The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Plath, Sylvia. (1963, 2009). The Bell Jar. Faber and Faber Limited; London. 

I recently came across a compilation of 49 quotes from Sylvia Plath on Thought Catalog and it reminded me of her notorious (and only) novel. The Bell Jar goes into a category all its own in the world of novels – not only does it penetrate into the darkest recesses of the human psyche, it does so with a style and grace that draws the reader entirely into the mind of the protagonist, Esther Greenwood.

The content of the novel is made more disturbing, and more real, because it so closely parallels the life of its author (Wikipedia article). Esther lives in the suburbs of Boston and is an aspiring writer; however, her career break in the big city turns out to be less glamorous and stimulating than she anticipated. The amusing interludes that she experiences during her internship offer some (relatively) bright spots in the novel, as the author’s dry wit and very rational approach to romance , friendship, and sex emerge – for example:

“I collected men with interesting names. I already knew a Socrates. He was tall and ugly and intellectual and the son of some big Greek movie producer in Hollywood […] In addition to Socrates I knew a White Russian named Attila” (Plath, pg. 48).

“Usually after a good puke you feel better right away. We hugged each other and then said good-bye and went off to opposite ends of the hall to lie down in our own rooms. There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends” (Plath, pg. 41).

When the internship ends and she returns home, her mental state rapidly declines due to lack of sleep and anxiety, culminating in a suicide attempt. Esther shares some similarities with Dorothy Parker, a female writer who flourished during the 1920s. Again and again, Esther returns to the worrying question that all young people grapple with when they transfer from school into the real world: am I good enough to do what I want to do, and do I really want to do what I think I want to do?

Originally, the novel was published under the pen name “Victoria Lucas” in 1963, but there was some controversy around its publication because Sylvia committed suicide a month after it was published in the United Kingdom (Wikipedia article). Today it is remembered and read as a classic work of American literature which has much to offer the modern reader.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. robertlfs says:

    I have always found Plath to be scary complex. Like her poem Lady Lazarus (http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/sylviaplath/1404) and then she is the teen editor of Mademoiselle magazine and is married to Ted Hughes who wrote one of the darkest books of poetry every, Crow, (here is a sample http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/ted_hughes/poems/13828) and the dude writes children’s books too.

    Talk about a boatload of contradictions, but incredibly brilliant too!

  2. marialegault says:

    Can’t argue with you there, Robert! I recall vividly one section of The Bell Jar where Esther swallows about 50 pills while tucked into a small, dark portion of the family’s cellar – the way Sylvia describes it is pure nightmare material.

    Crow is indeed a very dark poem! After taking a course in children’s literature, I was surprised to find that many children’s authors have dark lives – J.M. Barrie, for example, was rejected by his mother and took his dead brother’s place in her affections for many years (https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/J._M._Barrie.html).

    The label of “tortured genius” seems apropos here.

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