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The Bell Jar: Sylvia Plath’s Masterpiece of Confessionalism

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath.
Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, attracted mediocre reviews upon its publication in 1963. Since then, however, its insight into Plath’s life, and the issues of mental health, and women’s rights, which were widely ignored at the time, are demonstrative of why it’s now considered such a powerful novel. The BBC even put it on their list of ‘100 stories that shaped the world’ in 2019.

Plath herself was born in Massachusetts in 1932 to Austrian parents. She studied at Smith College in the early 1950s and later won a Fulbright fellowship to study at Cambridge University, England. This is where she met Ted Hughes, who she married within a year. They both became increasingly successful writers, and moved between America and England. However, within a few years, there arose difficulties as jealousy grew between Plath and Hughes due to Hughes’ increasing success; there are even rumours of domestic abuse occurring between the pair. They divorced in 1962.

The Bell Jar focuses on an adolescent girl, Esther, who goes to study at a summer writing course in New York. The story starts here, but jumps around with flashbacks to Esther’s past, and its progression into the future. The novel may not appear massively autobiographical from its plot outline, but within the story, there are many details which link it to Plath’s life. As will be discussed, it is possible that these details were part of Plath’s confessionalism. The Confessional Movement emerged in the 1950s and 60s, and involves writers discussing deeply personal subjects such as trauma, death and depression, but through a fictional medium. Esther’s mind – sometimes narrated through a stream of consciousness – is presented as a whirlwind of deteriorating mental health, spurred on by societal pressures she faces and the inequality of women. This narration emphasises the fact that many of Esther’s experiences were actually Plath’s own.

For example, Esther’s father died when she was nine, and Plath’s did when she was just eight. In fact, this part of the storyline is identical as Esther mentions her father’s interest in insects, and Plath’s own father was an entomologist. Interestingly, Plath seemed to have an obsession with her father which ranged from her love and admiration for him (sometimes verging on an Electra Complex) to her hatred for him “abandoning” her. In her poem, Daddy, she even calls him a ‘bastard’ and says ‘the villagers never liked you’. Plath’s mental state at this time – just four months before her death – was likely disturbed. Nonetheless, the parallels between Esther and Plath continue, both being rejected from prestigious writing courses, both receiving electroconvulsive therapy in psychiatric hospitals, and both writing poetry, just to name a few.

Perhaps through these parallels, Plath is trying to lay out her the blame for her mental deterioration. Just as Esther’s mental state deteriorates, Plath’s does similarly.

With regards to this mental deterioration, again The Bell Jar is important historically, and in understanding Plath’s own life further. In the novel, Esther describes a level of dissociation and disconnection from reality. She says that she ‘wasn’t steering’ herself, even describing her own reflection as ‘the face in the mirror’, rather than her face. Moreover, Esther uses different names for herself, creating the persona of Elly Higginbottom in the first chapter, and Elaine about halfway through the novel. Similarly, and unfortunately, Plath herself struggled severely with mental health, describing the level of her despair as “owl’s talons clenching my heart”. Before her death in 1963, she had already tried to kill herself by taking her mother’s sleeping pills ten years before, and later by driving her car off the road. She received both electroconvulsive shock therapy and insulin shock therapy before she had left college (for her depression), and struggled with insomnia. Like her protagonist, Plath also used different names, publishing The Bell Jar under the name of Victoria Lucas. Finally, Plath committed suicide on 11th February 1963, less than a month after the publication of her novel. At that time – during the worst winter for a century – she had been divorced from Hughes for just four months, and she was single parenting two children in a London flat without a telephone. She was found with her head in the oven by her the live-in nurse that was coming to ensure she was alright until her anti-depressants kicked in. Whilst very sad, this element of Plath’s life is clearly represented in the confessional nature of The Bell Jar. In more of her material, this was explored further. For example, in her poem, Daddy, she talks about attempting suicide at age twenty. Similarly, Suicide Off Egg Rock – another of her poems – is a reference to the rock mentioned in The Bell Jar which Esther aims towards when she tries to swim until she drowns. Notably, Plath won a Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Poems published posthumously in 1982, showing the impact of such poems such as these.

On the important issue of women’s rights, too, The Bell Jar is influential. It is perhaps because of Esther’s incongruity with the group of girls she is put with that readers have their attention drawn to the stereotypical presentation of women and girls in the 1960s. The reference to them as ‘the girls’ highlights their uniformity, but Esther’s blunt statement that the girls she was staying with ‘make me sick’ demonstrate her contrast to them. Whereas they relish the opportunity to be showered with gifts, Esther ‘hid them away’; whilst the girls mostly eat salad for lunch, Esther ‘picked the richest, most expensive dishes’ to gorge on. These differences highlight the stereotypical assumptions many people made about women in the 60s. Furthermore, when debating what life choices she had with the Fig Tree analogy, Esther notes the appeal of having ‘a husband, and a happy home, and children’, but ultimately, she rejects that stable, conventional offer in the form of Buddy Willard, who is training to become a doctor. This epitomises the feeling that whichever choice she makes, Esther will be losing out on another, and potentially disappointing the people around her. Again, the confessional nature of the novel enhances the power of this image, and demonstrates the importance of The Bell Jar.

Ultimately, The Bell Jar is both a masterpiece of confessionalism, and an eye-opening novel about the societal pressures of the 20th century. It draws attention to specific problems faced by Plath herself, and relates these problems to American society as a whole, showing why it is such a powerful book.

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