History: This is an autobiographical novel, published in 1963. Sylvia Plath committed suicide one month after this book was published. The book contains many references to real people and events in Plath's life. Plath's real-life magazine scholarship was at Mademoiselle magazine beginning in 1953. Furthermore, Philomena Guinea is based on Plath's own patron, Olive Higgins Prouty, author of Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager, who funded Plath's scholarship to study at Smith College. Plath was rejected from a Harvard course taught by Frank O'Connor. Dr. Nolan is thought to be based on Plath's own therapist, Ruth Beuscher, whom she continued seeing into adulthood. Plath was actually a patient at McLean Hospital, an upscale facility.
Plot: Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, gains a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City under editor Jay Cee. At the time of the Rosenbergs' execution, Esther is neither stimulated nor excited by the big city and glamorous culture and lifestyle girls her age are expected to idolize and emulate. Instead her experiences frighten and disorient her. She has a benefactress in Philomena Guinea, a formerly successful fiction writer, who will, later during Esther's hospitalization, pay for some of her treatments.
Esther describes in detail several seriocomic incidents that occur during her internship, kicked off by an unfortunate but amusing experience at a so-called "ladies' day" banquet, and reminisces about her friend Buddy, whom she has dated more or less seriously and who considers himself her fiancé. She returns to her Massachusetts home in low spirits immediately finding out that she did not get into the writing class at Harvard. After being rejected, she decides to spend the summer potentially writing a novel, although she feels she hasn't got enough life experience to write convincingly. All of her identity has been centered around doing well academically; she has no idea what to make of her life once she leaves school, and the choices presented to her (motherhood, as exemplified by the prolific child-bearer and vacuous Dodo Conway, or stereotypical female careers such as stenography) do not appeal to her.
Esther becomes increasingly depressed, and finds herself unable to sleep. Her family doctor refers her to a psychiatrist, Esther immediately is suspicious of him, and who then hastily diagnoses her with a mental illness and administers electroconvulsive therapy. Also, this first therapist is noted by his sex, and also his good looks, which Esther resents. By this time, Esther is suffering from intense insomnia and is traumatised by the therapy, which was improperly administered.
Esther's mental state worsens. She describes her depression as a feeling of being trapped under a bell jar, struggling for breath. She makes several half-hearted attempts at suicide, including swimming far out to sea, before making a serious attempt. She leaves a note that says she is taking a long walk, then crawls into the cellar and swallows almost 50 sleeping pills that have been prescribed for her insomnia. She is discovered under her house after a rather dramatic episode in the newspapers has presumed her kidnapping and death, all taking place over an indeterminate amount of time. After a stay at the state institution, which is terrifiying, she is sent to a private mental hospital funded by her benefactress, Philomena Guinea, and meets Dr. Nolan, a female therapist with whom she becomes very close to. After several months, the doctor prescribes electroconvulsive therapy and ensures that it will be properly administered. Esther describes the ECT as beneficial in that it has a sort of antidepressant effect, lifting the metaphorical bell jar in which she has felt trapped and stifled. Under Dr. Nolan, Esther improves and various life-changing events —such as losing her virginity and her final understanding of death through the suicide of her friend Joan— help her regain her sanity. The novel ends with her entering the room for her interview which would decide whether she was free from the hospital or not.
Review: During and after reading The Bell Jar, I have become fascinated by Sylvia Plath and plan to read more by and about her. It’s 1953, and for a woman who wants to define her life by her work and her mind, the pressures of marriage and womanhood are immense. Esther is surrounded by talented girls who want nothing more than a rich husband and children. Esther doesn’t fit into that mold, and she is unable to create her own.
I think it’s a strong point of the book that Plath doesn’t present as the proximate cause anyone in particular (the mother, the misdiagnosis, the boyfriend, the patriarchal society). Rather, all of these elements stand for themselves, and we are left to wonder which contributed, and to what extent, to the downfall of this promising young woman.
Plath uses an almost causal tone when describing Esther’s breakdown. Everything is stated matter-of-factly, demonstrating how even the mentally ill can think rationally.
The book deserves its place among the best of the American classics. Plath was a literary genius whose own struggles with mental illness gave her poetry and prose a tragic and haunting voice.
Opening Line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
Closing Line: “The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thriead, I stepped into the room.”
Quotes: “I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them , but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”