The Bell Jar at 40
In March 1970, the poet Ted Hughes found himself in a tricky real estate situation. There was a charming seaside house he wanted to buy, in Devonshire, but the necessary funds weren’t at hand. Of course he could have sold one of his two other homes, but one was the home he had shared with his now deceased ex-wife Sylvia Plath, another was a solid investment, and so on. In the end, he wrote to Sylvia Plath’s mother, Aurelia, asking for her blessing to sell one of his other assets: her daughter’s first and only novel, written a year before her suicide in 1963, for which Hughes suspected there might now be a market in the United States.
The Bell Jar had been published in the UK under a pseudonym, to middling reviews, in 1963. American publishers had turned it down then, finding it deficient in plot and cohesion—“We didn’t feel you had managed to use your materials successfully in a novelistic way,” one editor wrote to Plath. A few weeks later, Plath, estranged from Hughes and living alone in London with their two small children, gassed herself. The posthumous publication of Ariel, a collection of poems written in a blaze of creativity during the last months of Plath’s life, brought her worldwide renown. Hughes seems to have assumed that this would prompt American editors to reverse their initial opposition to the novel, though in his letter to Aurelia Plath he made clear his low opinion of the book, suggesting that in a few more years it would be of interest merely as a “curiosity for students.” Aurelia Plath protested the plan; she saw the novel as representing the “basest ingratitude” toward the people her daughter had caricatured, including herself. Hughes ignored her, and The Bell Jar was published by Harper & Row in 1971. It has remained in print continuously ever since.
It’s always interesting when a very strange book is also an enduringly popular book. The Bell Jar has sold more than three million copies and is a mainstay of American high school English classes; it was made into a movie in 1979, and another version, starring Julia Stiles, is currently in production. Like The Catcher in the Rye, it is a touchstone for a certain kind of introspective, moody teenager—the kind of teenager who used to listen to the Cure and, later on, Tori Amos, and who these days listens to—actually I have no idea, but she definitely has a blog. (There are an amazing variety of embarrassing shrines to The Bell Jar online.) Unlike Catcher, it also has other sources of partisan support: feminists of the 1970s claimed Plath as a martyred patron saint of repressive domesticity, and mental illness advocates have found in her work easily identifiable symptoms and syndromes that were misdiagnosed and barbarically treated.
As much as it was initially underappreciated by the British press, The Bell Jar was overpraised on its American publication. As such, it has frustrated generations of critics and biographers by refusing to be quite the great novel you’d want a great poet’s only novel to be. The book’s appeal comes into focus only when a reader drops her outsized expectations; after that, a more complex story reveals itself. Under the pretense of describing mental breakdown and recovery, Plath was free to bare her stand-in narrator’s nastiest, most selfish impulses. In doing so, she both dramatized and exemplified the conflict inherent in trying to be both a great writer and a nice person.
In 1972, the feminist poet Robin Morgan published a poem called “The Arraignment,” which contained this memorable rhyme:
She was accusing him, more or less, of the murder of Sylvia Plath, and the accusation was taken up by many other women. Because Plath died intestate, Hughes now controlled her estate, and denied various permissions to whomever he deemed unworthy. He had also destroyed the last volume of her journals—to protect the children, he said, but he looked like a man trying to cover something up. Plath’s gravestone, which had been engraved with her married name, was continually defaced: each time it was repaired, women would come back and chip Hughes’s name off it again.
Their anger was understandable. Since Plath’s death, Hughes’s life had taken another macabre twist: his affair with German-born Jewish poet Assia Wevill, with whom he had a daughter, Shura, had also ended badly, and in March 1969 Wevill had gassed herself and their daughter. This tragedy (“It didn’t help his reputation,” the New York Times intoned many years later in Hughes’s own obituary), plus Hughes’s refusal to speak out publicly about his relationship with Plath, helped to cement the image of Plath as martyr and Hughes as adulterous tormentor and oppressor in the public imagination.
There was certainly plenty in The Bell Jar for a dogmatic second-wave feminist to latch onto in the course of a quick skim. “I hated the idea of serving men in any way,” goes one oft-quoted passage; another, which Janet Malcolm calls “like a madeleine for bookish women of my generation,” talks about the protagonist’s refusal to learn shorthand, out of a desire to “dictate my own thrilling letters” rather than men’s. But closer reading reveals another, more nuanced story about Plath as a woman and as a writer, one that shows the writer’s sense of terror about the consequences of becoming herself.
