Sylvia Plath and "The Bell Jar"-- her semi-autobiographical novel

Sylvia Plath in 1957.
Sylvia Plath in 1957. | Source
London flat where Sylvia Plath killed herself.
London flat where Sylvia Plath killed herself. | Source
Sylvia Plath's grave in the UK with epitaph written by her husband, Ted Hughes.
Sylvia Plath's grave in the UK with epitaph written by her husband, Ted Hughes. | Source

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," with Plath's pseudonym, Victoria Lucas.
"The Bell Jar," with Plath's pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. | Source

The Novel

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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Comments 24 comments

AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 4 years ago from California

I have never read The Bell Jar although I have read Plath's poetry. I can see how frightening this read would be during the high school years, but I am surprised that I never ran across it in college--Sharing this!


Curiad profile image

Curiad 4 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

Wow this is a detailed and very interesting story!


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

A very sad tale; I need to read this because now you have me very interested. Thank you for this, Suzette. What a loss of such talent!


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

Oh, Sylvia Plath is one awesome writer and poet. My son (24), who is an avid reader and poet himself, gave me one of her books "Ariel" and he, my son, said, "Now, mom, Slyvia Plath could get away with writing what she wrote." LOL, as he was trying to warn me, as I guess he didn't want me attempting to write on such subject matters as she dared to write on back in the day. I did see a movie based on her life, and it was sad, as she had a terrible time with depression, and it got the best of her. Excellent hub. In His Love, Faith Reaper


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

Thank you for this detail into a person's life and review of her book.


carol7777 profile image

carol7777 4 years ago from Arizona

Interesting hub. She lived in such a different era for women. I remember reading about her and her rather sad life. Some people come to earth to give a message and often suffer most of their lives. Very interesting. Voted UP.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

I'm going to read this book, Suzette. Thank you for telling me about it here. I read an article in one of the fashion magazines about the tragic story of this talented, by all standards, a successful woman. It is shocking to learn that both of her children died by there own hands. Unfortunately, life is not always kind. I find it disturbing to know that a gifted young woman would be so easily crushed by a denial to a Harvard writing seminar. With all she'd accomplished at a young age, I would think she'd be confident since she claimed to strive for independence in what was still called a "man's world". I do not believe her weak spouse was responsible for her demise. What I gather, Suzette, is a long history steeped in mental illness, looking for her perfect final moment. It is sad, but makes me angry that for all her talk of independence she seemed bound, bet and determined to find a reason to give up. She was not a martyr, though she may have seen herself a sacrificial lamb. Her ex-husband was not to blame, as unfortunately, men and women both cheat, and healthy individuals choose to forge on, even when it's difficult. In her brilliance, despite mental illness, appearing to value independence in a woman, a proponent of equality and innovative thinking, in trying to rationalize her final decision, I can't help but surmise that maybe she was making the choice for control.

Well, Suzette, you've done it again. Now I must get a copy of The Bell Jar. The title so perfectly describes "waiting for the other shoe to drop" that is so much a part of every life. Thank you.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

Hi suzette - I thought I had commented on this hub last night already. Anyway, here it goes again - I love Sylvia Plath, but never really read her until my son had given a book of her poetry, "Ariel." My son is a poet and an avid reader. He told me a funny thing, "Now, Mom, Sylvia Plath could get away with writing about what she did, back then." I guess he thought I would even attempt to be able to write as she does! LOL I know that he was referring to the type of subject matter she wrote about, which was a bit unheard of and a bit controversial. Her poetry is amazing. It is sad she suffered terribly with depression to her end. Such a gifted writer and poet. She can be a bit dark in her writings, brought on by her depression. I did see a movie about her life, and it is so very tragic. Thanks for the great hub. Very interesting. In His Love, Faith Reaper


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Amy, Busy weekend so I'm just getting to comments. Thanks so much for reading this. Do read The Bell Jar - it is interesting and then I'd love to hear your take on this book. Her poetry is searing also. I've been reading it on line-very confessional and sometimes brutal.

