This handwritten outline of chapters for Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, is written on Smith College memorandum paper, probably around the spring of 1961. The novel was first published two years later in 1963, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.
The Bell Jar is an exploration of mental illness and the pressure of social expectations on women in 1950s America. The protagonist Esther Greenwood is a scholarship college student, who wins a contest to become a guest editor at Ladies’ Day magazine in New York. Many of Esther’s experiences mirror Plath’s own, including her role as a guest editor for the magazine Mademoiselle in the summer of 1953, and her mental breakdown and subsequent treatment with electroconvulsive therapy.
How is the plan different from the published novel?
This plan is particularly interesting since no manuscript draft of The Bell Jar survives. According to this outline, Plath once intended for the novel to end with a ‘coda’ made up of two extra chapters, one which would describe the protagonist’s return to college and another one, headed ‘Summer School’, which includes a voyage to Europe. There are other changes with respect to the final version; for instance, Esther’s fellow patient in the mental ward, Joan, appears in the chapter outline as ‘Jane’.
Why is the outline written on pink Smith College paper?
Between 1950 and 1953 Sylvia Plath had a scholarship to study at Smith, a selective arts college for women in Northampton, Massachusetts, and she returned there as a lecturer in 1957–58. By the time she wrote this outline, Plath was in England, far from Smith. But both she and Ted Hughes loved the college paper, and wrote many poems and letters on a stash they had collected when Plath taught there.
She confessed, in a letter to Ted’s sister Olwyn Hughes, dated February 9 1958, that she was stocking up on the pink paper before she and Hughes left for England. That letter, also on Smith College paper, is held at the British Library (shelf mark: Add MS 88948/1/1).