The Bell Jar

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The Work

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In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, a nineteen-year-old girl from a small eastern town, was an excellent student who won many awards including a college scholarship. As a contest winner, she received a one-month appointment as a college representative to the editorial board of a well-known New York fashion magazine. Her month in New York provided many maturing experiences, but emotionally, she still felt very insecure. Esther did not believe that she had the skills necessary to fulfill a traditional woman’s role. She was bothered by society’s double standard and different social expectations for men and women. She was drawn to the life of change and excitement enjoyed by men, the life she associated with a writing career. She felt, however, pressure to settle down, marry, and have children. Her self-doubt coupled with the awareness of differing role expectations laid the foundation for an internal conflict that resulted in depression. Because she could not eat or sleep, she was referred to a psychiatrist, who suggested shock treatments. These treatments did not relieve her condition, and she began to contemplate and later attempt suicide. With the help of a benefactor, Esther was treated at a private asylum with insulin and electric shock treatments. As her condition improved, Esther moved to less restrictive environments and was accorded more privileges. She described her relief as the “bell jar lifted.” Upon her release, she returned to college.

Impact

Plath originally published The Bell Jar under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas.” Until Plath’s suicide, the book received only minor attention. In the first reviews, critics were struck by her imagery and ruthless, pessimistic style. They described her writing as intelligent, precise, and passionate. A work dealing with mental illness posed some tricky problems for the reviewers. The book was more than just literature; it was the author’s life, her experience. They found it difficult to critique the types of internal conflict that could lead to suicide. However, Plath’s own mental illness did not diminish the truth of her story. Reviewers were impressed with her brilliance and the depth of her personal pain.

Plath lived and wrote at the beginning of a period of great social change in the United States. The 1960’s ushered in the growth of the Civil Rights movement and the emergence of the women’s movement. People began to question traditional values, resulting in considerable experimentation in forms of family life, religion, sexual mores, and drug usage. The Bell Jar and Plath’s life highlight a number of these issues. For example, Esther felt that marriage was a form of brainwashing in which women were conditioned to believe that they should serve men. Plath questioned the personal value of religion, which she saw as cold and stressing sin. She was for most of her life a Unitarian, although she thought about becoming a Catholic to counter her suicidal thoughts and inclinations. Through Esther’s struggles, The Bell Jar also addresses Plath’s attempt to come to terms with her sexuality. Plath did marry, but her loneliness, depression, and the demands of their small children led her to separate from her husband, Ted Hughes, who later became poet laureate of England. She was a single mother when she committed suicide. In many ways, her life and her work became archetypes for the turbulent, value-testing, social experimentation of the 1960’s.

Because The Bell Jar was first published in England, it did not have a strong influence on U.S. society until its reissue in 1971. By this time, the social forces of the 1960’s had had time to mature. Gender roles were changing, various groups had gained their civil rights, and people were experimenting with various lifestyles. The Bell Jar portrayed a young woman struggling against many constricting forces, including her own personal demons. These struggles reflect the conflicts faced by many young middle-class women in the 1960’s. The book stands as a criticism of 1960’s American society. Although the negative forces in Plath’s life eventually won, she left behind a legacy of intense, passionate, and honest life pictures.

Related Works

Plath’s two poetry collections, The Colossus (1962) and Ariel (1965), express many of the same sentiments evident in The Bell Jar. A film version of The Bell Jar was released in 1979.

Homework Help

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Suggested Readings

Aird, Eileen. Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Works. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Alexander, Paul, ed. Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. The essays in this volume concentrate on Plath as a craftsman. The two essays “Esther Came Back Like a Retreaded Tire,” by Robert Scholes, and “Victoria Lucas and Elly Higginbottom,” by Vance Bourjaily, offer interpretations dealing solely with The Bell Jar.

Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. As thorough a biography as one could wish.

Allen, Mary. “Sylvia Plath’s Defiance: The Bell Jar.” In The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Alvarez, Alfred. The Savage God. New York: Random House, 1971.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. In the preface, the author describes his work as “a biography of the imagination.” The index indicates several references to The Bell Jar. The chapter “A Woman Famous Among Women,” proposing Virginia Woolf’s influence on Plath, offers an interesting contrast and comparison between Clarissa Dalloway, from Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, and Esther Greenwood. A portrait of Plath and an extensive bibliography are provided.

Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath’s Incarnations: Women and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. Combines psychological and feminist criticism in a critical biography. Bundtzen traces Plath’s personal development as an artist and relates that development to the image of women in society and the world of art. The index provides topical guidance for information on The Bell Jar, and the chapter “The Bell Jar: The Past as Allegory” offers an interpretation of the novel as feminist allegory. A bibliography is included.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. The index contains many extended references to The Bell Jar. A chronology is included.

MacPherson, Pat. Reflecting on The Bell Jar. New York: Routledge, 1991. This study stresses the social context of The Bell Jar. The “Cold War Paranoia,” the repressive atmosphere of the 1950’s introduced in the novel by the execution of Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, affects the protagonist personally. Some specific social topics include life in the suburbs, hatred of one’s mother expressed in contemporary films, and homosexuality. The bibliography contains relevant sociological and political entries.

Newman, Charles, ed. The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. A collection of essays mainly discussing Plath’s poetry. Mary Ellmann, in “The Bell Jar—An American Girlhood,” sees the work as a “poet’s novel” and proceeds to discuss it in terms of images and brief moments of pain. Contains a brief annotated bibliography for The Bell Jar ending with 1966. Pen drawings by Plath are included.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. A psychoanalytical study focusing mainly on Plath’s poetry, with a detailed account of the film of The Bell Jar and the lawsuit against it.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties. Boston: Twayne, 1992. An excellent analysis of the novel in the context of its times and of the author’s life.

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1988. The select bibliography identifies two extended bibliographies, one containing all periodical publications. Offers mostly reviews of Plath’s work as it was published, including ten reviews and essays on The Bell Jar.

Places Discussed

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*New York City

*New York City. Approximately the first third of The Bell Jar is set in the urbane, cosmopolitan environs of Manhattan, where Esther Greenwood—a young, ambitious college junior from a sheltered Boston suburb—is a summer intern for Mademoiselle magazine after winning a writing contest. Filled with aspirations of entering a magazine publishing career after college, Esther welcomes the opportunity to get her feet wet in a major New York publishing house a full year before her graduation from college. However, shortly after she settles in New York, a host of disillusioning events tarnishes her view of the city and her romantic dreams of seeking fame and fortune there. Although painfully aware that she is “supposed to be having the time of [her] life” in Manhattan, Esther cannot cope with the intensely competitive, highly chauvinistic atmosphere of New York publishing in the 1950’s. She suffers an emotional and physical collapse that ends in her return to her mother’s home in suburban Boston weeks before the scheduled end of her internship. Esther likens her untimely breakdown and forced retreat from the city of her dreams to “watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction.”

*Boston suburbs

*Boston suburbs. Esther’s family home, to which she returns from New York. Rather than providing her with the peace and quiet she needs to regain her bearings before returning to college, Esther’s time in her mother’s home furthers her descent into a debilitating depression. Her unsympathetic mother offers little in the way of consolation, unable to see her daughter’s condition as anything more than a case of pre-graduation jitters. However, Esther regards her return home with even greater foreboding than she does her time in New York. Whereas most disillusioned city-dwellers might welcome the stability and familiarity of a retreat to the suburbs, Esther sees their “white, identical clapboard houses” as “one bar after another in a large but escape-proof cage.”

Not only is she uncomfortable at work, but similarly disillusioned in her relationships with men. After finding out that her fiancé has secretly been having an affair with another woman, she feels betrayed and finds it difficult to trust the other men she meets. Isolated from productive influences while cloistered in her mother’s home, Esther begins to obsess over what she sees as a fateful chain of personal failures. After only a few weeks there she attempts suicide.

