Birthday/cbr10bingo Sylvia Plath was born Oct. 27, 1932. Bingo #2
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman’s experience of depression and mental illness, her time in an institution and her slow journey back to wellness. It is also a commentary on the suffocating life of a young woman who wants more than life seems to offer her because of her class and gender. The Bell Jar was published in the UK in 1963, just before Plath committed suicide.
The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood as told by Esther. She is a junior on scholarship at an elite New England college for women, and she is spending the summer on a prestigious internship at a fashion magazine in New York. Esther is not terribly interested in fashion or recipes, but she admires her mentor Jay Cee, who has a successful career as an editor and who tries to encourage greater ambition in Esther. Esther makes it clear from the beginning of her story that it was during this summer that she realized something was wrong. Esther doesn’t feel the joy or excitement of New York as the other young women do. She seems detached from her peers and travels around as more observer than participant in their internship at the magazine. As Esther reflects on her college career and her relationship with boyfriend Buddy Willard, she becomes more and more depressed. She wants to travel, to be a poet, professor and editor, but feels there are too many obstacles in her way; she does NOT want to be involved with Buddy any longer but it is clear that Buddy, her mother, Buddy’s parents and most of society expect her to marry him and have kids just like all young women are expected to do. Esther feels suffocated in her relationship with Buddy and resents that he has had an affair, not because it is disloyal to her (they weren’t even dating yet) but because it gives him an experience, a freedom, that she has not had. When the internship ends, Esther returns to Boston and discovers that she has not been admitted to a writing seminar that she had had her heart set on taking. This disappointment coupled with her mother’s insistence that Esther learn something practical, like shorthand, and her mother’s obvious disappointment in her daughter, contribute to Esther’s spiral into mental illness. She has trouble sleeping, concentrating and writing, and becomes paranoid. Visits to a psychiatrist do no good, especially as Esther hates him and is forced to undergo electroshock therapy. Ultimately, Esther attempts suicide by overdose. With financial support from the patron who provides her school scholarship, Esther is admitted to a private psychiatric facility where she meets a female psychiatrist who inspires her trust and aids in her recovery. Esther even agrees to undergo electroshock therapy again, and this time, when done correctly, it aids in Esther’s recovery.
When The Bell Jar was published, the women’s rights movement was gaining momentum in the US and abroad, and Plath’s description of a woman who feels constrained by traditional female roles and longs to break free of them resonated with many. The novel features few male characters, and often they are the types of men who try to make Esther be what they want her to be, and they can be physically threatening. Buddy is dismissive of her interest in poetry and scoffs at her declaration that she does not want to have children. He also more or less forces her to go skiing, which results in her breaking her leg. Another character with whom she was fixed up on a date became violent and tried to rape her. Dr. Gordon’s use of electroshock therapy on her had a disastrous effect. Very few of the female characters come across in a positive way either. Esther’s mother and Mrs. Willard represent the old order, women who married and had children and didn’t make waves. The young women Esther met in New York came from wealthy families, had had the chance to travel plus other opportunities that Esther envied, and yet many seemed interested in shallow things and ultimately their aspirations focused on marriage and children. The exception was Doreen, the society girl from the South who skipped group events with the other girls to smoke, drink and hook up with men. Doreen encouraged Esther to come along, which she did, but Esther was not able to act as Doreen did; she still felt constrained by her upbringing and social norms. Another troubling character is Joan, a woman around Esther’s age who once dated Buddy. Joan ends up at the same institution as Esther and seems very interested in her but Esther does not feel the same about Joan. Joan is a lesbian, which means there is no place for her in a traditional patriarchal society. I found Esther’s intense dislike of Joan a bit troubling and wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Several older women, however, are enormously important for Esther. Her patron at the college, Philomena Guinea, not only pays for her education and therapy, but is herself a published author who spent time in an institution. Jay Cee, the magazine editor, is smart and successful, with connections to writers, and someone whom Esther would like to impress. And Dr. Nolan is a psychiatrist who understands why Esther feels oppressed and what she needs to be free. At the end of the novel, Esther is able to go out on her own again, no longer feeling as if she is suffocating. Her mind is clearer and she maintains her resolve to live as she wishes, not as society dictates.
While The Bell Jar might be useful for understanding the women’s rights movement, I believe its greater value is in its description of depression and mental illness. Plath wrote what she knew. Esther’s depression, her erratic behavior, paranoia, and her growing suicidal tendencies are described in detail and with clarity, as is life in the mental institution. While Esther’s electroshock therapy ultimately helps her deal with her depression and leads to her freedom, Plath’s depression endured for her very short life despite undergoing electroconvulsive therapy (aka electroshock therapy) multiple times. She committed suicide shortly after The Bell Jar was published in the UK (1963; the book was not published in the US until 1971). It’s interesting to note that in 1962, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published, and in his novel, the male inmates of an asylum are suffering from the pernicious effects of “the matriarchy.” You can read my thoughts about that here but I would recommend The Bell Jar as a more authentic treatment of mental illness.
Bingo #2! Bottom row