(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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 college year, Plath attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills; this is recounted in the novel. She chronicles this event as well as her relationships with men in The Bell Jar. The novel’s title is a reference to a central theme of alienation that is so extreme as to be a form of disembodiment. The narrator relates at one point that she feels that she is inside a bell jar (a bell-shaped jar with no bottom that is placed over objects to contain or isolate them). This theme is augmented with descriptions of hospital autopsy rooms, of hideous specimens preserved in jars, and of encounters with grotesque men in New York. Continuing the theme of defamiliarization, Plath writes with witticisms about disturbing events and images. Plath’s style in The Bell Jar is honest and strongly emotional. The reader may experience difficulty, however, in engaging in Plath’s view of death, which is held to be enchantingly desirous and overwhelmingly dreadful.

The Bell Jar Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 itself as a series of shoddy episodes. Behind the glittery surfaces she sees a world of competition, meanness, fakery, and backbreaking work leading to some trivial end.

Esther and the other young women are invited to a “ladies’ magazine” luncheon. Beautifully presented crabmeat salad is served, but later they are all violently sick. The crabmeat was tainted. Another event in New York City that was supposed to be wonderful is spoiled.

Another spoiled event for Esther is the work she is assigned at the magazine. She is a perfectionist, an overachiever, and always anxious about deadlines. Stress becomes apparent during a photography session. Esther, told to hold a paper rose and smile (to represent her dream to be a poet), bursts into tears.

Later, however, she lets Doreen talk her into going out on another date. It is another fiasco. Ripping Esther’s dress and throwing her in the mud, calling her a slut, the “country-club gentleman” date, Marco, tries to rape her. She escapes and once again flees back to her...

(The entire section is 1028 words.)

The Bell Jar Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 fate of the rug her boyfriend’s mother made out of pretty scraps, then put on the floor to become “soiled and dull and indistinguishable from any mat you would buy for a dollar in the five and ten.”

The richness of detail re-creates the 1950’s in their patriotism and naïveté. The standard female responses to the time period are represented in Esther’s fellow contest winners, such as the innocent optimist Betsey, and Hilda, the right-wing zealot with a flair for housewifely economies. At least partly because Esther believes that there is no use for her talents, which are not in one of the standard female lines, she goes into a decline. Her inability to embrace any accepted woman’s role is demonstrated in a symbolic scene in which she throws her new clothes, one by one, out the hotel window, so that “flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.”

Back at her home in Boston, the depression deepens, and flashbacks to her experiences with her boyfriend and her college years give more insight into the nature of her alienation. She is unable to accept that there is a double standard for sexual behavior—that her boyfriend Buddy is expected to be sexually experienced and she is not. In all the relationships she sees or participates in, the woman appears to be a...

(The entire section is 1175 words.)

The Bell Jar Summary

New York: Chapters 1-9
Sylvia Plath's fictionalized autobiography, The Bell Jar, records seven months in the life of...

(The entire section is 1366 words.)