Essays and Criticism
Lack of Choices in 1950
Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963) was first published in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, a few weeks before Plath's suicide. It was published under her own name in England in 1966, and not published in the United States until 1971. Much of the novel is based on Plath's life. Her father died when she was eight-years-old and at that time her family moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts, outside Boston. She attended Smith College, and during the summer of 1953 worked at Mademoiselle magazine in New York. Later that summer Plath suffered from depression, underwent electroconvulsive therapy, attempted suicide, and was subsequently hospitalized. However much the events of The Bell Jar parallel those of Plath's real life, the novel remains a fictionalized autobiography. Plath herself called it a "potboiler," acknowledging that she had employed the techniques of a fiction writer in order to achieve a certain effect and to favor particular interpretations of the events depicted. Rather than read The Bell Jar in terms of the author's biography, we might read it in one of two other ways, as a kind of biography of American culture in the 1950s or as a record of the uses of literature, especially poetry.
One of the most common interpretations of the novel sees Esther Greenwood's life as an example of the difficult position of educated women in America in the 1950s. In her introduction to Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage,...
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Plath's The Bell Jar as Female Bildungsroman
One of the most misunderstood of contemporary novels, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is in structure and intent a highly conventional bildungsroman. Concerned almost entirely with the education and maturation of Esther Greenwood, Plath's novel uses a chronological and necessarily episodic structure to keep Esther at the center of all action. Other characters are fragmentary, subordinate to Esther and her developing consciousness, and are shown only through their effects on her as central character. No incident is included which does not influence her maturation, and the most important formative incidents occur in the city, New York. As Jerome Buckley describes the bildungsroman in his 1974 Season of Youth, its principal elements are "a growing up and gradual self-discovery," "alienation," "provinciality, the larger society," "the conflict of generations," "ordeal by love" and "the search for a vocation and a working philosophy."
Plath signals the important change of location at the opening of The Bell Jar. "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York ... New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust...
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Waiting for the Voice to Crack
Apparent reasons for the eight-year delay in importing The Bell Jar from England (publication there, 1963) are not in themselves convincing. The pseudonym of Victoria Lucas was a hedge, but against what? Sylvia Plath made no secret of her authorship. Her suicide followed publication by a month, but such things have never stopped the wheels of industry from turning. She was a "property" after all, certainly following the publication of Ariel in 1966. Nor can we take seriously her having referred to it as a "potboiler" and therefore to be kept separate from her serious work: the oldest and most transparent of all writers' dodges. All the evidence argues against it. As early as 1957 she had written a draft of the novel; she completed the final version on a Eugene Saxton Fund fellowship and felt toward its terms an urgent sense of commitment and obligation; the painstaking quality of the writing—but above all, its subject: her own pain and sickness, treated with literal fidelity, a journal done up as a novel, manifestly re-experienced, and not from any great distance of glowing health. One of her motives was the familiar one of getting her own back, to (as her heroine says) "fix a lot of people"—among others of smaller significance, to lay the ghost of her father, and tell the world she hated her mother (the exact words of her protagonist-surrogate, spoken to her psychiatrist in a key passage).
Only the names were changed, nothing else as...
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