So if The Bell Jar is fiction of questionable quality or even, questionably, fiction, how does one label the book? First, the reader should have some idea about the life of the author, Sylvia Plath. For example, one should know that Plath is best recognized for her poetry and also that she committed suicide when she was thirty. Reading about Plath’s life makes it clear that in The Bell Jar, originally published under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, Plath was recording much of her personal experience, very lightly veiled as fiction. Plath attended Smith College and went to New York City in her junior year as a winner of a Mademoiselle writing contest; she tried to commit suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills, and she was hospitalized before finally finishing college. So is this book really just a documentary of Plath’s college years? If so, why did she present it as fiction? Wouldn’t the mental hospital scenes have had more power to change things if they had been presented as the real experiences of an accomplished female poet? These and other questions can never be satisfactorily answered. What we have, then, is a book about a certain era, published in a certain guise. Perhaps that is commentary enough on Sylvia Plath’s life, her historical situation as an adolescent in the early 1950s, and commentary enough on her major piece of fiction.
The next issue that the reader of the work must deal with is Plath’s portrayal of mental illness. On this issue, the reader has no trouble accepting the validity of Plath’s presentation; both her descriptions of Esther’s mental state and Plath’s insights into the complexity of Esther’s mind are truthful and compelling. Indeed, Plath’s ability to be “real” on this level, on this issue, is perhaps the best key to the book’s success.
However, this again creates a problem for the reader. The knowledge that Plath eventually killed herself affects our reading of the book. All our empathy and sympathy for Esther is tinged by the fact that we know that, eventually, Plath did not recover. We start to wonder what is wrong with Esther, and we also become angry with her for not surviving, but we are responding to an extra chapter — a final chapter that was never written, one that we are never allowed to read. Plath’s real suicide, which we can never really fathom in poetic or fictional, or even analytic terms, affects our reading of Esther’s attempted suicide.
So to come to terms with this complex situation we must talk about the mental illness of Sylvia/Esther. This is not an easy task, not even for a trained clinical psychologist.
However, leaving aside the question of whether Plath herself had a serious, constitutional, and incurable mental problem, and aside from whether or not Plath should be classified as schizophrenic or manic-depressive or merely neurotic, the critic, sensitive to the dilemma of the intelligent woman facing America in the fifties, can make several important observations.
First, Sylvia/Esther, or Esther/Sylvia, is obviously suffering from a lack of helpful supportive institutions and structures. There are no good support systems in her life, systems directed at the individual and the person that she is. Her mother does not understand her; her father is dead. The character of Mrs. Willard offers Esther only out-of-date platitudes. The character of Mrs. Guinea offers her a successful but slick and superficial view of life. The character of Jay Cee offers her professionalism, but at what cost? What young girl wants to become competent but emotionally sterile? In short, Esther/Sylvia has no attractive role models to follow. She does not want to learn shorthand and thereby follow her mother’s role. She sees the inadequacies and hypocrisies of the other roles presented to her. This young girl has no idea how to become herself and everyone is pressuring her to choose one of the inadequate role models. Esther would like to branch out in many directions, but she is told in subtle (and also in direct) ways that that route is not possible.
Besides the lack of support from an incomplete family (and certainly it is no one’s fault that her father dies when Esther is nine years old), plus the lack of social support (it is too bad that Sylvia was not born twenty years later when the women’s movement would have been supportive of her), Esther/Sylvia does not get much help from the professional world (Jay Cee doesn’t really try to help her find a good job in New York City, nor do her college professors give her adequate guidance). In addition, Esther’s treatment by her doctors and by her psychiatrists shows us how often the health professions fail people. The horror of imagining Esther being treated, first with insulin treatments and, then, electro-shock therapy is monstrous. The insensitivity of Esther’s supposedly sensitive doctor who has promised her no electro-shock therapy without a discussion of it first is frightening. Esther’s release from therapy before she has clearly defined herself and her problem points to poor medical practice. One reads in Plath’s journal that, unable to sleep the last winter she lived in London, she was prescribed sleeping pills by a British doctor. Considering her history, that seems quite irresponsible. Of course, the early 1960s (Plath died in 1963) were times of a pill being a cure-all for everything.
All this makes us wonder if Plath, as well as her character Esther Greenwood, was not a victim of multiple failures created by the historical era that Plath was caught in. Concerning many matters, we can say only, “But if” or “If only.” Yet those are the very but’s and if’s and only’s that we sigh whenever we view a tragedy.
