Sylvia Plath published The Bell Jar under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas a month prior to her death by suicide. The Bell Jar, her novel, and The Colossus (1960), a book of her poetry, came to life before she ended hers. Plath’s successive publications were posthumous. Plath portends her suicide in The Bell Jar, which recounts an earlier suicide attempt. The novel is an autobiographical account of Plath’s early life as a college student who is elected to spend the summer in New York as a guest writer for a women’s magazine. Her encounters in the city highlight her naïveté and initiate her rebellion against the conventional roles into which women were pressed.
Sylvia Plath’s father’s death when she was eight years old significantly altered her perception of life. His early departure from her life lead to a one-sided, love-hate relationship with death and her father. In her poem “Daddy,” Plath curses her father and blames him for her cynicism regarding men. The Bell Jar and Plath’s extremely intense poetry, much of which was published posthumously, earned Plath great stature as a feminist literary figure.
Plath suffered significant challenges during the two and one-half years she spent writing The Bell Jar: a miscarriage, an appendectomy, pregnancy with her second child, separation from her husband (the poet Ted Hughes), depression, and thoughts of suicide. During her third college year, Plath attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills; this is recounted in the novel. She chronicles this event as well as her relationships with men in The Bell Jar. The novel’s title is a reference to a central theme of alienation that is so extreme as to be a form of disembodiment. The narrator relates at one point that she feels that she is inside a bell jar (a bell-shaped jar with no bottom that is placed over objects to contain or isolate them). This theme is augmented with descriptions of hospital autopsy rooms, of hideous specimens preserved in jars, and of encounters with grotesque men in New York. Continuing the theme of defamiliarization, Plath writes with witticisms about disturbing events and images. Plath’s style in The Bell Jar is honest and strongly emotional. The reader may experience difficulty, however, in engaging in Plath’s view of death, which is held to be enchantingly desirous and overwhelmingly dreadful.
Esther Greenwood is in New York City the summer that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are to be executed (1953). Ecstatic over having won a position as guest editor on the college board for a well-known magazine for young women, she is puzzled that she is not having the time of her life.
On the face of it, she has everything going for her. She is attractive, intelligent, and talented. She is a straight-A student. The magazine arranges concerts, dances, celebrity interviews, fashion shows, and luncheons galore for the twelve college student women who won positions as guest editors. Why is she feeling depressed? Esther’s boyfriend Buddy is in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis. She is discovering that her feelings for him are lukewarm. She feels free to date other men, but somehow those dates are not turning out as well as she expects.
She and the eleven other young women from colleges across the United States are living in a hotel for women. Doreen, who is cynical and audacious, particularly appeals to Esther. One night on their way to a party, they let themselves be picked up by a disc jockey, Lenny Shepherd. After drinks he asks them to his apartment. After more drinks, Doreen and Lenny dance lasciviously. Esther is disgusted. She leaves Doreen and walks back to the hotel disillusioned with Doreen and later with herself for abandoning Doreen. Doreen is not the only reason Esther is disillusioned. The city glamour she expected manifests itself as a series of shoddy...
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