Jar was reissued under Plath’s name in England and it wasn’t until 1971 that it was published in the US, her homeland. Plath was born in Massachusetts and has always been passionate about writing – her first poem was published when she was only eight years old. A successful and gifted student, she won literary contests, had amazing grades, and was awarded a scholarship to Smith College, from where she graduated with the highest honours.
“The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.” (The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath)
While studying at Smith College, she was offered a coveted position as a guest editor at women’s magazine Mademoiselle in New York, where she stayed for a month – that’s exactly where the book starts and the experience that inspired the author to write it. Plath’s and Esther Greenwood’s stories are quite similar – despite the academic success and bright careers ahead, they weren’t thriving in their personal lives.
A recurrent character in Esther’s life is Buddy Willard, whom she has dated before and still keeps in touch with throughout the time they live in different cities – he studies at Yale and after goes to a sanatorium to treat his tuberculosis. Their relationship explores both sexualities – she feels disappointed and betrayed by him when she learns he isn’t a virgin anymore – and the role of women in the 1950’s society – having marriage and children as priorities as opposed to develop her career.
“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.” (The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath)
The first chapters narrate Greenwood’s moments in New York enjoying the nightlife and all that the city has to offer with her close friend Doreen – the glamour, the gifts she received, the meetings with important people. Even though it starts on a light, fun and ironic note, there are already some hints that something wasn’t quite well with her. As the end of her experience at the magazine approaches, the editor Jay Cee plans a photoshoot to celebrate and acknowledge the girls that undertook the program. This becomes an issue to Esther as she feels confused, helpless and disoriented about her future and has a breakdown while on set and asked about her career plans.
The night before going back to Massachusetts, she attends a party with Doreen, where she is sexually assaulted and nearly raped but manages to escape. When she arrives back at the hotel, she decides to throw all her clothes – which were mainly gifts or bought with expenses’ money from the magazine – off the roof, signalling how she didn’t fit nor was inspired by that lifestyle.
From her arrival home, her mental health suffers a rapid and sudden descend. She gets the news that she hasn’t been accepted in the writing program she was looking forward to participating in and decides to write a book. Soon after she realises she can’t read or write anymore – her main passions – neither she can sleep. From there on, her life becomes an in and out of doctor appointments, hospitalizations and treatments. Like Plath herself, Esther is treated with electroshock therapy – a painful and terrifying experience she describes in the book. Suicidal thoughts and attempts become more frequent until she is moved to a state mental hospital before being transferred to a private and more humane one – with the financial help of novelist Philomena Guinea, who’s also funded Esther’s college scholarship.
During her time there, she becomes somehow close with Joan, who’s also a patient and with whom she studied together at college. She also has the chance to investigate her sexuality with the support of one of the psychiatrists, who helps her getting a diaphragm and feeling more confident in losing her virginity. This finally happens with Irwin, a math professor she meets in one of her allowed town visits, but leaves her with a severe haemorrhage and she ends up being taken to the hospital by Joan.
“Wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” (The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath)
A few days after she’s back at the mental hospital, she gets the news that Joan has committed suicide and she also finds out about her interview to determine whether she can be discharged and go back to college. The book has an open end as it finishes at the moment she’s called to meet the doctors. However, knowing a bit of Plath’s story, it isn’t a positive note. The bell jar effect that Esther’s describes a few times during the book refers to the feeling of emptiness and suffocation in her depressive thoughts.
Due to the exploration of themes like sexuality, suicide, mental health and the rejection of a woman’s role as mother and wife, the book has been banned from some schools and public libraries – some of them until the recent day. Touching on such important matters in a time when pretty much all of them were considered taboo is an act of courage and a call for change from Sylvia Plath.
By Manuela Rio Tinto