Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (Perrenial Classics, 1999) was originally published in 1963, the year of her suicide, and at the objections of her mother. Although this is a work of fiction, it is loosely based on the summer of 1952, which Plath spent in New York as a guest editor for Mademoiselle, a position she earned through a contest. The Bell Jar, characterized by Robert Taubman as ”the first feminine novel in a Salinger mood,” chronicles Esther Greenwood’s slow and methodical decline inward towards madness. Similar to Holden Caulfield’s madness in The Catcher of the Rye, both these young souls attempt to unravel the complexities of a society that reeks of hypocrisy and duplicity.
The recipient of a guest editor’s position in a popular women’s fashion magazine, Esther Greenwood attempts to make sense of the pressures of the fast-moving lifestyle of the city and the magazine industry, fraught with phonies and superficiality that goes against the grain of her character. This fast and energetic life comes to a complete standstill at the end of the summer when Esther returns home to her mother, another phony and superficial individual for whom Esther harbors hatred and resentment. We discover in Esther’s mother a practical and efficient woman who resents her dead husband for leaving her penniless with two children to raise, and one who insists Esther learn to serve men as a typist while waiting for her dream to occur. The experienced mother who struggled to care for her children and pay the bills is in sharp contrast to the poet and writer daughter who depends on scholarships and grants for writing opportunities. Back at home with her mother, having been rejected by a writing instructor and having shown ambivalence toward her Mademoiselle opportunity, Esther is isolated in her childhood home, like a helpless child, unable to write, or read, or sleep, or do anything that gives her sustenance. She is trapped in a world full of superficiality, duplicity, and phoniness—a fetus in a bell jar surrounded by the sour stench of nothingness. As she describes in the book: “to the person in the bell jar, black and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”
Although the first half of the book describes the slow decline from sanity to the cloudy conditions of a mental breakdown, the latter pages of the book show the realities of a woman yearning for death through trial and error. Her attempted suicide from the consumption of pills results in her placement in an insane asylum complete with therapy and shock treatments. As she endeavors to safely descend from her emotional breakdown, we see a young woman conflicted with the societal pressures that face women on a daily basis. While most of those around her submit to the demands of femininity and subordination, Esther makes decisions that demonstrate her uniqueness, her individuality; an individuality that makes her unable to exist in a world where the rules for women and men differ in terms of sexuality, freedom, and morality.
Esther discerns that she hates children. In thinking about marriage and children, she observes that women are “brainwashed, and afterward [they] went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.” When it comes to Buddy Willard, the med student that offered her security and marriage, Esther was disgusted that he was outwardly pure, but had had a lover for a year. Women, meanwhile, were not allowed the freedom of having lovers or experiencing sexuality without repercussions. Namely, the threat of babies prevented girls from experiencing sexuality as free agents, the way men did. With the help of her therapist, Esther is fitted for birth control and searches for a man—a worthy man—who will take from her that which vexes her, restrains her, keeps her still and fetus-like in a jar: her virginity. Esther gains mental health by reconciling the angst and repulsion she experiences as a woman, confined to certain social norms that limit her place in society as a superficial entity existing of working for men, functioning for men, and being used by men. She couldn’t understand how women like her went to school, earned straight A’s, discovered their talents and ambitions, and then surrendered it all—all the hard work—for a husband and children. A talented poet and writer, it seemed to her that her hard work was all for nothing, wasted and unappreciated, “soiled and dull and indistinguishable.”
In the end of The Bell Jar, she discovers her sexuality, her voice, and her volition as a young woman, a beautiful and talented woman with enough spirit to live her life on her terms. It’s not until after the birth of her second-born and her separation from her husband and fellow poet, Ted Hughes, and after the publication of this frank and raw presentation of the conflicts women face that Sylvia Plath finds herself once more trapped in “the bell jar, with its stifling distortions” and succumbs to its powers over her sanity. Although her life and death were tragic, Sylvia Plath leaves behind a voice that haunts us and reminds us how close and fragile this line between madness and sanity really is.
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute’s Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.