“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” –The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath is perhaps best known today for her poetry, her tempestuous marriage to poet Ted Hughes, and her tragic suicide at the age of 30. She has achieved a status of legend that lends itself to erasing her person as if we are entitled to speak for her. After her death, vandals regularly scratched out the “Hughes” on her gravestone. Hughes was criticized for, among many accused wrongs against Plath, destroying one of her diaries, for publishing a censored version in 1982, 18 years before the complete, unabridged version was made available in 2000. People read her journals and make of her what they will.
When The Bell Jar was originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, the reviews were not kind. It is a book about a young woman, and books about young women by women tend to get thrashed in the press as trite or not significant of notice. The female experience, particularly one involving mental illness, is something taboo. The Bell Jar is about a time when women were starting to experience a duality, with expectations of being pure when men were not held to the same standards, of having options of going to college and having a career balanced with the pressure of also having a family and children and caring for them.
The story follows the largely autobiographical Esther Greenwood who is spending the summer in New York City after winning the chance to intern at a magazine. Esther is a brilliant student and holds a scholarship at her college. But she is starting to realize, as she is shunted from one event to another that summer, that something is wrong. She does not know what she wants to do with her life. There seem to be countless options, those around her are pulling her in opposing directions, and she no longer sees a clear, obvious path in front of her. After years of collecting prizes and accomplishments, the future seems like a blank.
Added to that, she is feeling a bell jar descend upon her, distorting everything. It is one of the starkest descriptions of mental illness, going first to a doctor who does not seem to understand or care about her, incorrectly done and therefore torturous electric shock treatments, watching the clock hands turn every night while being unable to sleep. It is not until a botched suicide attempt that Esther finally gets the help she needs.
When an ex-boyfriend visits her at a time that she is feeling more like herself, he asks her if it was his fault. But, as Esther’s doctor vehemently explains to her, it is not anyone’s fault. The bell jar descends unexpectedly and cannot be lifted without treatment and support from others. The optimistic tone of the ending feels especially bittersweet knowing Plath’s ultimate fate.
The Bell Jar is Plath’s only published novel. It remains, years after its publication, a message of support and hope and sympathy to young women who may not know what they want to do with their lives and to those who feel the bell jar descending.