Esther’s college

Esther’s college. Unnamed New England women’s college famous for its academic rigor that is modeled after Plath’s own alma mater, Smith College, in Massachusetts. None of the novel’s scenes are expressly set at this college, because Esther’s depression prevents her from returning there for her senior year; however, she repeatedly reflects on a number of things that happened there earlier that set the stage for her breakdown. She has maintained straight A’s at the college but regards her academic achievements as meaningless in the personal and professional world that beckons her after graduation.

Walton Hospital

Walton Hospital. Private asylum in which Esther is institutionalized after her emotional condition worsens. There she initially fails to respond positively to electroshock therapy—which she finds so violent and frightening she likens it to electrocution—but eventually begins to improve with the help of a sensitive, compassionate psychotherapist. At the end of the novel she stands at the threshold of gaining release from the institution. Although she remains emotionally fragile, Esther is confident that she has gained a reprieve from “the bell jar” her illness lowered mysteriously and unmercifully around her.

Form and Content

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The Bell Jar traces college student Esther Greenwood’s trip to New York City, awarded to her for her literary skills, and her subsequent breakdown. Esther narrates how, unsuccessful both professionally and socially in New York, she falls into a depression that leads to an obsession with suicide and finally to a serious suicide attempt. She feels, she says, like a person in a bell jar, breathing her own sour air and looking out at a world distorted by the curved glass. The tale reflects in its form Esther’s psychological deterioration, as the chapters become shorter and the transitions blur as she moves toward her major breakdown. The narrative then becomes coherent again as Esther, through hospitalization and the concern of a sympathetic female psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, gradually works her way back toward mental health.

The story begins in New York, where Esther is one of a group of young women who have been awarded guest editorships at a fashion magazine in New York. Esther has always been a top student and a scholarship winner, but she finds herself unprepared for the challenges of the city. She cannot bond with her fellow award winners, not the wild Doreen nor the innocent Betsy nor any of the others. Moreover, she finds herself unable to accomplish anything. Her editor is critical of her work, and she does not succeed in losing her virginity, one of her goals. Flashbacks describe her relationship with her former boyfriend, Buddy Willard, who had betrayed her by having an affair—now she wants to get even. After a few sad attempts at adventures and after becoming ill with food poisoning, Esther returns home to the Boston area in a depressed state.

Upon her return, Esther finds that she has not been admitted to a writing course for which she had applied; that disappointment proves to be the last straw. She slips deeper and deeper into depression, focusing on obsessive thoughts: the death of her father when she was a child, Buddy’s treachery, and suicide. Rough, misguided attempts to cheer her up or to cure her only make her worse. Ultimately, only suicide can hold her interest, and she makes some halfhearted attempts to kill herself before hiding behind boards in an unfrequented part of her house and taking a great quantity of sleeping pills.

Fortunately, Esther is found in time and hospitalized. Now treated as an object in the hospital, she feels the contempt of her caretakers. Through the help of writer Philomena Guinea, however, she is transferred to Dr. Nolan’s private hospital, where she is given the best of care and Dr. Nolan’s personal attention. Shock therapy and psychoanalysis help her toward restored mental health. Esther works her way up through the levels of the hospital, which rewards good behavior by moving the patient to wards with more privileges. Dr. Nolan helps Esther further by showing that she too disagrees with the double standard of sexual behavior. She writes Esther a prescription for a birth control device, and when Esther has both lost her virginity and earned the right to leave the mental institution, she feels finally free. She is ready to meet a man with whom she can make a commitment and have a child. Esther begins her reminiscences with an indication that she has a child, implying that she has been able to reconstruct her life.

Form and Content

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From the first page of The Bell Jar, with Esther Greenwood describing a day in New York City during the summer of 1952, when she is a guest-editor of Mademoiselle magazine, author Sylvia Plath vividly re-creates the perspective of a depressed, highly intelligent, sensitive young woman who feels herself losing contact with reality. This oppressively introspective atmosphere is relieved, however, by Esther’s sardonic and incisive insights into life’s unfairness and the often-amusing accounts of her own gauche experiences.

Esther has spent her adult life up to this summer between her junior and senior years of college in intellectual study and competition at a prestigious university. Although the round of parties, plays, and professional writing opportunities working for the magazine seems to mark another success in her life, instead she is experiencing a feeling of frustration and failure as she faces the choices of life beyond college.

