The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath’s only published novel, The Bell Jar, is an exploration of mental illness and the pressure of social expectations on women in 1950s America. The novel’s title refers to the sense of oppressiveness and isolation brought about by depression, ideas that are also conveyed stylistically through the ironic and detached tone in which the book is written.
The protagonist is Esther Greenwood, an accomplished college student who wins a contest to become a guest editor at Ladies’ Day magazine in New York. The novel describes her experience in the city in the sweltering summer during which Esther begins to feel progressively apathetic and alienated from the people around her. On her return to her family home, Esther discovers that she has not been admitted in the prestigious graduate programme to which she had applied. Her mental health worsens and her doctor recommends electroconvulsive treatment. The effect of this violent treatment is severely damaging for Esther, who subsequently tries to commit suicide. While she eventually recovers, the threat of a relapse never subsides.
The Bell Jar opens with a reference to the executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg by electric chair for passing atomic secrets to the USSR, an episode that foreshadows the protagonist’s own treatment with electroconvulsive therapy.
Many of the protagonist’s experiences mirror Plath’s own, including her role as a guest editor in the magazine Mademoiselle in the summer of 1953, and her mental breakdown and subsequent treatment with electroconvulsive therapy. The novel was initially published in England in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, probably due to the autobiographical components of the novel. The Bell Jar was not published in America until 1971.
- Article by:
- Sarah Churchwell
- Exploring identity, Gender and sexuality, Literature 1950–2000
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.
- Article by:
- Karen Kukil
- Exploring identity, Gender and sexuality
The unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath span the entirety of the poet's adult life. Karen Kukil, who edited the journals, reflects on what we can learn from them about Plath's life and work.