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Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar

This was Plath’s only novel and was written under the name of Victoria Lucas. It tells the story of Esther Greenwood. At the beginning of the novel she is thinking about the execution of the Rosenbergs and this sets the tone for the novel. She is a third year student and working as an intern at a women’s magazine in New York but not enjoying it. She is gradually becoming depressed. She goes out with a girlfriend and two men but gives a false name and leaves early. She also thinks about her past not very successful relationships with men, including Buddy Willard who wants a conventional marriage. She goes out with Constantin but is disappointed as he doesn’t try to seduce her. When she goes out with Marco, he beats her up. After throwing her clothes off the roof of the hotel, she goes back home, where she learns that her application for a creative writing class has been rejected.

At home things go badly. She tries writing but cannot bring herself to do it. Her mother wants her to learn something practical like shorthand but she feels that she is being pushed into traditional women’s roles. Buddy tells her that he has slept with a waitress but he soon contracts tuberculosis and has to go to hospital. Esther gets more and more depressed, not showering or reading and unable to sleep. Her mother persuades her to go and see a psychiatrist and he administers electric shock treatment, which makes Esther feel even more suicidal. After visiting her father’s grave, she goes home and takes some sleeping pills.

The third part of the novel is about her hospitalisation, where she meets a sympathetic woman psychiatrist but does not want visits from her mother. Her friend, Joan, who had briefly dated Buddy, visits her and suggests a sexual liaison, which Esther rejects. She improves somewhat and plans to go back to college. She has sex for the first time in her life but bleeds a lot but later breaks off with the man. Joan kills herself and she attends the funeral. At the end of the book, she is about to go a meeting with the doctors to see if she will finally be released.

The book is, of course, based on Plath’s own life and has been hailed as not only a well-written book but an interesting study on mental illness. Plath killed herself a month after it was first published. It has also been recognised as a pioneering feminist work, as it outlines the problem a woman of that period faced in terms of both career and relationships with men. However, you read it, it is a fascinating account of Plath’s life and the life of a young woman of that time.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Heinemann