Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Sylvia Plath published The Bell Jar under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas a month prior to her death by suicide. The Bell Jar, her novel, and The Colossus (1960), a book of her poetry, came to life before she ended hers. Plath’s successive publications were posthumous. Plath portends her suicide in The Bell Jar, which recounts an earlier suicide attempt. The novel is an autobiographical account of Plath’s early life as a college student who is elected to spend the summer in New York as a guest writer for a women’s magazine. Her encounters in the city highlight her naïveté and initiate her rebellion against the conventional roles into which women were pressed.
Sylvia Plath’s father’s death when she was eight years old significantly altered her perception of life. His early departure from her life lead to a one-sided, love-hate relationship with death and her father. In her poem “Daddy,” Plath curses her father and blames him for her cynicism regarding men. The Bell Jar and Plath’s extremely intense poetry, much of which was published posthumously, earned Plath great stature as a feminist literary figure.
Plath suffered significant challenges during the two and one-half years she spent writing The Bell Jar: a miscarriage, an appendectomy, pregnancy with her second child, separation from her husband (the poet Ted Hughes), depression, and thoughts of suicide. During her third...
(The entire section is 394 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Esther Greenwood is in New York City the summer that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are to be executed (1953). Ecstatic over having won a position as guest editor on the college board for a well-known magazine for young women, she is puzzled that she is not having the time of her life.
On the face of it, she has everything going for her. She is attractive, intelligent, and talented. She is a straight-A student. The magazine arranges concerts, dances, celebrity interviews, fashion shows, and luncheons galore for the twelve college student women who won positions as guest editors. Why is she feeling depressed? Esther’s boyfriend Buddy is in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis. She is discovering that her feelings for him are lukewarm. She feels free to date other men, but somehow those dates are not turning out as well as she expects.
She and the eleven other young women from colleges across the United States are living in a hotel for women. Doreen, who is cynical and audacious, particularly appeals to Esther. One night on their way to a party, they let themselves be picked up by a disc jockey, Lenny Shepherd. After drinks he asks them to his apartment. After more drinks, Doreen and Lenny dance lasciviously. Esther is disgusted. She leaves Doreen and walks back to the hotel disillusioned with Doreen and later with herself for abandoning Doreen. Doreen is not the only reason Esther is disillusioned. The city glamour she expected manifests...
(The entire section is 1028 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In The Bell Jar, the veil of fiction over the story of Plath’s own life is so thin that her mother fought its publication in the United States, writing to Harper & Row that “practically every character represents someone—often in caricature—whom Sylvia loved; each person had given freely of time, thought, affection, and, in one case, financial help during those agonizing six months of breakdown in 1953.” Nevertheless, the story has the appeal of the novel, and it uses the conventions of fiction in the structuring of the experience it narrates.
The heroine, Esther Greenwood, is looking back (like Holden Caulfield, J. D. Salinger’s even more famous misfit) on the events leading up to her mental collapse. As in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), readers will be split as to what is to blame for the breakdown—the self or the world. Through Esther’s eyes are recorded the events of the early 1950’s: McCarthyism, “I Like Ike,” the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, the relative tameness of 1950’s New York City. To the eyes of Esther, come to New York as the winner of a magazine contest to be guest editor of Ladies’ Day, the real world is exclusively male and has no place for her.
Women writers create fluffy fashion articles. Women English majors should learn shorthand. The only other option readily available, wifehood, is little more than death-in-life, a self-obliteration as certain as...
(The entire section is 1175 words.)
New York: Chapters 1-9
Sylvia Plath's fictionalized autobiography, The Bell Jar, records seven months in the life of Esther Greenwood. In the summer of 1953 Esther has just finished her junior year in college. She is working in New York City as a writing intern at a fashion magazine. It is June, the same month in which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are executed by electrocution. The Rosenbergs had been convicted of treason for allegedly selling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union (as it was then called). Esther lives at the Amazon hotel for women with other magazine interns, including Doreen. Her sarcastic remarks on the other women's primness echo Esther's own feelings. Though successful and intelligent, Esther begins to doubt her own abilities to continue performing at such a high level. Her depression deepens as the summer progresses.
Esther and Doreen skip a party sponsored by the magazine, going out instead with Lenny Shepherd, a disc jockey, and his friend. Esther introduces herself as Elly Higginbottom from Chicago, in order to disassociate herself from the experience. She leaves Doreen at Lenny's apartment and returns to the Amazon. Doreen returns much later, drunk and knocking on Esther's door.
One morning, Esther muses on her depression-induced inertia: "I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I...
(The entire section is 1366 words.)