Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721

The Bell Jar is the only novel by Sylvia Plath, who is best known as a poet. Her novel was published in England in January, 1963, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath committed suicide in February of the same year. Since its publication, The Bell Jar has received steady acclaim. Critics first viewed it as a fine first novel in the style of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). The Bell Jar was published in the United States in 1971. Critics in the United States also praised the novel. It was a complex psychological portrayal of a young woman of the early 1950’s. Esther Greenwood, in her search for self-determination, is a prototype heroine of the mid-century women’s movement, a movement heralded by the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963.

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Plath had written a rough draft of The Bell Jar by 1960, and she won a grant to finish it from the Eugene F. Saxton Foundation. In a letter to her brother, she called the work a “pot-boiler.” Her prose, however, took a turn from the mediocre to the remarkable; her poetry had already taken this turn. The poet Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, described Plath’s rather sudden change from talent to genius as a “plunge into herself,” into the subjective, the imaginary. That the novel contains so much of “herself” was her reason for publishing it under a pseudonym. She did not want to offend anyone she knew; the characters in the novel had their counterparts in life.

The protagonist, Esther, is a young woman who sees life as if from within a bell jar. Her experiences are askew, not what they are supposed to be. There is always “a worm in the rose.” She has a “perfect” boyfriend, but rather than finding him romantic she finds him dull, pilloried by mother’s maxims. She watches a baby being born and instead of seeing a miracle, she sees brutality. She goes to New York City to have the time of her life, but the time of her life is overshadowed by the execution of the Rosenbergs. She discovers that the job of her dreams is contrived; she sees that the woman’s world of fashion, romance, and domesticity is a sham.

What Plath learned when she wrote her honors thesis, “The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevski’s Novels,” was “stuff about the ego as symbolized in reflections (mirror and water), shadows, twins.” She wrote that “recognition of our various mirror images and reconciliation with them will save us from disintegration.” The Bell Jar is, to some degree, a fictional account of this study. Throughout the novel, Plath shows the double, “the various mirror images” of the ego. Images of the double resonate throughout the narrative.

Esther’s face is an example of the double. After traumatic episodes, Esther sees her face mirrored as some kind of blotched, distorted, bloated image—an icon, she thinks, to her dark nature. Her “good” face is restored only after she undergoes a purging ritual, one that can be as simple as a hot bath, as radical as throwing her new clothes off the rooftop of a hotel or as desperate as a suicide attempt. The double is not only associated with Esther’s face but also associated with the faces of other people. The other face of Hilda, a guest editor, a young woman of high fashion, impeccably dressed, appears when she tells Esther that she is “so glad” the Rosenbergs are going to die. Out of her mouth echoes the voice of a demon. “Fashion” and “devil” are doubles of Hilda. Joan Gilling’s suicide and lesbian sexuality is the other side of the face of the privileged American girl. In addition to people, events also have double faces. A ladies’ luncheon, put on by a glossy magazine epitomizing the glamorous “face” of feminine dreams, is elegantly presented, but the plates of crabmeat and avocado are poisonous.

The double motif exposes the hypocrisy that lies beneath the glamorous, glitzy surfaces of a mercantile society. The result is a densely packed, quickly paced novel, one that, in spite of its youthful tone, is complex. It describes the journey of a young woman undergoing trials and pitfalls in her search for an authentic life.

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