Essays and Criticism
Lack of Choices in 1950
Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963) was first published in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, a few weeks before Plath's suicide. It was published under her own name in England in 1966, and not published in the United States until 1971. Much of the novel is based on Plath's life. Her father died when she was eight-years-old and at that time her family moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts, outside Boston. She attended Smith College, and during the summer of 1953 worked at Mademoiselle magazine in New York. Later that summer Plath suffered from depression, underwent electroconvulsive therapy, attempted suicide, and was subsequently hospitalized. However much the events of The Bell Jar parallel those of Plath's real life, the novel remains a fictionalized autobiography. Plath herself called it a "potboiler," acknowledging that she had employed the techniques of a fiction writer in order to achieve a certain effect and to favor particular interpretations of the events depicted. Rather than read The Bell Jar in terms of the author's biography, we might read it in one of two other ways, as a kind of biography of American culture in the 1950s or as a record of the uses of literature, especially poetry.
One of the most common interpretations of the novel sees Esther Greenwood's life as an example of the difficult position of educated women in America in the 1950s. In her introduction to Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage, Linda Wagner notes that The Bell Jar represents the "cultural alienation—and the resulting frustration—of talented women" at that time. Esther struggles with the combined rewards and stigmas of excelling in school, but she is not without humor. "I hated coming downstairs sweaty-handed and curious every Saturday night and having some senior introduce me to her aunt's best friend's son and finding some pale, mushroomy fellow with protruding ears or buck teeth or a bad leg. I didn't think I deserved it. After all, I wasn't crippled in any way, I just studied too hard, I didn't know when to stop."
Esther's intellectualism seems to be a disability to some people, perhaps including Esther herself. She benefits from the prestige associated with regularly dating Buddy Willard and she is much relieved when, just as she considers breaking up with him, he contracts tuberculosis: "I simply told everyone that Buddy had TB and we were practically engaged, and when I stayed in to study on Saturday nights they were extremely kind to me because they thought I was so brave, working the way I did just to hide a broken heart." Diligent study is a substitute for romance, suggesting that the two cannot exist together.
By the same token, marriage and a career appear incompatible to Esther, "I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brain-washed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state." It is this incompatibility which she sarcastically equates with a psychological disorder. "If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I'm neurotic as hell. I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days." Even though Esther insists throughout the novel that she intends never to marry, she seems unable to eliminate it altogether as a possibility. She feels hurt by the photograph on Dr. Gordon's desk, by the "hairy, ape-shaped law student from Yale" who tells her she'll be a prude at forty, and by Buddy when he visits her at the psychiatric hospital and wonders who she'll marry now. To Esther's mind, all of these men seem to mock her unmarriageability.
Esther's dissatisfactions may be typical of well-educated American women of her generation. Yet, Esther does not imagine herself as part of a community of women who suffer in the same way. Even in the psychiatric hospital, she distinguishes herself from the other women there. Esther is repulsed by Valerie, who has had part of her brain removed, and intrigued by Miss Norns, the mute, unresponsive patient. She is suspicious of the society women ten years her senior, like Dee Dee and Mrs. Savage who trade private jokes about their husbands. Joan is "the beaming double of a person Esther used to be but from whom she is now estranged. Where Esther is uneasy, Joan "seemed perfectly at home among these women." When Joan later makes a rather tame romantic overture to her, Esther recoils and literally distances herself from Joan by walking out of the room.
Esther's tendency to identify herself in...
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Plath's The Bell Jar as Female Bildungsroman
One of the most misunderstood of contemporary novels, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is in structure and intent a highly conventional bildungsroman. Concerned almost entirely with the education and maturation of Esther Greenwood, Plath's novel uses a chronological and necessarily episodic structure to keep Esther at the center of all action. Other characters are fragmentary, subordinate to Esther and her developing consciousness, and are shown only through their effects on her as central character. No incident is included which does not influence her maturation, and the most important formative incidents occur in the city, New York. As Jerome Buckley describes the bildungsroman in his 1974 Season of Youth, its principal elements are "a growing up and gradual self-discovery," "alienation," "provinciality, the larger society," "the conflict of generations," "ordeal by love" and "the search for a vocation and a working philosophy."
Plath signals the important change of location at the opening of The Bell Jar. "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York ... New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat." Displaced, misled by the morning freshness, Greenwood describes a sterile, inimical setting for her descent into, and exploration of, a hell both personal and communal. Readers [such as Denis Donoghue in "You could say she had a calling for Death," Saul Maloff in "Waiting for the Voice to Crack," and Charles Molesworth in "Again, Sylvia Plath"] have often stressed the analogy between Greenwood and the Rosenbergs—and sometimes lamented the inappropriateness of Plath's comparing her personal angst with their actual execution—but in this opening description, the Rosenberg execution is just one of the threatening elements present in the New York context. It is symptomatic of the "foreign" country's hostility, shown in a myriad of ways throughout the novel.
In The Bell Jar, as in the traditional bildungsroman, the character's escape to a city images the opportunity to find self as well as truths about life. Such characters as Pip, Paul Morel, and Jude Fawley idealize the city as a center of learning and experience, and think that once they have relocated themselves, their lives will change dramatically. As Buckley points out, however, the city is often ambivalent: "the city, which seems to promise infinite variety and newness, all too often brings a disenchantment more alarming and decisive than any dissatisfaction with the narrowness of provincial life." For Esther Greenwood, quiet Smith student almost delirious with the opportunity to go to New York and work for Mademoiselle for a month, the disappointment of her New York experience is cataclysmic. Rather than shape her life, it nearly ends it; and Plath structures the novel to show the process of disenchantment in rapid acceleration.
The novel opens in the midst of Greenwood's month in New York, although she tells the story in flashbacks; and for the first half of the book—ten of its twenty chapters—attention remains there, or on past experiences that are germane to the New York experiences. Greenwood recounts living with the other eleven girls on the...
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Waiting for the Voice to Crack
Apparent reasons for the eight-year delay in importing The Bell Jar from England (publication there, 1963) are not in themselves convincing. The pseudonym of Victoria Lucas was a hedge, but against what? Sylvia Plath made no secret of her authorship. Her suicide followed publication by a month, but such things have never stopped the wheels of industry from turning. She was a "property" after all, certainly following the publication of Ariel in 1966. Nor can we take seriously her having referred to it as a "potboiler" and therefore to be kept separate from her serious work: the oldest and most transparent of all writers' dodges. All the evidence argues against it. As early as 1957 she had written a draft of the novel;...
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