The Bell Jar was not originally intended as a book for young readers, and in fact the sexual content and the emphasis on suicide may still make it disturbing to some adolescent readers. Yet at the time of its American publication in 1971, the tendency for young adult literature to be all innocence and optimism was beginning to diminish. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) had been on the shelves for two decades, its popularity increasing. While The Catcher in the Rye was not always welcome in the classroom, many teachers were willing to brave possible opposition to include it on their reading lists. The first reviewers of The Bell Jar were quick to compare it with Salinger’s work. The quest of the two protagonists is similar—they want to find a world that will accept and celebrate them as they are, and they are equally unsuccessful in achieving their goals. Their flight into madness is similar.
The Bell Jar raises the additional question of the special limitations placed on women. Esther Greenwood’s ambitions do not lend themselves to early 1950’s opportunities. The detailed description of how women functioned in their strictly defined sphere during the era shows modern adolescent readers some of the reasons behind the women’s movement. Plath’s precise observations and keen awareness of social ironies help to re-create the world of the 1950’s with a vividness no history book could approach.