Thus the attempted suicide of Esther and the real one of Sylvia Plath are another single tragedy for us to ponder. We see clearly that this tragedy is caused not only by a historical situation but also by old male-female conflicts, by a denial of death itself, and also probably by “the sickness of youth” — a condition well described by many German authors, some perhaps a bit akin to Sylvia Plath. It is impossible, one realizes finally, to analyze The Bell Jar without coming to terms with a host of modern existential dilemmas and without coming to terms with the problem of mental illness, or mental health, as it manifests itself in modern American society.
Esther Greenwood takes on several names and sees her friends as other parts of herself, or fragments of herself; indeed, she calls Joan Gilling her double — not just because Joan is having a nervous breakdown, but because Joan is a modern, dual-natured American. Esther, or perhaps even Sylvia, could not choose just one “fig,” or one role — that is, she could not be just a mother, or “just a housewife,” or just a one-dimensional editor, or a spinster professor; therefore, Esther had to invent other names and other masks. She could not accept the old traditional cliche that all these feelings and notions would leave her after she had a baby. Perhaps her several selves were actually a sign of mental health, for she did not repress her personality into one shape as so many others did. But society did not support her in this, and soon Esther is convinced that she is a hopeless mental case.
Being young and well educated does not help Esther much either. She knows enough to be bright and idealistic, has seen enough to be a bit cynical, and yet she has not had enough experience to temper this knowledge into wisdom. Worst of all, there are no survivors of the sort who can inspire her to struggle on. There are, unfortunately, no slightly batty, older, creative-type women around to tell her that there are lots of dangerous, interesting things one can try before deciding to commit suicide. Thus, Esther’s idealism and cynicism only feed the “sour air” of her bell jar. They never lead to any truly outrageous acts or adventures. The loss of Esther’s virginity is a dull, passionless event, safe within the confines of a math professor’s apartment. One can only conclude that youth is certainly wasted on the young and that, yes, it is painful, but it is more a sickness of youth than a tragedy of youth because there is no Romeo and Juliet rashness of passion here. There is mostly just a loss of vision. Esther is no Joan of Arc. Nor in her sarcasm can she rise to the heights of a truly cynical youthful rebel. Even her “degeneracy” takes the form of just not bathing.
This barely trickling outlet of feeling is why Esther/Sylvia seems unable to come to terms with what her bell jar really means. Esther never truly affirms herself, and she never truly yields to herself either. She never says, “Here I am — take me or leave me” to anyone, and certainly never to herself. And she never accepts the ways in which she is like her mother, for example. (Of course, we must add, it is hard to affirm what one is when everyone is telling you to be something else. And why should a young rebellious girl yield to herself when she is so often forced to yield to other forces — the electro-shock therapy, for example?)
It is this superficiality in dealing with the underlying philosophical problems that actually feeds Esther’s illness. And one of the major parts of this problem is not having control over her body, and not yet coming to terms with her body as a physical, animal entity that must be accepted. This is why the purchase of a diaphram is so important to Esther: it will allow her to be free of the fear of unwanted babies. But this simple purchase, fraught as it is with moral and social conflicts, does not ultimately solve or resolve the dilemma of how Esther feels about babies, nor how she feels about the purpose and destiny of her biological self. When she hemorrhages so badly from the loss of her virginity, we see that, indeed, the body is not always under one’s control, and its functions and processes can easily extinguish one.
Perhaps it is this fear of the body that causes Esther to be so addicted to thoughts of suicide. For if the body is going to sabotage one, perhaps it would be best, easier to deal with, if one willfully killed the body first. Esther is thus afraid of life and afraid of death, afraid of success and afraid of failure. When these fears give her acute pain, the ideas of death and joining her father in the grave seem to be the best solution.
Being so concerned with issues of freedom and entrapment (the bell jar is, after all, a kind of jail or even a kind of cocoon), Esther quite naturally attempts suicide when she cannot find any way out of her maze of fears and conflicts.
And here the critic must severely chastise the heroine for her lack of courage, her failure to even try very hard at being heroic. This book and its main character are so soaked in narcissism that even when this young girl fails, we are not sure how to react to that because the point of view of the work itself is not clear on some of these issues. In Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the central character, McMurphy, fails to save himself, but he is nevertheless a hero, and we are quite clear about his individuality and where he stands in the battles he’s undertaken. Esther keeps ducking her battles, and Plath never, in this work, crystalized what battle might have been worth it — what “figs” Esther might have tried to pick, or how many. So the book ends with a certain scattered quality, a certain flatness, a certain lack of finished thought. Release from the mental hospital is supposed to give Esther’s character resolution, but actually, on reviewing the book as a whole, we see that Esther is probably still torn by fragmentation, and that she might even be lost again to depression.
