An introduction to The Bell Jar

An introduction to The Bell Jar

Sarah Churchwell examines how The Bell Jar critiques the expectations and limitations placed on young women in the 1950s – and how these expectations and limitations have shaped the novel’s reception.

In 1957, six years before The Bell Jar would be published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, Sylvia Plath mused in her journals: ‘I could write a terrific novel. The tone is the problem. I’d like it to be serious, tragic, yet gay & rich & creative’.[1] Knowing that she shared his ‘fresh, brazen, colloquial voice’,[2] she thought she might model herself on J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, but worried that his first-person perspective could prove ‘limiting’ for her story. The voice that Plath eventually created for her only novel is indeed fresh, brazen and colloquial, but also sardonic and bitter, the story of a young woman’s psychological disintegration and eventual – provisional – recovery. The tone of The Bell Jar is not its ‘problem’, but its triumph.

Typescript second draft of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Typescript second draft of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York’: Esther’s startling opening line, from the second draft of The Bell Jar with Sylvia Plath’s handwritten annotations (undated).

View images from this item  (5)

Usage terms Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College Libraries, © Estate of Sylvia Plath. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Plath Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

The Bell Jar is an acidic satire on the madness of 1950s America, exploring the impossibility of living up to the era’s contradictory ideals of womanhood. Despite its reputation as the favourite novel of morbidly self-obsessed adolescent girls, it is a much funnier book than many may realise. Among the many ironies surrounding the novel’s undeserved reputation for taking itself seriously, one of the sharpest is perhaps the way that it has tended to be dismissed along gender lines, as a book ‘merely’ for women, or petulant teenagers. But although The Bell Jar concerns a young woman’s eventual breakdown and suicide attempt, it also tells a story of recovery, redemption, rebirth and starting over. And it examines the social expectations and toxic culture of 1950s America – a culture that makes finding a positive identity as a woman so difficult that its heroine is driven to self-destruction.

Losing any secure sense of herself, Esther Greenwood symbolically tests out a series of possible identities, different selves, through the women she meets; none of them represent her full character, the range of her psyche. As many critics have noted, Plath brings in a series of female ‘doubles’, or alter egos, to suggest possible role models of ideal femininity in the 1950s. In particular, Esther identifies with Doreen, who is described in terms that suggest Marilyn Monroe, and with Betsy, a virginal, wholesome cheerful girl-next-door in the style of Doris Day. A girl in the 1950s could be a virgin or she could be a whore: it was a neo-Victorian era, as evidenced by the crinolines and tiny waists. ‘Pureness was the great issue when I was nineteen’, Esther explains: girls had to be virgins, and yet they were discovering sexual desire.

Sylvia Plath's 'Mad Girl's Love Song' from Mademoiselle

'Sylvia Plath's 'Mad girl's love song' from Mademoiselle

1950s American womanhood on the cover of Mademoiselle, ‘the magazine for smart young women’. Sylvia Plath, then an undergraduate at Smith College, won a competition to be a guest-editor for this August 1953 issue.

View images from this item  (2)

Usage terms Herman Landshoff (cover photograph): © Hermann Landshoff estate, Münchner Stadtmuseum/Photography collection. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Sylvia Plath: © Estate of Sylvia Plath. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Plath Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder. Sarah Bolster: © Estate of Sarah (Bolster) Bobbitt. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

Esther tries on differing models of femininity and discards them like the clothes she will throw from her window when departing New York, for none of them fit her anymore. The mutually incompatible pressures of individualism and conformity split her apart. As she tells one useless boyfriend: ‘if neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.’ (ch. 8) Plath excoriates the women who conformed to the era’s rules; ‘girls like that make me sick’ (ch. 1), Esther repeats in a refrain that becomes increasingly pointed: her society is indeed making Esther sick.

'The all-round image' by Sylvia Plath

The all-round image' by Sylvia Plath

Plath describes the absurd rites of a college sorority in her essay, ‘The all-round image’, written in the winter of 1963.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms © Estate of Sylvia Plath. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Plath Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

Doubtless one reason for the tendency of many male readers to dismiss this book a priori as having nothing to say to them is because of our culture’s persistent tendency to treat male experience as universal, and female experience as particular to women. Ironically enough, this is precisely the limiting, gendered worldview that Esther finds so suffocating and is trying to escape from in 1963. If Esther finds the women she encounters impossible as role models, she finds the men she meets equally useless as objects of desire. When Esther first sees a naked man, she recalls: ‘The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed’ (ch. 6). Soon the idea of doubles has extended to the men Esther encounters as well, as she realises that men are permitted to lead ‘double lives’ of sexual exploration, while women are expected to confine themselves to one man, one home and one version of femininity. The real doubles the novel explores are double standards, and double binds. Esther’s exploration of sexual desire takes her through the possibility of a zombie-like existence as wife and mother and down into a descent into ‘madness’, when she cannot reconcile her desires and ambitions with society’s rules and expectations.

Sinking into depression, Esther is sent to a horribly insensitive psychiatrist so that he can help her ‘be myself again’ (ch. 11), but how can she be herself in a society that curtails her possibilities so violently? He prescribes electric shock therapy, and Esther wonders ‘what terrible thing it was that I had done’ (ch. 12), as Plath suggests that ambitious young women were punished, electrocuted, lobotomised and forced back into submissiveness, for wanting too much, trying too hard, wanting the double life reserved for men, wanting mutually exclusive things. Esther is crazy, says her society, crazy to want them: and so they will do their best to erase those longings, violently if necessary. Having been hospitalised after a suicide attempt, Esther has an epiphany about the way that conventional femininity was trapping all the women like her: ‘What was there about us, in Belsize [Hospital], so different from the girls playing bridge and gossiping and studying in the college to which I would return? Those girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort.’ (ch. 20)

Manuscript outline of chapters for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Manuscript outline of chapters for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

‘College - Independence grows bit by bit […] Dostoevsky; boys; bleached hair’: Plath’s outline for the first chapter of The Bell Jar. The outline starkly shows how Esther is increasingly curtailed by a society that wants women to remain submissive.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College Libraries, © Estate of Sylvia Plath. No copying, republication or modification is allowed for material © The Plath Estate. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

Esther has been straitjacketed by her era’s rigid ideas about women and its double standards: when she is told, ‘what a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from’ (ch. 6), Esther responds that she ‘wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a 4th of July rocket’ (ch. 7). That is Esther’s declaration of independence, and she will spend the rest of the novel fighting the kinds of battles that would eventually be called the sexual revolution. Appearing in the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and a year after Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was part of that revolution – but also a book of biting wit, mordant social observation and a moving exploration of how a search for integrity can lead to disintegration.

 

Banner illustration by Harriet Lee-Merion 

 

Footnotes

[1] Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia P;lath, 1950-1962, ed. by Karen V Kukil, (2000), p. 274.

[2] Ibid, p. 272.

© Sarah Churchwell

  • Sarah Churchwell
  • Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, and has written for numerous publications including, the Guardian, New Statesman and Sunday Times.