The novel’s first four paragraphs alone encompass three distinct and unrelated sources of disdain, disgust, and horror. Narrator Esther Greenwood is in New York, surrounded by the city’s majestic skyscrapers and fascinating, glamorous inhabitants, but all she can see is dirt and looming doom. From every newspaper, headlines scream about the impending execution by electric chair of the convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Esther can’t stop imagining what it would be like to be “burned alive all along your nerves.” She describes summertime New York’s gritty grossness, detailing the “fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway” and the way each morning the “country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream,” leaving only sizzle and glitter and “dry, cindery dust.” Then we’re back to the Rosenberg headlines, which haunt Esther in the same way that seeing a cadaver once did: “Pretty soon I felt as though I were carrying that cadaver’s head around with me on a string, like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar.”
It’s almost disappointing when we learn that Esther’s exotic, macabre cast of thought stems from an ordinary source of psychic strain. Having come to New York to work at a women’s magazine for part of the summer, she has found that none of the academic prizes she’s spent her life accumulating have any real-world value.
This is directly analogous to the summer of 1953, in which Plath spent three months in New York undertaking a “guest editorship” at Mademoiselle. Starting in the late 1930s, winning a spot in Mademoiselle’s guest editorship program had been a highly sought-after honor for American college girls with literary aspirations; other alumnae of the program include Joan Didion, Ann Beattie, and—in Plath’s same group—the novelist Diane Johnson. Mademoiselle regularly published short fiction and poetry by writers such as Truman Capote and Dylan Thomas. In addition to interviewing authors and minor celebrities, Plath and her fellow guest editors, who came from all over the country, kept busy with promotional junkets, movies, and dinners and dances and teas—it was like a combination of internship and debutante season.
Smith College, and the town of Wellesley where she lived since age 10, had nurtured Plath’s private sense of literary mastery. New York, on the other hand, didn’t care. The whole thing was a shock to the system. A fellow guest editor reports that Plath immediately disdained her because of her strong Midwestern accent. Plath’s editor later said that she found her stiff and formal, singularly incapable of spontaneity. Plath herself reported in letters to her mother and younger brother that she felt exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure; she seems to have been trying to present a brave front. Secretly, she may have been disappointed not to find herself immediately accepted and comfortable in the job she’d worked so hard to get. But these assumptions are necessarily speculative: for that entire June, she wrote no entries in her journal, so it seems appropriate to turn to The Bell Jar for insight into how Plath might have been feeling during that strange summer.
Once in New York, Esther Greenwood realizes she will have to learn a whole new way of being in the world in order to fit in with the wealthy girls at her dormitory-style women’s hotel. These girls are “bored with yachts and bored with flying around in airplanes and bored with skiing in Switzerland at Christmas and bored with the men in Brazil.” They are also there for the summer, but unlike Esther, they don’t see the magazine job as a hard-won reward for a lifetime of achievement; instead, they accept it as their due.
But—to her horrified surprise—Esther is finding that she doesn’t even really want to succeed in this world. The ambition that has driven her for years has, at the moment of its greatest necessity, suddenly abandoned her. When her editor at the magazine asks what she plans to do after graduation, she surprises herself by skipping her usual overrehearsed litany—professor, editor, author of books of poems—and telling the truth: “‘I don’t really know.’” During the series of set pieces that follow, the narration’s tone veers strangely between farce and melodrama.
New York for Esther is full of sexual menace, bewildering rituals, and spiritual and literal poison; a place where anything can happen, and “anything” is often weird and disgusting. A famous disc jockey rescues Esther and her friend from a cab stuck in traffic and whisks them away to his Greenwich Village apartment, where she watches as he mauls Esther’s increasingly drunken friend. Later this friend collapses at the doorway of Esther’s room in a puddle of her own brown vomit, and Esther leaves her lying there and goes back to bed. A luxurious banquet of caviar and crab-stuffed avocados laid out by the magazine’s test kitchens poisons everyone who eats it: more vomit (much more). A man Esther has just met rips her dress and throws her down in the mud to rescue the diamond stickpin he gave her as a joke, then paints her face with lines of his blood after she punches him in the nose to prevent herself from being raped. In between these Gothic horrors Esther also goes on dates, eats delicious unusual food, takes luxurious hot baths, and learns to tip cabdrivers and bellhops appropriately.