Torn between her personal needs and society’s expectations, Esther is assessing her past life, especially the value of studying for academic awards, her present desire for personal fulfillment as a woman, and her need to choose a professional career for the future that will both support her financially and fulfill her aesthetically. Her inability to find solutions that will include all of her needs is driving her into a reclusive mental state. Before she leaves New York City at the end of the month, she goes to the rooftop of the hotel where she is staying and symbolically discards all of her newly bought, expensive clothes. Esther has officially begun her retreat from life.

Esther’s hostility toward men constitutes a major part of her mental instability. That hostility partly arises from society’s expectation that a woman must be attractive to men. For example, Esther finds that Buddy Willard’s invitation to attend the junior prom at Yale University with him immediately gives her status in the eyes of her classmates, even the seniors. Buddy’s mother expresses another subordinate role for women: They should support their husbands’ careers. Esther retorts, “The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted . . . to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.” Esther recognizes that her experience with Buddy typifies her experiences with all men: Each one looked like a “flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all.” Esther also has a problem with society’s double standard for men and women. “I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.” She becomes obsessive about losing her virginity without the fear of pregnancy.

After Esther’s attempted suicide, she is taken to an expensive private sanatorium, paid for by her college sponsor, Philomena Guinea. Esther finally trusts her new psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, a woman, because she takes Esther’s fears and anxieties seriously and does not condemn Esther for her feelings, such as her hatred of her mother, that are socially unacceptable. After her treatment at the sanatorium, Esther, wearing a diaphragm, has sexual relations with a stranger. For the first time, she feels that her gender is not a liability.

The conclusion of this journal of mental illness is expressed in very tentative terms. After successful shock treatments, Esther feels that the “bell jar” separating her from normal interaction with others has been raised a few feet. She has no guarantee, however, that it will not descend again.

Context

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The Bell Jar was first published in England in 1963 under the name of Victoria Lucas; it was published in the United States eight years later. It is one of the early novels to handle self-consciously three of the major concerns in the women’s movement: a woman’s place in society, the development of her creative ability, and the place of femininity in the life of an artist. The fact that the novel was published after the author’s suicide heightened the implicit message: There are few role models in society for the creative woman.

Sidonie Smith, in A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Realization (1987), emphasizes the choice women writers have to make between social ostracism and developing a voice of their own. In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (1979), Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar state the conflict clearly: “For a woman-artist is, after all, a woman—that is her ‘problem’— and if she denies her own gender, she inevitably confronts an identity crisis as severe as the anxiety of authorship she is trying to surmount.”

George Stade, in his essay “Womanist Fiction and Male Characters” (1985), believes Plath to be the first of a line of female authors in whose work “the rejection of men in all their ways is at last explicit.” Not one of the males in The Bell Jar—Buddy Willard, Marco, Mr. Manzi, Dr. Gordon—meets Esther’s standards for men.

Other works offer female protagonists who succumb to at least temporary madness because they cannot find a place for themselves in the image of a woman proposed by contemporary society: Play It as It Lays (1970), by Joan Didion; Surfacing (1972), by Margaret Atwood; and The Four-Gated City (1969), by Doris Lessing. Lessing’s Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark (1973) suffers a very brief breakdown in London before she is able to separate her own identity from society’s images of wife, mother, and career woman.

Since The Bell Jar is Plath’s only prose work to reach publication, comparison with her poetry seems inevitable. Her reputation as a poet rests on the posthumous volumes Ariel (1965), Winter Trees (1971), and Crossing the Water (1971). The poem “Daddy,” from Ariel, uses some of the phrases found in the novel. Since Plath was proofreading The Bell Jar when she was writing “Daddy,” the similarity of phrases found in both is not surprising, nor is the love and hatred expressed by the daughter in the poem who tries to find the father who died when she was ten, “the last time she was really happy.” The poem “Lady Lazarus,” as the title indicates, deals with recurring attempts to commit suicide; several of its lines may seem thematically familiar to the reader of The Bell Jar.

