In The Bell Jar, the veil of fiction over the story of Plath’s own life is so thin that her mother fought its publication in the United States, writing to Harper & Row that “practically every character represents someone—often in caricature—whom Sylvia loved; each person had given freely of time, thought, affection, and, in one case, financial help during those agonizing six months of breakdown in 1953.” Nevertheless, the story has the appeal of the novel, and it uses the conventions of fiction in the structuring of the experience it narrates.
The heroine, Esther Greenwood, is looking back (like Holden Caulfield, J. D. Salinger’s even more famous misfit) on the events leading up to her mental collapse. As in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), readers will be split as to what is to blame for the breakdown—the self or the world. Through Esther’s eyes are recorded the events of the early 1950’s: McCarthyism, “I Like Ike,” the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, the relative tameness of 1950’s New York City. To the eyes of Esther, come to New York as the winner of a magazine contest to be guest editor of Ladies’ Day, the real world is exclusively male and has no place for her.
Women writers create fluffy fashion articles. Women English majors should learn shorthand. The only other option readily available, wifehood, is little more than death-in-life, a self-obliteration as certain as the fate of the rug her boyfriend’s mother made out of pretty scraps, then put on the floor to become “soiled and dull and indistinguishable from any mat you would buy for a dollar in the five and ten.”
The richness of detail re-creates the 1950’s in their patriotism and naïveté. The standard female responses to the time period are represented in Esther’s fellow contest winners, such as the innocent optimist Betsey, and Hilda, the right-wing zealot with a flair for housewifely economies. At least partly because Esther believes that there is no use for her talents, which are not in one of the standard female lines, she goes into a decline. Her inability to embrace any accepted woman’s role is demonstrated in a symbolic scene in which she throws her new clothes, one by one, out the hotel window, so that “flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.”
Back at her home in Boston, the depression deepens, and flashbacks to her experiences with her boyfriend and her college years give more insight into the nature of her alienation. She is unable to accept that there is a double standard for sexual behavior—that her boyfriend Buddy is expected to be sexually experienced and she is not. In all the relationships she sees or participates in, the woman appears to be a...
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