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First edition cover, authored under Sylvia Plath's pseudonym, Victoria Lucas
|14 January 1963|
First edition cover, authored under Sylvia Plath's pseudonym, Victoria Lucas
|14 January 1963|
The Bell Jar is the only novel by American writer and poet Sylvia Plath, originally published under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas" in 1963. The novel is semi-autobiographical, with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef since the protagonist's descent into mental illness parallels Plath's own experiences with what may have been clinical depression. Plath committed suicide a month after its first UK publication. The novel was published under Plath's name for the first time in 1967 and was not published in the United States until 1971, pursuant to the wishes of Plath's mother and her husband Ted Hughes. The novel has been translated into nearly a dozen languages.
Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the suburbs of Boston, gains a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City under editor Jay Cee. Esther is neither stimulated nor excited by the big city, and the glamorous culture and lifestyle that girls her age are expected to idolize and emulate. Instead, her experiences frighten and disorient her. She appreciates the witty sarcasm and adventurousness of her friend Doreen, but also identifies with the piety of Betsy (dubbed "Pollyanna Cowgirl"), a "goody-goody" sorority girl who always does the right thing. She has a benefactress in Philomena Guinea, a formerly successful fiction writer (based on Olive Higgins Prouty), 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 banquet for the girls given by the staff of Ladies' Day magazine. She reminisces about her friend Buddy, whom she has dated more or less seriously and who considers himself her de facto fiancé. She also muses about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who are scheduled for execution. She returns to her Massachusetts home in low spirits. She has been hoping for another scholarly opportunity once she is back in Massachusetts, a writing course taught by a world-famous author, but on her return her mother immediately tells her she was not accepted for the course. She decides to spend the summer potentially writing a novel, although she feels she doesn't have enough life experience to write convincingly. All of her identity has been centered upon doing well academically; she is unsure of 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 mother encourages, or perhaps forces, her to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon, whom Esther mistrusts because he is attractive and seems to be showing off a picture of his charming family rather than listening to her. He prescribes electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Afterward, she tells her mother she won't go back:
My mother smiled. "I know my baby wasn't like that."
I looked at her. "Like what?"
"Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital." She paused. "I knew you'd decide to be all right again."
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. In a very dramatic episode, the newspapers presume her kidnapping and death, but she is discovered under her house after an indeterminate amount of time. She survives and is sent to a different mental hospital, where she meets Dr. Nolan, a female therapist. Along with regular sessions of psychotherapy, Esther is given huge amounts of insulin to produce a "reaction", and again receives shock treatments, with Dr. Nolan ensuring that they are 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. Her stay at the private institution is funded by her benefactress, Philomena Guinea.
Esther tells Dr. Nolan how she envies the freedom that men have and how she, as a woman, worries about getting pregnant. Dr. Nolan refers her to a doctor who fits her for a diaphragm. Esther now feels free from her fears about the consequences of sex. She feels free from previous pressures to get married, potentially to the wrong man. Under Dr. Nolan, Esther improves and various life-changing events help her regain her sanity. The novel ends with her entering the room for her interview which will decide whether she can leave the hospital.
It is suggested near the beginning of the novel that, in later years, Esther goes on to have a baby.
According to her husband, Plath began writing the novel in 1961, after publishing her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. After she separated from Hughes, Plath moved to a smaller apartment in London, "giving her time and place to work uninterruptedly. Then at top speed and with very little revision from start to finish she wrote The Bell Jar", he explained.
Plath was writing the novel under the sponsorship of the Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship, affiliated with publisher Harper & Row, but they were disappointed by the manuscript and withdrew, calling it "disappointing, juvenile and overwrought". Early working titles of the novel included Diary of a Suicide and The Girl in the Mirror.
The novel is written using a series of flashbacks that show up parts of Esther's past. The flashbacks primarily deal with Esther's relationship with Buddy Willard. The reader also learns more about her early college years.
The Bell Jar addresses the question of socially acceptable identity. It examines Esther's "quest to forge her own identity, to be herself rather than what others expect her to be". Esther is expected to become a housewife, and a self-sufficient woman, without the options to achieve independence. Esther feels she is a prisoner to domestic duties and she fears the loss of her inner self. The Bell Jar sets out to highlight the problems with oppressive patriarchal society in mid-20th-century America. The men in Esther's life are all oppressive, whether it is in a physical manner or an emotional one.
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, author Olive Higgins Prouty, 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 after her release from the hospital. A good portion of this part of the novel closely resembles the experiences chronicled by Mary Jane Ward in her autobiographical novel The Snake Pit; Plath later stated that she'd seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see "mental health stuff," so she deliberately based details of Esther's hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward's book. Plath was a patient at McLean Hospital, an upscale facility which resembled the "snake pit" much less than certain wards in the Metropolitan State Hospital, which may have been where Mary Jane Ward was actually hospitalized.
In a 2006 interview, Joanne Greenberg said that she had been interviewed in 1986 by one of the women who had worked on Mademoiselle with Plath in the college guest editors group. The woman claimed that Plath had put so many details of the students' real lives into The Bell Jar that "they could never look at each other again", and that it had caused the breakup of her marriage and possibly others.
Janet McCann links Plath's search for feminine independence with a self-described neurotic psychology. Plath's husband has at one point insinuated that The Bell Jar might have been written as a response to many years of electroshock treatment and the scars it left.
The majority of early readers focused primarily on autobiographical connections from Plath to the protagonist. In response to autobiographical criticism, critic Elizabeth Hardwick urged that readers distinguish between Plath as a writer and Plath as an "event". Robert Scholes, writing for The New York Times, praised the novel's "sharp and uncanny descriptions." Mason Harris of the West Coast Review complimented the novel as having a "distorted lens of madness [which] give[s] an authentic of a period which exalted the most oppressive ideal of reason and stability." Howard Moss of The New Yorker gave a mixed review, praising the "black comedy" of the novel, but added that there was "something girlish in its manner [that] betrays the hand of the amateur novelist."
The Bell Jar has been referenced by many popular sources in the media including Gilmore Girls and The Simpsons. As Iris Jamahl Dunkle voiced in her article, “often, when the novel appears in American films and television series, it stands as a symbol for teenage angst.” 
Larry Peerce's The Bell Jar (1979) starred Marilyn Hassett as Esther Greenwood, the protagonist and featured the tagline: "Sometimes just being a woman is an act of courage." In the film, Joan attempts to get Esther to agree to a suicide pact, an incident which is not in the book. Joan is implied to be a lesbian in Plath's novel.