The Bell Jar (The Sixties in America)
In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, a nineteen-year-old girl from a small eastern town, was an excellent student who won many awards including a college scholarship. As a contest winner, she received a one-month appointment as a college representative to the editorial board of a well-known New York fashion magazine. Her month in New York provided many maturing experiences, but emotionally, she still felt very insecure. Esther did not believe that she had the skills necessary to fulfill a traditional woman’s role. She was bothered by society’s double standard and different social expectations for men and women. She was drawn to the life of change and excitement enjoyed by men, the life she associated with a writing career. She felt, however, pressure to settle down, marry, and have children. Her self-doubt coupled with the awareness of differing role expectations laid the foundation for an internal conflict that resulted in depression. Because she could not eat or sleep, she was referred to a psychiatrist, who suggested shock treatments. These treatments did not relieve her condition, and she began to contemplate and later attempt suicide. With the help of a benefactor, Esther was treated at a private asylum with insulin and electric shock treatments. As her condition improved, Esther moved to less restrictive environments and was accorded more privileges. She described her relief as the “bell jar lifted.” Upon her release,...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*New York City
*New York City. Approximately the first third of The Bell Jar is set in the urbane, cosmopolitan environs of Manhattan, where Esther Greenwood—a young, ambitious college junior from a sheltered Boston suburb—is a summer intern for Mademoiselle magazine after winning a writing contest. Filled with aspirations of entering a magazine publishing career after college, Esther welcomes the opportunity to get her feet wet in a major New York publishing house a full year before her graduation from college. However, shortly after she settles in New York, a host of disillusioning events tarnishes her view of the city and her romantic dreams of seeking fame and fortune there. Although painfully aware that she is “supposed to be having the time of [her] life” in Manhattan, Esther cannot cope with the intensely competitive, highly chauvinistic atmosphere of New York publishing in the 1950’s. She suffers an emotional and physical collapse that ends in her return to her mother’s home in suburban Boston weeks before the scheduled end of her internship. Esther likens her untimely breakdown and forced retreat from the city of her dreams to “watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction.”
*Boston suburbs. Esther’s family home, to which she returns from New York. Rather than providing her with the peace and quiet she needs to regain her bearings...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
The Bell Jar traces college student Esther Greenwood’s trip to New York City, awarded to her for her literary skills, and her subsequent breakdown. Esther narrates how, unsuccessful both professionally and socially in New York, she falls into a depression that leads to an obsession with suicide and finally to a serious suicide attempt. She feels, she says, like a person in a bell jar, breathing her own sour air and looking out at a world distorted by the curved glass. The tale reflects in its form Esther’s psychological deterioration, as the chapters become shorter and the transitions blur as she moves toward her major breakdown. The narrative then becomes coherent again as Esther, through hospitalization and the concern of a sympathetic female psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, gradually works her way back toward mental health.
The story begins in New York, where Esther is one of a group of young women who have been awarded guest editorships at a fashion magazine in New York. Esther has always been a top student and a scholarship winner, but she finds herself unprepared for the challenges of the city. She cannot bond with her fellow award winners, not the wild Doreen nor the innocent Betsy nor any of the others. Moreover, she finds herself unable to accomplish anything. Her editor is critical of her work, and she does not succeed in losing her virginity, one of her goals. Flashbacks describe her relationship with her former boyfriend, Buddy Willard,...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
From the first page of The Bell Jar, with Esther Greenwood describing a day in New York City during the summer of 1952, when she is a guest-editor of Mademoiselle magazine, author Sylvia Plath vividly re-creates the perspective of a depressed, highly intelligent, sensitive young woman who feels herself losing contact with reality. This oppressively introspective atmosphere is relieved, however, by Esther’s sardonic and incisive insights into life’s unfairness and the often-amusing accounts of her own gauche experiences.
Esther has spent her adult life up to this summer between her junior and senior years of college in intellectual study and competition at a prestigious university. Although the round of parties, plays, and professional writing opportunities working for the magazine seems to mark another success in her life, instead she is experiencing a feeling of frustration and failure as she faces the choices of life beyond college.
Torn between her personal needs and society’s expectations, Esther is assessing her past life, especially the value of studying for academic awards, her present desire for personal fulfillment as a woman, and her need to choose a professional career for the future that will both support her financially and fulfill her aesthetically. Her inability to find solutions that will include all of her needs is driving her into a reclusive mental state. Before she leaves New York City at the end of...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Bell Jar was first published in England in 1963 under the name of Victoria Lucas; it was published in the United States eight years later. It is one of the early novels to handle self-consciously three of the major concerns in the women’s movement: a woman’s place in society, the development of her creative ability, and the place of femininity in the life of an artist. The fact that the novel was published after the author’s suicide heightened the implicit message: There are few role models in society for the creative woman.
Sidonie Smith, in A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Realization (1987), emphasizes the choice women writers have to make between social ostracism and developing a voice of their own. In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (1979), Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar state the conflict clearly: “For a woman-artist is, after all, a woman—that is her ‘problem’— and if she denies her own gender, she inevitably confronts an identity crisis as severe as the anxiety of authorship she is trying to surmount.”
