Sylvia Plath and "The Bell Jar"-- her semi-autobiographical novel
Sylvia Plath 1932 - 1963
Surprisingly, I had never read the poetry or writings of Sylvia Plath. How I got through high school and college with an English degree and a concentration in literature, without reading any Sylvia Plath, I don't know. I certainly had heard about her and her writings and knew a little about her, her husband Ted Hughes, his affair with another woman, her suicide in London, and the fight over her estate, and feminists blaming Hughes for her suicide. But, yet, until yesterday I had not read anything by her.
I can't even remember why, but I finally got to Sylvia Plath and her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, as I downloaded it onto my Kindle. This is the only novel she wrote and it was first published in the UK just a month before her death.
I read the novel all in one day - I couldn't put it down as I found it so engaging. It is a sad and tragic novel, which ultimately foreshadows her suicidal death. But, it was interesting reading this novel for the first time at my present age. I could read it from an adult perspective and experience. I realized had I read this in high school or college it would have scared me to death. Terrified me, in fact. In some ways, I could identify with the main character at that young age struggling to figure out her identity.
The novel is about a young girl named Esther (Plath) who has a mental breakdown the summer before her senior year at Smith college and it describes and depicts her descent into madness and her remarkable recovery. Plath has said she only changed the names of the places and the names of the people, but the events really did happen to her.
Plath as Esther struggles with her identity in the world and her rejection of the conformist ideas for a female in the 1950s. Plath wants to be an independent female with a career and her family and society want her married and with children and to give up the silly idea of being a poet. That would be enough to send some people into madness, and Plath was one of those people.
Through her intelligence and intellect, Plath had escaped from a typical middle-class upbringing in the suburbs of Boston, MA. Because of her brilliance, she had won a full playing scholarship to Smith College and successfully continued to excell and win writing prizes throughout her time at Smith. She edited "The Smith Review" during the summer after her third year at Smith.
In fact, the summer between her junior and senior years at Smith, she had also won a prestigious and coveted guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. She spend a month in the city working at the magazine, going to parties, and hob knobbing it with the intelligensia in the magazine publishing industry. The experience in New York City was not what she had hoped it to be and thus began her downward spiral.
Many of these events of this summer experience were later used as inspiration for her novel, The Bell Jar. When Plath arrived home from New York City, she found that she had been refused admission to a Harvard writing seminar. She fell into a deep depression over this and the NY experience. Both of these experiences made Plath feel she was inadequate as a person.
In late August 1953, was Plath's first medically documented suicide attempt. She took a bottle of sleeping pills (prescribed to her because of insomnia), crawled under her house and into a crawl space. She was found by her mother three days later. The "missing girl" articles were all front page news in the newspapers of the day.
Plath spent the next six months in psychiatric care at McLean Hospital in Boston, receiving electric shock treatments, insulin shock treatments, and psychoanalytic talk. Her stay at the private hospital and her Smith scholarship were paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, a writer, who had successfully recovered from a mental breakdown.
Plath made a good recovery and returned to Smith College. She submitted her thesis paper in January 1955 and graduated from Smith College in June 1955 with the highest honors. She then won a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College, in Cambridge, UK. Here she met Ted Hughes, also a poet. They wrote poetry to one another and then married in June 1956, in the UK.
Plath and Hughes continued writing poetry, both becoming published poets. They had two children together, Frieda and Nicholas (now deceased by suicide). At the time of her death, Plath and Hughes were living in the UK, but they were separated because Hughes was having an affair and living with another woman.
Plath again slipped into depression and one day put her head in the oven, turned on the gas, and died of carbon monoxide.
The Bell Jar was published under Plath's, pseudonym, "Victoria Lucas" in 1963 in the UK just a month before she committed suicide. It is the story of Esther Greenwood and her descent into mental illness paralleling Plath's own experience with clinical depression and a mental breakdown.
In the novel, Esther describes her depression as a feeling of being trapped under a glass bell jar struggling for breath. She envies the freedom that men have especially in sexual affairs. Women have to worry about becoming pregnant and do not have the same freedom as men. Her psychiatrist refers Esther to a doctor to be fit for a diaphram. Now Esther feels free from previous pressures to get married and pregnant, specifically to the wrong man. She improves and various life changing events help her to gain back her sanity.
The novel begins with Esther (Plath) in New York City as the guest editor of a woman's magazine. All the experiences in New York that are supposed to be life changing in a positive sense are not for Esther. It is her first time in NYC, she has had her first marriage proposal (from a hometown boy), and she is a great success in college. Instead of being cheerful, vibrant, happy, and confident, Esther finds herself upset and disoriented. Instead of finding new meaning in life through these experiences, Esther wants to die.
Esther wants to die rather than live an inauthentic life. Esther is struggling to find the strength to reject the conventional model of womanhood in the 1950s. She realizes there is a gap between what society says she should experience and what she does experience and this gap intensifies her madness.
Her relationships with men are suppose to be romantic and meaningful, but for Esther they are marked by misunderstandings, distrust and brutality. Esther finds the dark humor and comedy in some of these encounters, but some of her encounters with men are downright violent. She thinks she is the only one to see the world as she does.
Her sense of unreality grows and grows. She cannot sleep, eat, read or write. Life becomes so unbearable for Esther that she attemps suicide and madness follows.
The internal conflict that Esther deals with is her desire to write poetry and the pressure she feels to settle down and start a family. Esther longs to have sexual adventures that society denies her but allows men to have. She even sees her virginity as a burden. She believes her first sexual experience is a crucial step toward independence and adulthood. But, Esther only wants to be rid of the burden of virginity - not for her own pleasure.
Esther feels great anxiety about her future because she sees her choices in life as black and white: virgin or whore; submissive married woman or successful but lonely career woman. She dreams of a larger life, but the stress of dreaming only worsens her madness.
The symbolism of the bell jar is that of Esther's madness. She believes she is inside an airless jar that distorts her perspective on the world and prevents her from connecting with the people around her. In the end, the bell jar has been lifted, but Esther feels it hovers over her, waiting to drop back down over her at any minute.
And that, of course, is the real life tragedy. Plath, herself, does find fulfillment with both career and marriage in her life. She has a successful poetry writing career and also a marriage and children. But, she had them on her own terms and with the right man, not the silly hometown boy. Then, when her husband left her for another woman, the bell jar dropped back down over her and this time it suffocated her. She did not survive.
Plath committed suicide one month after the UK publication which was with her pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. The novel was not published under Plath's name for the first time until 1967 and that was only in the UK. It was not until 1971, that it was published in the U.S. and with her real name because of the wishes of Plath's mother and her husband, Ted Hughes.
Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved
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