Historical Context

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Absence of Feminism in the 1940s and 1950s
It is impossible to fully understand The Bell Jar without a realization of the relative absence of feminism in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Both decades were fairly prosperous ones in American history, and women's social and financial standing usually hung on their husbands' occupation and respective income. Although more than six million women went to work when America was engaged in World War II, after the war ended, many were encouraged to leave the work force. Dr. Benjamin Spock, who published the book Baby and Child Care, once even proposed that the federal government subsidize housewives to discourage them from entering into the work force. In Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1946), authors Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg argued that women who worked sacrificed their essential femininity. While, of course, many single women worked out of economic necessity, they were not encouraged to show naked ambition or to stay in the work force indefinitely. A married woman—with or without children—who earned as much as her husband was rare.

Of course, women who worked in menial or low-paying jobs were less of a threat to mainstream America. Hence, in The Bell Jar, Mrs. Greenwood encourages her daughter, Esther, to learn shorthand, because that skill will at least guarantee her some kind of job after college.

In 1963, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published. At the time, as in the 1950s, there were many more men in the work force and women earned far less money. However, this pivotal study of middle-class women's anger and some proposed solutions paved the way for a gradual redefinition of sex roles in America. In 1966, three years after Plath had taken her own life, Friedan and her colleagues established the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Mental Illness and Suicide
The Bell Jar is not simply about male oppression in the 1950s; it also tackles the topic of mental illness, although it does so in non-clinical terms. Specifically, it is about one depressed and confused woman's suicide attempt at a time when the medical profession often relied on such crude methods as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In ECT, a low electric charge is passed through a patient's body to cure such illnesses as depression and schizophrenia. Like Esther in The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath received ECT.

While many factors contribute to a person's choice in taking his or her own life, researchers have found that age, sex, and marital status are all statistically significant. For example, men are more likely to kill themselves than females today, although the opposite was true at the turn of the twentieth century. By the 1960s, there was some scientific evidence that married people were less suicide-prone than single people; in turn, married people with children were not as likely to commit suicide as married or single people without children. To some extent, these statistics reflected the researcher's and society's biases. For example, Louis Dublin wrote in Suicide: A Sociological and Statistical Study that "the presence of children has a much greater saving effect on women than on men because the parental instinct is stronger among them." It is also important to remember that Sylvia Plath—a married (although also separated) woman with two young children—defied some of the statistical data. Finally, since there is a stigma about suicide, many families cover up the circumstances if a family member elects to take his or her own life. Hence, the official suicide statistics are not necessarily valid or reliable.

While such organizations as the National SaveaLife League date back to 1906, the subject of suicide prevention remained shrouded in mystery for many American people for several decades. In 1958, the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles began with a public grant from the U.S. Public Health Service It was the first agency to use only professionals for its therapy sessions.

Literary Techniques

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An accomplished student and teacher of fiction, Sylvia Plath had at her disposal the full arsenal of literary techniques, and she employs many of them in The Bell Jar. For example, most of the Buddy Willard episodes are recorded in a series of flashbacks, and Plath also uses the technique of "defamiliarization" (so coined by the Soviet critic Shklovsky), by means of which the reader is invited to regard his stale "reality" in fresh and disturbing ways.

However, the novel's most-discussed technique is its "doubling," its use of polarities — like the negative and positive poles of electricity — to shed light on characters and events. Electricity itself is used in this way: early references to the electrocutions of the Rosenbergs serve to foreshadow Esther's electroshock sessions. Similarly, nearly every character in the novel has his double. For example, the egregiously abstracted Dr. Gordon is contrasted to Dr. Nolan; the asexual (or perhaps homosexual) Constantin to the rapist Marco; and rebellious Doreen to conforming Betsy. Most important, Esther herself encounters a series of personal doubles, as suggested by the recurring mirror imagery in the novel. The most crucial such double is Joan Gilling, who, like Esther, has been an academic achiever and the near-fiancee of Buddy Willard; Esther must finally refute Joan's sullen retreat into lesbianism and suicide.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s and 1960s: As recently as 1950, men received approximately 76 percent of all degrees conferred in the United States. At the Master's level, men received roughly 2.5 times as many degrees as women.