George Stade, in his essay “Womanist Fiction and Male Characters” (1985), believes Plath to be the first of a line of female authors in whose work “the rejection of men in all their ways is at last explicit.” Not one of the males in The Bell Jar—Buddy Willard, Marco,...
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Absence of Feminism in the 1940s and 1950s
It is impossible to fully understand The Bell Jar without a realization of the relative absence of feminism in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Both decades were fairly prosperous ones in American history, and women's social and financial standing usually hung on their husbands' occupation and respective income. Although more than six million women went to work when America was engaged in World War II, after the war ended, many were encouraged to leave the work force. Dr. Benjamin Spock, who published the book Baby and Child Care, once even proposed that the federal government subsidize housewives to discourage them from entering into the work force. In Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1946), authors Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg argued that women who worked sacrificed their essential femininity. While, of course, many single women worked out of economic necessity, they were not encouraged to show naked ambition or to stay in the work force indefinitely. A married woman—with or without children—who earned as much as her husband was rare.
Of course, women who worked in menial or low-paying jobs were less of a threat to mainstream America. Hence, in The Bell Jar, Mrs. Greenwood encourages her daughter, Esther, to learn shorthand, because that skill will at least guarantee her some kind of job after college.
In 1963, Betty Friedan's The...
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An accomplished student and teacher of fiction, Sylvia Plath had at her disposal the full arsenal of literary techniques, and she employs many of them in The Bell Jar. For example, most of the Buddy Willard episodes are recorded in a series of flashbacks, and Plath also uses the technique of "defamiliarization" (so coined by the Soviet critic Shklovsky), by means of which the reader is invited to regard his stale "reality" in fresh and disturbing ways.
However, the novel's most-discussed technique is its "doubling," its use of polarities — like the negative and positive poles of electricity — to shed light on characters and events. Electricity itself is used in this way: early references to the electrocutions of the Rosenbergs serve to foreshadow Esther's electroshock sessions. Similarly, nearly every character in the novel has his double. For example, the egregiously abstracted Dr. Gordon is contrasted to Dr. Nolan; the asexual (or perhaps homosexual) Constantin to the rapist Marco; and rebellious Doreen to conforming Betsy. Most important, Esther herself encounters a series of personal doubles, as suggested by the recurring mirror imagery in the novel. The most crucial such double is Joan Gilling, who, like Esther, has been an academic achiever and the near-fiancee of Buddy Willard; Esther must finally refute Joan's sullen retreat into lesbianism and suicide.
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Compare and Contrast
1950s and 1960s: As recently as 1950, men received approximately 76 percent of all degrees conferred in the United States. At the Master's level, men received roughly 2.5 times as many degrees as women.
Today: In 1993, men received approximately 46 percent of all degrees conferred in the United States. Since 1986, women began receiving more Master's degrees than men, and the pattern continues.
1950s and 1960s: In 1960, about 59 percent of single women were part of the American work force, about 32 percent of married women belonged to the work force, and about 42 percent of "other" (widowed, divorced, separated) women belonged to the work force.
Today: In 1994, About 68 percent of single women were part of the American work force, about 61 percent of married women belonged to the work force, and about 48 percent of "other" (widowed, divorced, separated) women belonged to the work force.
1950s and 1960s: The concept of date rape did not exist; if a woman went on a date with a man and was raped, she did not have any legal recourse.
Today: Many more women are successfully suing men for date rape.
1950s and 1960s: National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) on suicide in America can never be entirely accurate or reliable, as many people who attempt or commit suicide often conceal their intention. Their families often conceal the suicide, too. However,...
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Topics for Further Study
Explore some of the current career opportunities for females that did not exist in the 1950s.
What are some of the circumstances that might lead a person to consider suicide? What are some indications that a person may be contemplating suicide? What can you do to intervene? Investigate the debate surrounding assisted suicide and argue one position.
If a bright young person comes from a family without much money, how can that person improve his or her chances of obtaining a higher education? Is it better for that person to work full-time and put off college for a while or to work part-time and study part-time? Back up your opinion with some solid research.
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Viewed as a sensitive youth's initiation into the ills of the world, The Bell Jar stands squarely in a tradition that looks back to works like Voltaire's Candide (1759) and such examples of the Kiinstlerroman ("artist novel") as James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Among more recent works, the novel has prompted comparisons with Hannah Green's best-selling I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964), an altogether less subtle story of an impressionable girl's stay in a mental hospital. Most commonly, however, Esther Greenwood has been likened to Holden Caulfield of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951). But Charles Newman points out that Esther, unlike Holden, is locked in the serious conflict "between a potential artist and society, rather than the cult of youth versus the cult of middle age." Newman himself places Plath's work in the tradition of New England Transcendentalism and Calvinism, "a religious asceticism which reappears in an aesthetic guise." In this sense, for example, Buddy Willard sparks Esther's contempt when he exposes himself to her, violating thereby his authoritative, masculine role.