This mix of excitement and terror might sound extreme, but anyone who’s moved to New York as a young adult or teenager can probably relate to some aspects of Esther/Sylvia’s experience: we’ve all met malevolent strangers and spent time with them out of curiosity, watching from a detached distance and wondering when our self-preservation instincts will kick in. We’ve all thrown up. With any luck, we’ve emerged wised-up and mostly unscathed. But the next chapter in Sylvia’s life—and the next section of the book—diverged from standard bildungsroman territory, in that both almost ended there.
When Plath arrived back in Wellesley at the end of her guest editorship, she learned—in the car, on the way back from the train station—that she’d been denied acceptance to Frank O’Connor’s summer writing class at Harvard. After her bewildering experiences in New York, this was too much. Plath stopped eating and sleeping and lost the ability to make sense of words on a page. Her mother’s attempts at intervention proved useless. Leaving a note that she’d gone for a long walk, Plath barricaded herself in a basement crawlspace and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills.
Eventually, Plath’s mother and brother saw that the pills were missing, and after a frantic police search, they presumed Sylvia was dead. As they ate lunch two days later, they heard moaning coming from the basement; they rushed downstairs, where they discovered Plath’s hiding spot. She had lapsed into a coma, then awoken from it and vomited up the pills. After she underwent a brief hospitalization, a psychiatrist recommended a stay in a mental institution. Before her suicide attempt, she was given a course of electroshock treatments that may have been administered incorrectly, judging from Plath’s reports of feeling terrible pain during the treatments. A wealthy novelist who’d endowed a scholarship at Smith that Plath had won paid for her subsequent institutionalization at McLean, a private hospital in Belmont, where she received more successful, less painful electroshock treatments and entered therapy with Ruth Beutscher, who would remain her therapist into Plath’s twenties. She remained there for several months before being discharged, missing only a semester of college.
After Esther Greenwood’s initial New York grotesquerie, the rest of The Bell Jar essentially covers this time in Plath’s life—her breakdown, suicide attempt, and hospitalization and recovery at McLean, with a few fictional frills and timeline-rearrangements. Throughout this part of the book, Esther is hugely unlikable: Waking in the hospital, she treats her heartbroken visiting mother and brother with total disdain. Later she dumps a bouquet her mother has sent directly into the garbage. She is cold and difficult with nurses and cruel to fellow patients. Joan, an oddball sometime friend, copies her suicide attempt and joins her in the institution. Esther tells this fragile person that she hates her and finds her sickening. To a female psychiatrist, she confesses that she hates her mother and finds the fear of pregnancy a source of stress; the psychiatrist arranges for her to be fitted for a diaphragm. She immediately goes out and loses her virginity to a Harvard professor whom she picks up pretty much randomly and to whom she feels zero attraction, and when she doesn’t stop bleeding afterward, she enlists Joan’s help in getting to the ER. Joan succeeds in killing herself shortly thereafter, and Esther doesn’t seem to care a bit. In the book’s last scene, she prepares for the interview that will determine whether she is fit to leave the institution. Though she thinks of herself as “patched, retreaded, and approved for the road,” she is also aware of not being essentially different at all. She has been “analyzed,” but her problems remain unsolved.
Plath returned to Smith after her hospitalization seemingly as good as new and a bit of a celebrity “in spite of or perhaps not in spite of her suicide attempt,” according to the poet Lucas Myers. She was different now, still driven and vivacious but in some ways more carefree; she became sexually adventurous (for the time), dating several boys simultaneously and sleeping with them. After her graduation she won a Fulbright fellowship to study poetry at Cambridge, where she continued to be popular, known, and noticed for her flamboyant American outfits and attitude. There she met Ted Hughes.
Like many American girls, I first read The Bell Jar when I was around 14. The parts I found most striking then were about Esther losing her virginity—the blood soaking a towel, turning the towel black! Could that really happen?—and about seeing a penis for the first time: “the only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.” I also remember being struck by the famous passage about Esther imagining all her potential futures like ripe figs hanging from the branches of a tree:
One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor. . . . 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.
