Sylvia Plath‘s novel, The Bell Jar, was first published in 1963 in the U.K. under the pseudonym, Victoria Lucas, just weeks before Sylvia committed suicide. Plath was part of the Confessional movement and this novel is widely accepted as semi-autobiographical. In writing to her mother about the book, she wrote,
What I’ve done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add colour – it’s a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown…. I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar.
(Plath Biographical Note 294-5. From Wagner-Martin (1988) p. 107)
Many of the events in the book are easily traced to events in her own life — her father’s death when she was 8, dating a pre-med student who contracted tuberculosis, the month in NYC working for a magazine, attempted suicide by sleeping pills — and so, the novel, like her poetry, is confessional for the most part. She is writing from experience. She was clinically depressed for most of her adult life, and her description of Esther Greenwood’s slow descent into first ambivalence, and then self-destruction, is both poignant and eerie.
Always an A student and scholarship winner, 19-year-old Esther embarks on what should be a door-opening, eye-opening, career-starting experience in New York City. Instead, she comes under the influence of someone who changes her whole perspective of herself, and while she would like to free herself to be wild, impetuous, and self-sufficient like Doreen, she holds herself back because of her upbringing and history. So she becomes caught in between, and her estimation of her own self-worth deteriorates so that even her clothes no longer represent her, and she liberates them into the NYC wind from the top of her ladies-only hotel the night before she heads home to Boston, only to find in the morning that she has forgotten to keep one set of clothes to wear home and has to exchange her bathrobe for a skirt and blouse.
Turned down for a special summer writing course she had been counting on, Esther spirals down even further, and, after a suicide attempt, finds herself being given shock treatments and committed to an asylum, conditions of which were common for the day but are no longer accepted today. Her personal views of her emotions and ideas are quite compelling and at times, almost lyrical. At one point, she says it wouldn’t matter where she was in the world: “wherever she 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.”
Plath keeps returning to this image of the bell jar. The bell jar is a piece of scientific equipment used for experimentation and in which one can create a vacuum or contain gases. This is what her story is doing; she has put the life of Esther Greenwood (or her own life), in insolation under glass and relates the story to try to ascertain how she came to be there. It’s a documentation of the process of falling into madness. It is beautifully written, the characterizations are diverse, and many of the scenes are full of wit and humour. When Esther tells her boss at the magazine, Jay Cee, that she didn’t really know what she wanted to do after graduation:
“I don’t really know,” I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it I knew that it was true.
It sounded true, and I recognized it, the way you recognize some nondescript person that’s been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your real father and looks exactly like you, so you know he really is your father, and the person you thought all your life was your father is a sham.
Reading the book is just like that — you read a passage like the one above and you recognize that she has it exactly pegged and it’s so clear, and you can see what’s happening to her, and that she can see what’s happening, and you see that she’s helpless to stop it. It is a terrible reality for Esther, and for Sylvia. While she recognized what was happening, she could not stop it for herself, which is probably why the book ends the way it does — leaving both Esther and the reader wondering if the cure has truly worked. How many people do we meet every day who suffer silently and, without that knowledge, no-one reaches out to help them? It is a book that touches us to our very core; which is probably why it has been in print for more than half a century. * * * * *