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Several of Plath's short stories and essays are collected in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and Other Prose Writings (1977). Most of Plath's short stories are slick, conventional tales which she wrote to pander to the very women's magazines she lampoons in The Bell Jar; accordingly, they hold little interest for admirers of the novel and the poetry. An exception is the surreal title story, first published in 1968 by the Atlantic Monthly and included in The Best American Short Stories: 1969 (1969). In "Johnny Panic," a young clerk in a city hospital types up transcripts of interviews with psychiatric outpatients. She quickly becomes a connoisseur of these recorded dreams and visions, which she sees as the inspiration of Johnny Panic, the common author of all nightmares. Finally, the clerk herself is trapped by a sinister hospital administrator and put on the electroshock table, where she is "shaken like a leaf in the teeth of glory." The clerk, who sees herself as "Jeremiah vision-bitten in the Land of Cockaigne," bears obvious similarities to The Bell Jar's Esther Greenwood and to the persona of the Ariel poems.
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The Bell Jar was adapted into a well-intentioned but forgettable 1979 film (directed by Larry Peerce for Avco Embassy; screenplay by Marjorie Kellogg). The motion picture, starring Marilyn Hassett as Esther, is largely faithful to Plath's plot, but the film was almost universally panned for its wrenching alterations in the novel's characters: Buddy Willard (Jameson Parker) becomes a sexually aggressive square, the fashion magazine editor (Barbara Barrie) is a brittle closet lesbian, and Esther's psychological woes are milked dry for sensationalism. Mary Louise Weller (as Doreen) and Julie Harris (as Esther's mother) were generally praised for their performances.
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The movie The Bell Jar, based on Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel of the same name, was directed by Larry Peerce and starred Marilyn Hassett, Julie Harris, Anne Jackson, and Barbara Barrie. Released by Avco Embassy in 1979, it was neither a critical nor commercial success, in large part because the script does not examine the reasons for Esther Greenwood's depression and mental breakdown.
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What Do I Read Next?
Linda Wagner-Martin's Sylvia Plath: A Biography, published in 1987, provides a balanced portrait of the writer, examining both her depression and talent.
J D. Salinger's novel Catcher in the Rye, published in 1953, examines the troubled adolescence of Holden Caulfield and the phoniness he detects in most adults.
Sylvia Plath's collection of poetry, Ariel, was published posthumously in 1965 and contains some of Plath's most haunting work. With the publication of these poems written toward the end of Plath's short life, the author soon acquired a cult-like reputation.
Eileen Aird's Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work, published in 1973, is a good book for students unfamiliar with Plath's poetry and reputation.
The Colossus (1960), Sylvia Plath's only collection of poetry published during her lifetime, has many of her poems written in the 1950s.
Sylvia Plath's The Collected Poems, published in 1981, includes all of Plath's verse, including many formerly unpublished pieces. It won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1982.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Paula Bennett, My Life a Loaded Gun, Beacon, 1986.
Lynda K. Bundtzen, "Women in The Bell Jar Two Allegories" from Plath's Incarnations Women and the Creative Process, University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Rupert Butler, "New American Fiction Three Disappointing Novels—But One Good Time," in Time and Tide, January 31, 1963, p. 34.
C. B. Cox, editorial in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 1966, p. 195.
Louis Dublin, Suicide: A Sociological and Statistical Study, Ronald, 1963.
David Holbrook, Sylvia Plath Poetry and Existence, Athlone, 1976.
Laurence Lerner, "New Novels," in Listener, January 31, 1963, p. 215.
M. L. Rosenthal, "Blood and Plunder," in Spectator, September 30, 1966, p. 418.
Robert Scholes, review in New York Times Book Review, April 11, 1971, p. 7.
Stan Smith, "Attitudes Counterfeiting Life: The Irony of Artifice in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar," in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 1975, pp. 247-60.
Patricia Meyer Spacks, "A Chronicle of Women," in Hudson River, Spring, 1972, p. 164.
Tony Tanner, in his City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970, Harper & Row, 1971.
Robert Taubman, "Anti-heroes," New Statesman, January 25, 1963, pp. 127-28.
Linda Wagner-Martin, The Bell Jar: A...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Aird, Eileen. Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Works. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Alexander, Paul, ed. Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. The essays in this volume concentrate on Plath as a craftsman. The two essays “Esther Came Back Like a Retreaded Tire,” by Robert Scholes, and “Victoria Lucas and Elly Higginbottom,” by Vance Bourjaily, offer interpretations dealing solely with The Bell Jar.
Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. As thorough a biography as one could wish.
Allen, Mary. “Sylvia Plath’s Defiance: The Bell Jar.” In The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1976.
Alvarez, Alfred. The Savage God. New York: Random House, 1971.
Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. In the preface, the author describes his work as “a biography of the imagination.” The index indicates several references to The Bell Jar. The chapter “A Woman Famous Among Women,” proposing Virginia Woolf’s influence on Plath, offers an interesting...
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