The Bell Jar is American writer and poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, which was originally published under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas’ in 1963. The novel is semi-autobiographical with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef (real events disguised as fiction), with the protagonist’s descent into mental illness paralleling Plath’s own experiences with what may have been clinical depression. Plath committed suicide a month after its first UK publication. The novel was published under Plath’s name for the first time in 1967 and was not published in the United States until 1971, pursuant to the wishes of Plath’s mother and her husband Ted Hughes.
The protagonist of the novel is Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the suburbs of Boston, who becomes mentally unstable during a summer spent interning at a prominent magazine in New York City. Tormented by both the death of her father and the feeling that she simply does not fit into the culturally acceptable role of womanhood, she attempts to commit suicide in the hopes of escape.
At the start of the novel, Esther is neither stimulated nor excited by the big city and glamorous culture and lifestyle that girls her age are expected to idolize and emulate. Instead her experiences frighten and disorient her. She appreciates the witty sarcasm and adventurousness of her friend Doreen, but also identifies with the piety of Betsy (dubbed ‘Pollyanna Cowgirl’) and a ‘goody-goody’ sorority girl who always does the right thing. She has a benefactress in Philomena Guinea, a formerly successful fiction writer (based on Olive Higgins Prouty), who will, later during Esther’s hospitalization, pay for some of her treatments.
Esther describes in detail several seriocomic incidents that occur during her internship, kicked off by an unfortunate but amusing experience at a banquet for the girls given by the staff of ‘Ladies’ Day’ magazine. She reminisces about her friend Buddy, whom she has dated more or less seriously and who considers himself her de facto fiancé. She also muses about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who are scheduled for execution. She returns to her Massachusetts home in low spirits. During her stay in New York City, she had hoped to return to another scholarly opportunity, a writing course taught by a world-famous author. Upon her return home, her mother immediately tells her she was not accepted for the course.
She decides to spend the summer potentially writing a novel, although she feels she doesn’t have enough life experience to write convincingly. All of her identity has been centered upon doing well academically; she is unsure of what to make of her life once she leaves school, and the choices presented to her (motherhood, as exemplified by the prolific child-bearer and vacuous Dodo Conway, or stereotypical female careers such as stenography) do not appeal to her. Esther becomes increasingly depressed, and finds herself unable to sleep. Her mother encourages, or perhaps forces, her to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon, whom Esther mistrusts because he is attractive and seems to be showing off a picture of his charming family rather than listening to her. He prescribes electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Afterward, she tells her mother she won’t go back: ‘My mother smiled. ‘I know my baby wasn’t like that.’ / I looked at her. ‘Like what?’ / ‘Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital.’ She paused. ‘I knew you’d decide to be all right again.” Esther’s mental state worsens. She describes her depression as a feeling of being trapped under a bell jar, struggling for breath. She makes several half-hearted attempts at suicide, including swimming far out to sea, before making a serious attempt. She leaves a note that says she is taking a long walk, then crawls into the cellar and swallows almost 50 sleeping pills that have been prescribed for her insomnia. She is discovered under her house after a rather dramatic episode in the newspapers has presumed her kidnapping and death, all taking place over an indeterminate amount of time.
She survives and is sent to a different mental hospital, where she meets Dr. Nolan, a female therapist. Along with regular sessions of psychotherapy Esther is given huge amounts of insulin to produce a ‘reaction,’ and again receives shock treatments, with Dr. Nolan ensuring that they are properly administered. Esther describes the ECT as beneficial in that it has a sort of antidepressant effect, lifting the metaphorical bell jar in which she has felt trapped and stifled. Her stay at the private institution is funded by her benefactress, Philomena Guinea.
Esther tells Dr. Nolan how she envies the freedom that men have, but as a woman, worries about getting pregnant. Dr. Nolan refers her to a doctor who fits her for a diaphragm. Esther now feels free from her fears about the consequences of sex. She feels free from previous pressures to get married, potentially to the wrong man. Under Dr. Nolan, Esther improves and various life-changing events help her regain her sanity. The novel ends with her entering the room for her interview which will decide whether she can leave the hospital. It is suggested near the beginning of the novel that, in later years, Esther goes on to have a baby.
According to her husband, Plath began writing the novel in 1961, after publishing her first collection of poetry, ‘The Colossus.’ After she separated from Hughes, Plath moved to a smaller apartment in London, ‘giving her time and place to work uninterruptedly. Then at top speed and with very little revision from start to finish she wrote The Bell Jar,’ he explained. Plath was writing the novel under the sponsorship of the Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship, affiliated with publisher Harper & Row, but they were disappointed by the manuscript and withdrew, calling it, ‘disappointing, juvenile, and overwrought.’ Early working titles of the novel included ‘Diary of a Suicide’ and ‘The Girl in the Mirror.’
The novel is written using a series of flashbacks that depict parts of Esther’s past. The flashbacks primarily deal with Esther’s relationship with Buddy Willard, Esther’s former boyfriend from her hometown. Studying to become a doctor, Buddy wants a wife who mirrors his mother, and hopes Esther will be that for him. Esther adores him all of high school, but upon learning he is not a virgin loses respect for him and names him a hypocrite, but struggles with ending the relationship after Buddy is diagnosed with Tuberculosis. Eventually he proposes to her, but Esther refuses due to the decision that she will never marry, to which Buddy responds that she is crazy.
‘The Bell Jar’ addresses the question of socially acceptable identity. It examines Esther’s ‘quest to forge her own identity, to be herself rather than what others expect her to be.’ Esther is expected to become a housewife, and a self-sufficient woman, without the options to achieve independence. Esther feels she is a prisoner to domestic duties and she fears the loss of her inner self. The novel sets out to highlight the problems with oppressive patriarchal society in mid-20th Century America. The men in Esther’s life are all oppressive, whether it is in a physical manner or an emotional one.
The book contains many references to real people and events in Plath’s life. Plath’s real-life magazine scholarship was at ‘Mademoiselle’ magazine beginning in 1953. Furthermore, Philomena Guinea is based on Plath’s own patron, author Olive Higgins Prouty, who funded Plath’s scholarship to study at Smith College. Plath was rejected from a Harvard course taught by Frank O’Connor. Dr. Nolan is thought to be based on Plath’s own therapist, Ruth Beuscher, whom she continued seeing after her release from the hospital. A good portion of this part of the novel closely resembles the experiences chronicled by Mary Jane Ward in her autobiographical novel ‘The Snake Pit'; Plath later stated that she’d seen reviews of ‘The Snake Pit’ and believed the public wanted to see ‘mental health stuff,’ so she deliberately based details of Esther’s hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward’s book. Plath was a patient at McLean Hospital, an upscale facility which resembled the ‘snake pit’ much less than certain wards in Metropolitan State Hospital, which may have been where Mary Jane Ward was actually hospitalized.
In a 2006 interview, Joanne Greenberg said that she had been interviewed in 1986 by one of the women who had worked on ‘Mademoiselle’ with Plath in the college guest editors group. The woman claimed that Plath had put so many details of the students’ real lives into ‘The Bell Jar’ that ‘they could never look at each other again,’ and that it had caused the breakup of her marriage and possibly others. Janet McCann links Plath’s search for feminine independence with a self-described neurotic psychology. Plath’s ex-husband has at one point insinuated that ‘The Bell Jar’ might have been written as a response to many years of electroshock treatment and the scars it left.