It’s difficult not to see this novel as anything other than semi-autobiographical. The Bell Jar certainly works as a story, with vivid descriptions, memorable imagery and intriguing psycho-emotional insights into a roller coaster journey through early adulthood.
But the fact of the matter is that Sylvia Plath committed suicide just a month after it was published in the UK on January 14th, 1963. This lamentable event throws a dark shadow over every page. Its writing was the last chapter of a tragically short life which showed so much promise.
Having won a scholarship and later a competition which sees her working on a glossy fashion magazine and (it appears) “steering New York like her own private car”, protagonist Esther Greenwood starts out as someone whom she admits should be having the time of her life. The truth is very different: “… I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself”.
Her month-long stay with the magazine pushes her suddenly into the harsh glare of the Madison Avenue publicity machine. Although there are a number of comic episodes, she feels completely out of control of her own life, “very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo”. This is just the first hint at what the bell jar leitmotif signifies: someone being scrutinised intently, starved of the oxygen of freedom to make their own decisions, their fate in the hands of others.
Having been nearly raped at a party, Esther soon returns home. She receives the devastating news that she has not been accepted for the college place she craves. Her experience on the magazine, the attempted rape and the thwarting of her academic ambitions leave Esther feeling confused, uncertain and even suicidal.
Is this how Sylvia Plath (left) felt? Many have theorised. Although her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes was troubled, she certainly didn’t seem to be lacking in direction, producing some of her best pieces at a rapid rate towards the end.
Esther wants to write a novel, but decides that she doesn’t have sufficient experience of life. The world, in any case, is a “hotchpotch”. She receives an unwanted marriage proposal. She flits from idea to idea, never settling for long on a plan for her future. Her mind constantly dances from one scheme to another. Eventually, her mental and physical health go into decline. Her mother insists she see a psychiatrist and she receives ECT treatment.
Esther makes a number of attempts at suicide; references to death and suicide pepper the novel. At the beach, for instance, she considers sitting on a log and waiting to be drowned by the incoming tide. While doing so, “I fingered the box of razors in my pocket book”. There’s an early and repeated reference to the fate of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the first Americans to be executed for spying, convicted of sending a rough sketch of the atomic bomb to the Russians.
Plath’s writing style is easy and rich in wonderful, detailed imagery and sensory observation throughout, as in “… the buzz of the orange squeezer sounded from downstairs, and the smell of coffee and bacon filtered under my door. Then the sink water ran from the tap and dishes clinked as my mother dried them and put them back in the cupboard”. And a later example: “I pictured the snowflakey, Grandma Moses villages, the reaches of swampland rattling with dried cat-tails, the ponds where frog and hornpout dreamed in a sheath of ice, and the shivering woods”.
But it appears that Esther can’t escape from her past. Maybe that’s how Sylvia felt at the end?
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream”.