I do not blame Tex Hughes for her suicide. Many feminists have, but I agree with you. Suicides are the fault of the person committing the suicide. I always have said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I think it was the mental illness that drove her to suicide. I'm sure the trauma of the affair triggered it, but I agree with you the mental illness was the root of her death. At the end of the novel she says the bell jar is hovering over her head able to drop back down at any time, so I think she felt or knew the depression would return. I can't believe with two children she didn't seek help or doctors. Perhaps she was overwhelmed. What is sad is she had just hit her stride in writing poetry- she was writing her best poetry the last year of her life. I forgot to put in the article that she did win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry after her death- I believe in 1982. Another point, I didn't mean to confuse-only her son committed suicide in 2009. Her daughter is still alive and her husband, Ted Hughes died from cancer a while back. This is such a tragic story. Sometimes truly brilliant people cannot cope with life. I've seen examples of it in some people around me. It is so, so sad. I thank God people like you and me do have the strength to go on and move forward. I may have had depressed ties in my life but I never have wanted to end it all. I just pour it all out in writing. Lol. Too bad Plath couldn't have continued to do that. I always enjoy your comments and perspectives on my articles!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

It is just so sad and depressing, Suzette. I wish she had been privy to someone like you. You have made an enormous difference in the way I feel about myself. I agree that sometimes the more introspective and creative the artist, the harder depression can hit. The thing about suicide is that one moment can make the difference. Yet, in her precarious state of illness, even winning the Pulitzer prize wouldn't have sustained her. I sometimes wonder if the tenacity of chronic mental illness, which I believe has genetic origins much like many diseases, isn't part of destiny. For all the brilliant minds that have studied it, all the years of research, all the medications, it remains defiant. I don't believe blame solves anything in suicide. I don't believe any one event or circumstance is responsible. It seems to be a devastating event that cannot be prevented, maybe delayed, but for the afflicted, depression, like The Bell Jar, descends again. I imagine waiting for the inevitable is torturous. Like so many things, unless you've been there, it's difficult to understand. Quite frankly, Suzette, when I've seen programs on assisted suicide, in cases of horrifically debilitating physical illness, I do understand. Since I have no idea of Sylvia Plath's suffering or anyone's elses, I feel a mixture of sadness and anger, regardless of anything other than she was compelled to end her precious life. Although I know little about her, I feel grief at that. I will definitely read the book, Suzette, and come back here with my feelings then. Thank you for your compelling piece.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Oh Amy, I think you give me too much credit. I don't think I could help a suicidal person all that much - they really need the therapists and psychiatrists and professionals. I do encourage where I see creative talent and believe the person can go on to higher heights with it. I see that in you Amy, and if I've helped you in any way I am amazed and humbled. As you have said before, I am glad our paths crossed. You have helped me through your poetry and friendship here on HP. Your poetry is so personal that sometimes I can see things in it that can relate to my life also. Your poetry makes me think in different ways about life situations and that is what I think is so great about it. When it inspires me to look at life in a little bit different way or perspective , I think that is very gifted writing. I;m so glad you are stronger minded than a Sylvia Plath. You have been through so much - but don't ever give up. I think you will soar again, Amy, more in the ways you want to.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Audrey: Thank you so much for reading this. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I have read some of Plath's poetry on-line. It is beautiful, searing, and tragic all in one. I am so glad I finally got around to reading her work as I had read so much about her in the past. She is such a gifted and intelligent writer and I have enjoyed her poetry. I know you write very good poetry also Audrey. I have read some of yours also here and on your other blog and you, too, write very well. I am always envious of poetry writers because I am not as good at that type of writing and I admire your poetry so much. Thanks so much for the visit and the share - much appreciated!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Audrey: Thank you so much for reading this. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I have read some of Plath's poetry on-line. It is beautiful, searing, and tragic all in one. I am so glad I finally got around to reading her work as I had read so much about her in the past. She is such a gifted and intelligent writer and I have enjoyed her poetry. I know you write very good poetry also Audrey. I have read some of yours also here and on your other blog and you, too, write very well. I am always envious of poetry writers because I am not as good at that type of writing and I admire your poetry so much. Thanks so much for the visit and the share - much appreciated!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Curiad: Thank you so much for reading this and I;m glad you found it interesting. That makes me happy. I appreciate your visit.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Bill: Thank you for reading this. Yes, read her novel by all means. It is such a sad tale and so tragic. She was so gifted and to have snuffed out her own life and light before her time should be up is sad indeed. I've been reading her poetry and it is searing in its honesty. Thanks so much for your visit - most appreciated!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Faith: I did get both of your comments - thanks so much. I have been so busy this weekend I am just now getting to all my comments. So, you have a poet in the family - your son. How wonderful and how wonderful that he shared Plath's poetry with you. Ariel is suppose to be one of her best collections of poetry. She is gifted, isn;'t she? Her poetry is so confessional I think you son was worried you might follow in her footsteps. I don't have the internal or inner conflict as she had to write anything as searing or confessional as her. You probably are the same way. In fact, I see you as so serene and peaceful in your faith in God. You are so strong that way and I admire that strength of faith that you have. And, I can't believe you have a 24 year old son. You certainly don't look old enough, although I do know you have grandbabies. Oh, how time and life flys by. I appreciate so muh that you read this Faith and then took the time to leave comments twice. Thanks so much and I appreciate your visits and comments and follow!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Mhatter: Thanks so much for your interest in this and for reading this article. I appreciate your time and your visit!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Carol: Yes, she did live in another era. I think we can learn from her message and her short, sad life. She was so gifted and talented and to have been so tormented by internal conflict is so sad. Thanks so much for the votes and for taking the time to read this. I appreciate your visit.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

