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Chiefly celebrated for her “confessional poetry,” Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was also ambitious to break new ground with prose. Poignantly, The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym a month before her death, was her only attempt at the novel form. One of the compelling aspects of this increasingly respected novel is the degree of connection between the troubled life of its heroine, Esther Greenwood, and Plath herself. Inevitably, as we encounter Esther's subtle mental breakdown and successive suicide attempts, we are drawn further into the now almost mythic events of Plath's short life. Despite the inevitable curiosity about the autobiographical content, The Bell Jar is of lasting importance for further reasons.
First and foremost is its subject matter, which has increasing relevance 40 years on. The book examines a contemporary concern—how is it that privileged and educated young people (especially young women) increasingly turn to varied kinds of self harm, as a way of coping and escape? Plath was one of the first writers to explore this area, and her description of Esther's escalating suicidality is all the more realistic for being described so matter of factly.
Various themes spin out from this central idea, such as the restricted role of women in 1950s America, an emerging feminist viewpoint, and personal renewal through struggle.
Esther's development of psychotic depression is Plath's interpretation of the classic “rite of passage” journey. The bell jar of confusion that descends on Esther hampers her personal progress, yet it protects her from being overwhelmed by a highly competitive social world. Plath ushers us into the clinic of the subtly monstrous psychiatrist, Dr Gordon, and exposes us to the stunning brutality of Esther's unanaesthetised electroconvulsive therapy. Psychiatry is redeemed when Esther is renewed under the care of a female consultant, Dr Nolan, who represents what Esther aspires for herself—independence and social respect as a professional woman.
In describing Esther's recovery, Plath covers an aspect of mental illness that is not sufficiently publicised. Esther has undergone a life changing experience. Plath's novel serves as an important reminder that our stigmatised psychiatric wards, sometimes places of misery and tragedy, can also nurture momentous personal change and a new beginning. As we finish the novel, we are drawn again into the author's own life. Esther's overriding concern, as she faces the grand round that will decide for or against her hospital discharge, is whether the bell jar “with its stifling distortions” might descend again. Tragically (for once, this word is not misplaced), Sylvia Plath did not escape the fate that Esther fears.