Probably this passage stuck with me mostly because my initials are also Ee Gee; I couldn’t have really understood, then, what Plath meant. Only later, after I had moved to New York and read the book again and was starting the long slog toward becoming an adult, could I begin to understand what had been so horrifying to Esther about those figs. The moment when one’s abstract dreams about the future—when the mass of real-life duties and consequences that a hazy cliché such as “happy home” or a word like “husband” encompasses—begin to come into focus is not always a happy moment. It might be especially unhappy for women who want those other figs still, all of them, immediately, and more.
Especially in its first half, The Bell Jar exposes the situation of a very smart, ambitious young woman coming of age in the 1950s, when intelligence and ambition, past a certain threshold, were real liabilities for women. Plath hospitalizes Esther and lets her out again, but she never resolves the central problem that Esther confronts most palpably in New York: how to be a woman and how to be a writer, and how to be those two things at once. The closest to a solution she gets is her description of the gleeful freedom that becomes available only when Esther totally lets go of her goals and her self-image. In the latter half of the book, Plath holds out the strange promise that there’s a way to kill your compulsive good-girl self without killing your whole self. But she never suggests that there might be some way of doing this that doesn’t involve literally trying to kill yourself.
The evolution of Plath’s poetry explicitly dramatized her struggle to transcend her good-girl strivings. While it’s tempting to see the last three years of her life as increasingly miserable, domestically, in exact proportion to how much they were increasingly productive creatively, that’s not quite how it happened. Plath’s poetry’s dramatic leap forward occurred in 1961, after she was hospitalized for an appendectomy. Ten days after leaving the hospital, she wrote two poems that, Hughes noted, were the first she’d ever composed without using her thesaurus: “Tulips” and “In Plaster.” These poems had a forceful directness; in them, Plath employed her long-honed technical skills with a new, casual, confident determination. They are among the earliest of the Ariel poems.
In the meantime, Sylvia’s “fear-logic” about having enough money was in play for the young family (which now included a daughter, Frieda). While Hughes had earned a Guggenheim grant and commissions from the BBC, Plath still felt the need to ensure that she wouldn’t have to take a job that would interfere with her writing again. She had long been describing, in her journals, her determination to write a blockbuster novel; The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward, a late-1940s mental hospital memoir that had been made into a popular movie, still sold well in its second decade of publication, and Plath felt that if she mined her own experiences from the summer of 1953 she could achieve similar results. (“I am a fool if I don’t relive it, recreate it,” she told herself.) She wrote The Bell Jar in a frenetic 70 days, completing a draft in August 1961, as she and Hughes were preparing to move from London to the countryside.
Expecting a second child, they had bought a house called Court Green in rural Devon and started to busy themselves fixing it up. In January, their son Nicholas was born there, but their marriage would soon start to unravel. Hughes was popular with the ladies—“he is a terrifically attractive man,” A. Alvarez would tell Janet Malcolm many years later, who “went through swaths of women like a guy harvesting corn”—and Plath had always rightfully worried about his fidelity. One afternoon, Plath raided Hughes’s study and burned his letters in a backyard bonfire after they confirmed her suspicions (he had been having an affair with Assia Wevill, who was also married). A brief trip to Ireland failed to heal the rift that had developed between them, and when they returned to England, Plath insisted that Hughes leave Court Green.
The next five months were full of agony and writing. Alone with the children at Court Green, Plath composed the bulk of what became her Ariel poems. They were markedly different from anything that had come before. She had always used her experiences in her work, but in her earlier poetry, confession had been mediated by a string of metaphors, riddles, nature scenes, and misdirections. Now the writing became brazenly, flatly direct and explicitly personal. The anodyne Massachusetts seaside was replaced by the poisonous English landscape, filled with bloody berries and seething beehives. “It is almost over,” she wrote in “Stings,” about setting up a beekeeping apparatus,
I am in control.
Here is my honey-machine,
It will work without thinking,
Opening in spring, like an industrious virgin
New, too, were nasty, immediately unforgettable bits of doggerel, almost mockeries of the nursery rhymes she might have been reading to her children:
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.
It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it,
On December 12, 1962, she and the children returned to London, where she rented a spare duplex apartment and busily began sending out the new batch of poems, only a few of which were accepted for publication. She tried her hand at journalism, writing an essay about London’s antiquated ways of dealing with winter weather, and began work on another novel. She went out with friends and talked angrily about Hughes’s betrayal, seeming eager to figure out her plans for the future.