Hi suzette - I am sorry for the double comments, as I knew I had commented the other night and then I noticed the next morning it was not there, so I thought I was having computer troubles (which I have been) and commented again, and then it would not show up, but my comments were showing up on others hubs. I understand about being busy, as I just now had gotten in myself this evening. So, I am way behind on things. Anyway, yes, Ariel is a great collection of her poetry. I love it. You are right about what my son said to me, as being what he was trying to tell me. I appreciate your kind comments of how you see me as serene and peaceful in my faith and strong, but that has not always been the case, believe me! He has done a mighty work in me, and He is still not finished with me - praise Him! Sylvia's story is so sad with the depression, but I guess through that she produced such great poetry. I appreciate you. In His Love, Faith Reaper


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Faith: So nice to hear from you again. I know there are glitches on HP and disappearing comments have happened to me too. We all have had our moments in life and we are all "works in progress" I like to say. I know I am - He isn't finished with me yet! I always feel so badly for people like Plath who are so tormented and only see death as the way out. It breaks my heart. But, she left quite a written legacy behind as well as her children. That part, too, is so sad. With her son committing suicide, I do think depression is genetic along with life events that seem to tip the balance toward death. So sad. Well, I meant what I said - at least at this point in your life you seem so strong and serene to me, and I chalk that all up to your tremendous faith in God. I so enjoy your articles and find them so inspiring. Thanks so much for your visit!


RobinGrosswirth23 profile image

RobinGrosswirth23 4 years ago from New York

This is an amazing memorial to a brilliant mind. It is detail oriented, chocked full of great vignettes and outlines Ms. Plath's work comprehensively.

As always, an excellent read.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Robin: I'm glad you enjoyed this. Thanks so much for your comments.


Victoria Lynn profile image

Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA

I've read a lot of Plath's poetry, info about her life, and have even written a hub about her, but I've never read this book. I want to, though! Her life was so dark, and I feel for what she struggled with. I'm glad I came across this hub. Many votes!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Victoria, I will certainly have to read your article on Plath. I have read some of her poetry on-line and it is beautiful, raw and searing. I can't believe what a great writer she was and yet had such a tragic short life. I feel so badly that she suffered so from depression. Thanks for reading this and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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