Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1299
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.
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...
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