Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar: Biographical context

Lesson rationale

Sylvia Plath described her novel The Bell Jar (1963) as ‘an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past’. Drawing heavily on the author’s experiences of isolation, depression and mental breakdown, The Bell Jar explores the pressures on high-achieving young women in mid-20th-century America.

These activities will provide students with an introduction to Plath that will inform their study of The Bell Jar. They will examine the perspectives offered by two of Plath’s short autobiographical prose pieces, and will also explore New York – the city that forms the backdrop to the early part of the novel – as both a place of ambition and opportunity and the catalyst for Esther’s breakdown.

Key questions in this lesson:

  • What do we know about Sylvia Plath’s childhood?
  • What kind of social and educational expectations would have shaped the lives of young women in the USA in the 1950s?
  • In what ways can our understanding of these issues inform our reading of the first chapter of The Bell Jar?