The Bell Jar
December 7, 2011 by staff
The Bell Jar, 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, 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 husband Ted Hughes and her mother.
Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, gains a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City under editor Jay Cee. At the time of the Rosenbergs’ execution, 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” by Doreen, because she’s from Kansas), 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 pictures of his charming family rather than listening to her. He hastily diagnoses her with a mental illness and has her hospitalized. She receives electroconvulsive therapy, improperly administered, and feels she’s being electrocuted like the Rosenbergs. When she tells her mother she refuses to go back, her mother smugly and callously announces, “I knew you’d decide to be all right.”
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