The letters from American publishers rejecting The Bell Jar arrived around Christmas, and following its January UK publication, a spate of mostly indifferent reviews appeared in the London papers. The weather was frigid, and Plath had trouble finding a regular babysitter. She wrote 12 more poems, among them “Edge,” which seems to have been composed last.
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
On February 11, Plath gassed herself to death in the early morning, first sealing the kitchen off from the rest of the apartment so the oven’s fumes wouldn’t reach the children as they slept.
Between Plath’s work and the memoir literature surrounding it, in which Hughes is defended as the victim of Plath’s moodiness and unwarranted jealous rages, in which A. Alvarez can begin his famous essay on Plath’s suicide in his Savage God by telling us that she was “not pretty” and that her hair smelled bad—reading and thinking about the generations of women who had to suffer this kind of knee-jerk condescension from men, you begin to wonder how it was that any woman managed not to put her head in an oven before approximately 1968. Plath’s classmate in Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar, Anne Sexton, did eventually kill herself, too, but Plath’s sometime rival Adrienne Rich did not. Many millions did not. Why not? The situation was intolerable. How could anyone tolerate it?
Of course not everyone was as sensitive as Plath was, and not everyone was such a compulsive overachiever. Trying to be all things to all people, especially if two of those things are “creative genius” and “mother,” still seems like a recipe for unhappiness, if not certain death. While I do think of Plath as a feminist icon, I don’t think it’s necessary to essentialize her in the way the feminists who chipped “Hughes” off her gravestone did. Those feminists want Plath to be a victim—specifically, a victim of Hughes and America’s repressive 1950s perfect-housewife culture. And Plath was a victim: a victim of not being able to see any situation she was in clearly. She wanted very badly to live in a reality where she was a good, kind person who was also a good mother, but that part of her was always fighting with being a very selfish person who wanted to devote time and resources to her work. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to want—it’s just not compatible with being a pretty, popular girl who is nice to everyone all the time. Instead of acknowledging this impossibility, Plath tried to keep both sides of herself going until the whole precarious enterprise broke down. It broke down in New York, and then it broke down again, forever, ten years later in London.
One of the poems Plath wrote two weeks after her appendectomy, “In Plaster,” is among my favorites in all her work. It’s one of the ones Ted Hughes says marked a shift in her writing habits, the fateful abandonment of her thesaurus. The poem is a monologue about being an unrepentantly selfish, spiteful, imperfect person, and it’s very funny, in a chilling way. In it, an “old yellow” person trapped inside a “new absolutely white” shell speaks directly to the reader: “I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now,” she announces, describing the odd codependency between white and yellow:
Without me, she wouldn’t exist, so of course she was grateful.
I gave her a soul, I bloomed out of her as a rose
Blooms out of a vase of not very valuable porcelain,
And it was I who attracted everybody’s attention
Not her whiteness and beauty, as I had first supposed.
I patronized her a little, and she lapped it up.
You could tell almost at once she had a slave mentality.
Esther Greenwood’s unpleasantness is prefigured by the declaration of “old yellow” that “It was I who attracted everybody’s attention / Not her whiteness and beauty, as I had first supposed.” The Bell Jar is about a person who’s in the process of discovering that pretending to be perfect, or even just “nice,” when your true self is far from either, isn’t a viable long-term plan.
In New York, Esther is still aiming to be white and clean; we see her stepping out of a hot bath after an icky night feeling “pure and sweet as a new baby.” But after her suicide attempt Esther’s “old yellow” self, her stubbly legs brazenly sticking out of her hospital pajamas, steps into the spotlight. Thinking of killing herself and her mother, hating her doctors and nurses and fellow patients, caring absolutely nothing about the death of someone who’d admired and helped her, Esther seems perversely happier and freer than she has anywhere else in the book. There is something life-affirming in Esther’s glorification of her grosser qualities—life-affirming and also not, because of how the book ends. And, of course, because of how the story ends. This is how the poem ends:
I used to think we might make a go of it together—
After all, it was a kind of marriage, being so close.
Now I see it must be one or the other of us.
She may be a saint, and I may be ugly and hairy,
But she’ll soon find out that doesn’t matter a bit.
I’m collecting my strength; one day I shall manage without her,
And she’ll perish with emptiness then, and begin to miss me.