The Bell Jar
Suicidal in nature, perturbed in mind, and aimless in direction, Sylvia Plath fumbled her way through her adult life. The main character, Esther Greenwood, portrays Plath in her first and only book. Sylvia Plath conveys her touching story of losing herself, and her will to live, as well as her recovery in her heartbreaking novel, The Bell Jar.
Plath was not always such a disturbed person. She was born October 27th, 1932 (Sylvia n.p.). Her mother was a German and English teacher and her father emigrated from Germany at age sixteen to study ministry, and later, science. Sylvia was very close to her father, Otto Plath (Malmsheimer 527). In 1940, Otto, who had neglected to take care of his diabetes, fell ill and died that November. At this point in her life, Sylvia made a 180 turn from being a happy, healthy child, to a shattered, lonesome soul (Malmsheimer 529).
Sylvia had little interaction with those outside of her household as a child. Her social circle included only her parents, maternal grandparents, her brother, and a few of her neighbors. She lived in the suburbs of Winthrop, Massachusetts near Boston and her father ran their household (Malmsheimer 528).
Sylvias first publication was a short poem in the Boston Sunday Herald at the tender age of eight years (Malmsheimer 529). In junior high school, Plath decided that she wanted to be a writer. She stuck with that idea for the whole of her brief life.
Plath graduated from Gamaliel Bradford High School in Wellesley, Massachusetts (Volkman 311). From there she went on to earn the Wellesley Smith Club Scholarship, the
Neilson Scholarship, and the Olive Higgins Prouty Fund Scholarship. In the fall of 1950, Plath enrolled in Smith College. Her first year there she was published in Seventeen Magazine and won the third place prize for their short story contest (Malmsheimer 530).
Ten years after Plaths award winning short story, her first collection of poems The Colossus and Other Poems, was published in 1960 (Malmsheimer 529). Plath attended Cambridge University in London, England. It was here that Plath met her husband, Ted Hughes, a fellow poet. They were married June 16th, 1956 and had a daughter, Frieda, and a son, Nicholas (Volkman 314). Sylvia later became aware of an affair her husband had been engaging in. This caused the couple to separate (Volkman 316).
The separation from Hughes caused Sylvia great distress. She had previously been hospitalized for attempting to take her own life (Volkman 312). During her hospitalization for Appendicitis, she wrote most of the poems for her new collection, Ariel (Volkman 315). She completed this collection only one week before her suicide. A. Alvarez, a friend of Plaths, said tat her poetry and suicide were directly connected (Malmsheimer 526). The Colossus and Other Poems was the only book of her works that was published before her suicide. When Plath published her only novel, The Bell Jar, she wrote it under a pseudonym. She believed if she used her real name, it would cause too much of a stir between her friends and family that she had described in the book. Plaths final suicide attempt was on February 11th, 1963 in London, England (Tomei 1213).
Plaths previous suicide attempts included her taking sleeping pills while hidden away in the basement of her home. Esther Greenwood, the character that represents Plath in her novel, did the same (Volkman 312). Esther Greenwood, the narrator, is a scholarship student who works as an intern at a magazine in New York City. She is confused about her future and goes into a depression. Esther tries to kill herself on several occasions, but recovers with the help of a
mental institution. Throughout the book, Esther encounters many people who distort the ways in which she views herself and her surroundings as well as those that will ultimately aid in her final recovery.
Buddy Willard is an old boyfriend of Esthers. She often thinks of him. Buddy contracts tuberculosis as a medical student and stays at a hospital until he is well again. Esther used to think of him as perfect, but she later finds him to be a hypocrite. Esther attempts to engage in several love affairs in an effort to somehow make Buddys love affairs and her own even.
Esther meets Constantin while in New York. He is a simultaneous interpreter for the United Nations. Esther goes out to lunch with him and decides that she will let him seduce her. Instead, they end up falling asleep together and nothing comes of the relationship. Before Esther leaves New York, Doreen, a cynical, sophisticated intern who works alongside Esther, attempts to set her up one last time. Marco, a Peruvian woman-hater, as stated in the book, is her blind date. He attempts to rape her, but she escapes relatively unscathed.
In chapters one through nine, Esther is in New York. She encounters many interesting people, including Jay Cee, the editor of Ladies Day Magazine. Jay Cee gives Esther advice. Esther admires her and her sharp yet consoling manner. Betsy is yet another intern who works with Esther. She is an innocent Southern girl who Esther realizes is much like herself in many ways. Hilda is also an intern with Esther. She likes the idea of the Rosenbergs being executed, while Esther feels sympathy for them.