Today: In 1993, men received approximately 46 percent of all degrees conferred in the United States. Since 1986, women began receiving more Master's degrees than men, and the pattern continues.

1950s and 1960s: In 1960, about 59 percent of single women were part of the American work force, about 32 percent of married women belonged to the work force, and about 42 percent of "other" (widowed, divorced, separated) women belonged to the work force.

Today: In 1994, About 68 percent of single women were part of the American work force, about 61 percent of married women belonged to the work force, and about 48 percent of "other" (widowed, divorced, separated) women belonged to the work force.

1950s and 1960s: The concept of date rape did not exist; if a woman went on a date with a man and was raped, she did not have any legal recourse.

Today: Many more women are successfully suing men for date rape.

1950s and 1960s: National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) on suicide in America can never be entirely accurate or reliable, as many people who attempt or commit suicide often conceal their intention. Their families often conceal the suicide, too. However, NCHS statistics on suicides in 1953 reveal that men were more than three times as likely to commit suicide as women. White men in 1953 were more likely to commit suicide than any other racial/gender group; the second most likely group was non-white men; the third most likely group was white women; the least likely group was non-white women.

Today: As of 1993, the racial/gender breakdown of 1953 had not changed; however, men are now about four times more likely to commit suicide than women.

Literary Precedents

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Viewed as a sensitive youth's initiation into the ills of the world, The Bell Jar stands squarely in a tradition that looks back to works like Voltaire's Candide (1759) and such examples of the Kiinstlerroman ("artist novel") as James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Among more recent works, the novel has prompted comparisons with Hannah Green's best-selling I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964), an altogether less subtle story of an impressionable girl's stay in a mental hospital. Most commonly, however, Esther Greenwood has been likened to Holden Caulfield of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951). But Charles Newman points out that Esther, unlike Holden, is locked in the serious conflict "between a potential artist and society, rather than the cult of youth versus the cult of middle age." Newman himself places Plath's work in the tradition of New England Transcendentalism and Calvinism, "a religious asceticism which reappears in an aesthetic guise." In this sense, for example, Buddy Willard sparks Esther's contempt when he exposes himself to her, violating thereby his authoritative, masculine role.

Adaptations

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The Bell Jar was adapted into a well-intentioned but forgettable 1979 film (directed by Larry Peerce for Avco Embassy; screenplay by Marjorie Kellogg). The motion picture, starring Marilyn Hassett as Esther, is largely faithful to Plath's plot, but the film was almost universally panned for its wrenching alterations in the novel's characters: Buddy Willard (Jameson Parker) becomes a sexually aggressive square, the fashion magazine editor (Barbara Barrie) is a brittle closet lesbian, and Esther's psychological woes are milked dry for sensationalism. Mary Louise Weller (as Doreen) and Julie Harris (as Esther's mother) were generally praised for their performances.

Media Adaptations

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The movie The Bell Jar, based on Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel of the same name, was directed by Larry Peerce and starred Marilyn Hassett, Julie Harris, Anne Jackson, and Barbara Barrie. Released by Avco Embassy in 1979, it was neither a critical nor commercial success, in large part because the script does not examine the reasons for Esther Greenwood's depression and mental breakdown.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Paula Bennett, My Life a Loaded Gun, Beacon, 1986.

Lynda K. Bundtzen, "Women in The Bell Jar Two Allegories" from Plath's Incarnations Women and the Creative Process, University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Rupert Butler, "New American Fiction Three Disappointing Novels—But One Good Time," in Time and Tide, January 31, 1963, p. 34.

C. B. Cox, editorial in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 1966, p. 195.

Louis Dublin, Suicide: A Sociological and Statistical Study, Ronald, 1963.

David Holbrook, Sylvia Plath Poetry and Existence, Athlone, 1976.

Laurence Lerner, "New Novels," in Listener, January 31, 1963, p. 215.

M. L. Rosenthal, "Blood and Plunder," in Spectator, September 30, 1966, p. 418.

Robert Scholes, review in New York Times Book Review, April 11, 1971, p. 7.

