Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” still resonates almost 60 years later

By June Peers

Acclaimed American poet and novelist, Sylvia Plath, was born on October 27, 1932.  She is most notably remembered for her poetry books such as “Ariel” and “The Colossus and Other Poems” and her only novel, “The Bell Jar.”

“The Bell Jar” is a semi-autobiographical novel, consisting of aspects of her own life and the mental adversities she faced in a state of depression.  Many of those who have analyzed her writing have found similarities between the chronicles of the main character, Esther Greenwood, and the experiences of Plath herself.  Like Esther who was an intern at Ladies’ Day magazine, Plath was selected as a guest editor at Mademoiselle in college.  Additionally, Plath was declined from participating in a Harvard writing class, which she references in “The Bell Jar” when Esther is rejected from a writing class as well.  For both Plath and Esther, the rejection from the class was devastating and led them into an even more depressive state.

At the time of her novel’s 1963 publication, Plath wrote under the pseudonym, Victoria Lucas.  This was to protect the real-life identities of those included in her book (whose names were changed to further secure privacy).  Her mother believed that the attachment of her name would tarnish Plath’s reputation amongst her family and friends since she spoke poorly of them in her novel.  For instance, Plath references her ex-boyfriend in the novel, portraying him as an arrogant man who believes a woman’s only purpose is to marry.

Not only did Plath fear the public embarrassment of the people whom she fictionalized, but she also worried how the media would perceive a novel written by someone who was predominantly known for poetry.  She wanted to dissociate “The Bell Jar” from her past poetry. From then on, her pen name became a critical part of her writing identity.

Plath astonishingly finished a draft of her novel in just 70 days.  Once the publication of her poetry collection “The Colossus and Other Poems” was announced, the writer’s block she had experienced for months subsided.  She had always intended to write about the tribulations of her institutionalization but suffered from a lack of inspiration.  Suddenly, when she heard the gratifying news that her collection was accepted, she understood exactly what she wanted to write for her future project, and “The Bell Jar” was born.

Many critics and readers did not appreciate “The Bell Jar” for its themes of depression and angst.  It was not until after Plath’s death when people recognized the rawness of Esther’s tragic story.  Her initial publishers described the book as “disappointing, juvenile, and overwrought.”  Along with the criticism the book received from potential publishers, reviewers noted that “The Bell Jar” was eloquently written, but that the plot itself was anti-climatic.

Plath took her own life at the age of 30, a month after “The Bell Jar” was published.  Shortly after the publication of her first novel, she started writing a second novel entitled “Double Exposure.”  Unfortunately, the 130-page manuscript was said to have disappeared in 1970, making “The Bell Jar” her last known written work.

Today, Sylvia Plath would have been 89 years old.  Her writing will always be regarded as emotional and moving, advancing the art of both confessional poetry and novel writing as a whole.  The tragedy of Plath’s death will forever break our hearts.  Her work resonates through time and will continue to inspire future generations with her prose and poetry.