Esther is beginning to realize the world will not always agree with her. Chapter ten is set on a train and in Esthers home. Esther rides home from New York on a train. Her mother, Mrs. Greenwood, picks her up. Esthers mother is well-intentioned and hardworking. However, Esther feels scorn towards her because of the lack of attention that Esther receives from her. Esther believes her mother is more concerned about Esthers social well-being than with her mental
well-being. When Ester arrives at her home, some of her neighbors are introduced. Dodo Conway is a Catholic with six children and Esther is fascinated by her and her large family. Then there is Mrs.Ockenden. She is Esthers nosy neighbor. She is a retired nurse who spies on Esther through her windows. It is during these two chapters that Esther really begins to sink into her depression. She can no longer eat, sleep, or even read or write. Esthers mother decided to take her to see a specialist.
In chapters eleven and twelve, Esther meets her therapist, Doctor Gordon. He is a very handsome young man. However, Esther does not care for him much. He takes her to participate in painful shock therapy treatments. After this, Esther begins to experiment with suicide. She attempts to slit her wrists, hang herself, drown herself, and finally tries to over dose on prescribed sleep aids in her basement crawl space. All of these attempts were unsuccessful.
After the last attempt at killing herself, Esther wakes in a hospital. She stays there until she is healed. She is then sent from the hospital to the Psychiatric Ward. Esther gets worse and Philomena Guinea, a famous novelist, who has heard of Esthers work and has heard her story and wants to help, sends her funds to attend a private medical facility that can better tend to her needs.
The rest of the book takes place in a mental institution. Esther meets Doctor Nolan. Esther likes her new doctor and comes to trust and respect her. She is put onto a new therapy regimen. This regimen includes insulin injections, talk therapy, as well as properly administered shock treatments. A combination of these help Esther to improve.
Joan, a girl who attended the same college as Esther and heard about her case, enters herself into the mental institution and befriends Esther. They are relatively friendly until one day when Joan makes a sexual advance towards Esther. This repulsed Esther. Esther keeps getting better and is granted permission to go out on occasion. She meets a Harvard math professor
named Irwin and loses her virginity to him. Esther is then taken to the hospital because she begins hemorrhaging uncontrollably. A few days later, Esther is notified by Doctor Quinn, another doctor from the mental institution, that Joan has hung herself and died. Later, Buddy visits Esther at the hospital. They both understand that their relationship is over. Esther comes to find that the hospital has agreed to release her for the winter semester at her college. They believe she is stable enough to live on her own again. She feels as if the bell jar had finally been lifted.
The bell jar is a metaphor used to explain what Esther was going through. It showed that she felt trapped in her own stifling little bubble of sorts. She felt like there was always a haze floating over her. She felt as if she was festering inside a glass bell jar in the sweltering, stale air of her own insecurities.
The Bell Jar talks about growth as a person. Usually, growing progressively is what one would take from Esthers experiences. However, in Esthers case, she regresses in to madness. She experiences amazing things. She goes to New York, works on a magazine, receives her first marriage proposal, and is quite successful in college. However, her views are distorted and she believes that she reacts to everything in the wrong way. She realizes that what people want her to experience and what she really is experiencing are not the same. This gap sends her deeper and deeper into madness. In the end, the way that she triumphs over all of her struggles is more satisfying than all of the other experiences she has had (Plath book).
The focus of all of Plaths work is the alienation of the female experience in post- World War II United States and England. (Tomei 1213). Because of Plaths suicide, much of her work was criticized by the psychoanalytic eye of many. Some critics have evaluated her work and believe that she suffered from exogenous depression, manic depression, and schizoid schizophrenia (Malmsheimer 526). Critics had a lot of good things to say about The Bell Jar.
Newsweek said, A special poignancy a special force, a humbling power, because it shows the vulnerability of people and hope and good will. Time said, By turns funny, harrowing, crude, ardent, and artless. Its most notable quality is astonishing immediacy, like a series of snap shots taken at high noon. Atlantic Monthly stated, An enchanting book. The author wears her scholarship with race, and the amazing story she has to tell is recounted with humor and understanding. Book world thought, The first person narrative fixes us there, in the doctors office, in the asylum, in the madness, with no reassuring vacations when we can keep company with the sane and listen to their lectures. Christian Science Monitor commented, The narrator simply describes herself as feeling very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel. The in-between moment is just what Miss Plaths poetry does catch brilliantly- the moment poised on the edge of chaos. (Plath n.p.)
The world was at a chaotic point when Sylvia wrote this book. The Holocaust had only happened twenty years before she had written the book. The true evil of the world had crept out and the wounds from that time were still fresh. Yet another way she came to view the evil in humans was the fact that a mere two decades before she began writing, the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima (Volkman 319).
Sylvia Plath effectively conveyed her views of the worlds evils through her poetry and other works. She has captivated people with her blunt, brusque writing style, and nailed her goal. Her goal being to become, a woman poet the world would gape at. (Malmsheimer 529).
Malmsheimer, Lonna M. Plath Sylvia. America Writers. 1979.
Plath, Sylvia.. (17 October 2004)
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.
Sylvia Plath Biography. 2004. . (9 October 2004).
Tomei, Christine D. Plath Sylvia. Twentieth Century Great American Writers. 2002.
Volkman, Karen. Plath, Sylvia. World Poets. 2000.