Stan Smith, "Attitudes Counterfeiting Life: The Irony of Artifice in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar," in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 1975, pp. 247-60.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, "A Chronicle of Women," in Hudson River, Spring, 1972, p. 164.

Tony Tanner, in his City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970, Harper & Row, 1971.

Robert Taubman, "Anti-heroes," New Statesman, January 25, 1963, pp. 127-28.

Linda Wagner-Martin, The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties, Twayne, 1992.

For Further Study
Paul Alexander, editor, Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath, Harper, 1985.
One of the first anthologies of critical essays on Plath which, overall, focus more on her literary accomplishments than on the details of her life.

Ruth Bauerle, "Plath, at Last," in Plain Dealer, April 25, 1971, p. H7.
Argues that the novel is more than an autobiographical success.

Elaine Connell, Sylvia Plath: Killing the Angel in the House, Pennine Pens, 1993.
A brief but competent guide to Plath's biography and her critical history, combined with some uncomplicated interpretations of Plath's works, including The Bell Jar.

Ronald De Feo, review in Modern Occasions, Fall, 1971, pp. 624-25.
Published shortly after the novel was published in the United States, this critique perceives the novel as more than a cult classic, praising it for qualities unrelated to its autobiographical elements.

Teresa De Lauretis, "Rebirth in the Bell Jar," in Women's Studies, 3 (1975), pp. 173-83.
Article suggests The Bell Jar must be viewed be in terms of a historical perspective.

Bibliography

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Suggested Readings

Aird, Eileen. Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Works. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Alexander, Paul, ed. Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. The essays in this volume concentrate on Plath as a craftsman. The two essays “Esther Came Back Like a Retreaded Tire,” by Robert Scholes, and “Victoria Lucas and Elly Higginbottom,” by Vance Bourjaily, offer interpretations dealing solely with The Bell Jar.

Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. As thorough a biography as one could wish.

Allen, Mary. “Sylvia Plath’s Defiance: The Bell Jar.” In The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Alvarez, Alfred. The Savage God. New York: Random House, 1971.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. In the preface, the author describes his work as “a biography of the imagination.” The index indicates several references to The Bell Jar. The chapter “A Woman Famous Among Women,” proposing Virginia Woolf’s influence on Plath, offers an interesting contrast and comparison between Clarissa Dalloway, from Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, and Esther Greenwood. A portrait of Plath and an extensive bibliography are provided.

Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath’s Incarnations: Women and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. Combines psychological and feminist criticism in a critical biography. Bundtzen traces Plath’s personal development as an artist and relates that development to the image of women in society and the world of art. The index provides topical guidance for information on The Bell Jar, and the chapter “The Bell Jar: The Past as Allegory” offers an interpretation of the novel as feminist allegory. A bibliography is included.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. The index contains many extended references to The Bell Jar. A chronology is included.

MacPherson, Pat. Reflecting on The Bell Jar. New York: Routledge, 1991. This study stresses the social context of The Bell Jar. The “Cold War Paranoia,” the repressive atmosphere of the 1950’s introduced in the novel by the execution of Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, affects the protagonist personally. Some specific social topics include life in the suburbs, hatred of one’s mother expressed in contemporary films, and homosexuality. The bibliography contains relevant sociological and political entries.

Newman, Charles, ed. The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. A collection of essays mainly discussing Plath’s poetry. Mary Ellmann, in “The Bell Jar—An American Girlhood,” sees the work as a “poet’s novel” and proceeds to discuss it in terms of images and brief moments of pain. Contains a brief annotated bibliography for The Bell Jar ending with 1966. Pen drawings by Plath are included.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. A psychoanalytical study focusing mainly on Plath’s poetry, with a detailed account of the film of The Bell Jar and the lawsuit against it.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties. Boston: Twayne, 1992. An excellent analysis of the novel in the context of its times and of the author’s life.

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1988. The select bibliography identifies two extended bibliographies, one containing all periodical publications. Offers mostly reviews of Plath’s work as it was published, including ten reviews and essays on The Bell Jar.

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