What The Bell Jar gives us, finally, is a rather compelling story of a young girl who has, for a lack of a better way to say it, “a mental problem,” a quite moving and probably very accurate account of mental health treatment in the 1950s. Beyond that, Plath has failed us somewhat in not coming to terms with the underlying problems. The thinness of wisdom is regrettable. It is to be questioned again why Plath published the book under the name of Victoria Lucas. Did she finish it too quickly and could it have been made into a better book with more time? Would her next novel have been better? Would it have had more depth? Perhaps later criticism can at least help put the book in different perspectives. The writer Tillie Olsen, in Silences, has said that this book is the only important novel that we have about the portrait of a young woman as an artist. In that light, perhaps the book deserves more credit.
And indeed, as it is, The Bell Jar is a wonderful document. But it, like so many of its characters, needs more dimension. Like Esther’s “figs,” we have just the several selves of Esther/Sylvia — Elly and Elaine. But where is the ethical dimension, where the courageous existential level? Where, finally, is the real, gritty self-questioning?
Chronology of Plath’s Life
October 27, 1932 Sylvia Plath born to Aurelia Schober Plath, first generation American of Austrian descent, and Otto Emile Plath, emigre from Grabow in the Polish corridor. Otto Plath was a professor at Boston University; his specialty: entomology. Aurelia was approximately 20 years younger than her husband.
1935 Brother, Warren Joseph Plath, is born.
1937 The Plath family moves to Winthrop, Massachusetts.
1938 Sylvia begins public school at Winthrop and receives all A’s; she is a model student.
November 5, 1940 Otto Plath dies of pneumonia and complications from diabetes.
1940–41 Aurelia Plath teaches secretarial studies at Boston University.
1942 Aurelia Plath moves her family, with her parents, to Wellesley.
1944 Sylvia enters Alice L. Phillips Junior High School.
1945 Plath’s poem “The Spring Parade” published in the school’s literary magazine.
1945–46 Other literary publications in The Phillipian, the school’s literary magazine.
1947 Plath wins Honorable Mention in The National Scholastic Literary contest. During these years her I.Q. tests in the 160s, and she meets a classmate, Richard Willard (a fictional name), who will continue with her in school. Later, she dates his older brother, “Buddy.”
1950 Plath enters Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, on a scholarship. During this period, Buddy Willard asks her to the Yale prom.
1952 Plath wins the Mademoiselle fiction contest.
Summer, 1953 Plath is guest editor at Mademoiselle.
Late Summer, 1953 Plath attempts suicide with sleeping pills. She is found and taken to Newton-Wellesley Hospital.
1953 (5 months) Plath resides at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, and is treated with insulin and electro-shock therapy.
February, 1954 Plath returns to Smith.
1955 Plath graduates, goes to England on a Fuibright scholarship.
1956 Plath meets Ted Hughes in February; marries him June 16 (Bloomsbury Day).
1956–57 Plath’s second Cambridge year; English country trips.
1957–58 Returns to America with Hughes. Instructor in English, Smith College.
1958–59 Takes a hospital clerical job in Boston after quitting her Smith position to devote more time to writing. Plath also enrolls in Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar and meets the poet Anne Sexton.
Fall, 1959 Plath writes at Yaddo, the writers retreat at Saratoga Springs, New York. In the winter, she and Ted return to England.
1960 Frieda Rebecca, born at home, April 1, London. November: The Colossus published in England.
1961 Plath suffers a miscarriage and has an appendectomy.
January 17, 1962 Nicholas Farrar born. The Colossus published in the United States.
September, 1962 Ted leaves Sylvia.
December, 1962 Plath moves to London, to a house once resided in by the poet William Butler Yeats.
January, 1963 The Bell Jar, published under the name Victoria Lucas, appears to generally favorable reviews.
February 11, 1963 Plath commits suicide in her London flat by turning on the gas jets.
1965 Ariel published in London.
1966 Ariel published in the United States.
1971 The Bell Jar published in the United States with Plath’s name as author.
1981 Collected Poems published in the United States.
Journals published in the United States.
1998 Ted Hughes breaks his silence about his marriage to Sylvia Plath by publishing Birthday Letters, a collection of poems about their relationship. He dies that same year.
2000 The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath published.