January 5, 2016
I first encountered Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in 1972, when I was a sophomore in college. It was not assigned reading at that time, yet it was catching on like wildfire, especially among us young English majors. Apparently the novel was having a similar effect on many other college campuses. It was originally published in England, Plath’s adopted homeland, only a few weeks before her suicide in 1963. She had used a pseudonym out of belated concern for the many people close to her whom she had trashed mercilessly in the autobiographical story.
Plath was reportedly disappointed in the tepid reaction to the novel. Her only previous book, a collection of poems, had suffered a similar underwhelming fate. She had recently separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, who at that time was much better known than she was. Motivated by both pride and desperation, she was trying to find a way to support herself and their two children. American publishers were initially skeptical about the book’s salability, and she was unable to get it accepted by a U.S. publisher during her lifetime. Several years later, when imported bootleg copies began selling by the hundreds in bookstores, The Bell Jar finally caught the eye of the so-called American literary experts.
Having reread it recently, I can see what put publishers off. It details a nervous breakdown suffered by a young, talented college student. Plath’s forte was poetry, and it shows. The novel reads like the effusions of a poet trying to write a novel. It features a plethora of metaphors, which make for lovely writing but at times can look like showing off. Apart from this stylistic problem, the story suffers from something of a disconnect. As pointed out by one of the publishers who turned it down, the breakdown doesn’t seem to follow from the ordinary angst of a teenaged girl. The observations of a perceptive young woman, who’s going through a tumultuous time in her life, don’t prepare the reader for her plunge into suicidal depression.
Yet something about Plath’s novel certainly spoke to us young college girls. What brought it to life was that by the early 1970s, we knew it was chillingly real. Plath had indeed tried to commit suicide at 20 years of age, and she succeeded at it when she was 30. Like her heroine, Esther Greenwood, she was a scholarship girl at a prominent Eastern women’s college in 1953, who won a writing contest that entitled her to spend a month working at a New York-based fashion magazine. Like her character, Plath was beset by overwhelming ambition that was essentially stymied for girls growing up in the 1950s. She wanted both personal happiness and professional success. The magazine job turned out to be tedious and unsatisfying. She had a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, but who assured her with complete certitude that once she had kids, her creative life would become irrelevant. When she returned to suburbia from her New York adventure, everything seemed lifeless. Her mother’s van reminded her of a prison. The neighbors struck her as nosy and dowdy.
The college years can be a tough period of self-discovery and fear for the future. I hardly knew anyone in those times, including myself, who didn’t go through an episode or two of depression. Fortunately, few of us crashed as dramatically as Plath did. Yet in her later life, Plath came tantalizingly close to fulfilling that “having it all” goal. In fact, at the start of The Bell Jar, she almost brags about it. For a long time after her breakdown, Esther says, she hid away the gifts she accumulated in New York from various fashion companies, such as sunglasses and makeup cases. But “when I was all right again,” she brought them out, and “cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with.”
For a while her marriage was almost idyllic, at least on the surface. She and Hughes took turns caring for their child while each managed several hours of writing time each day. But unfortunately for Sylvia, she married a man with a roving eye. The marriage seemed to grow more troubled after the birth of a second child, which made their childcare chores more complicated. However, her final breakdown was not triggered by her separation from Hughes. In fact, that trauma inspired her to write the anger-fueled poems that became Ariel, the collection which made her name. A more likely explanation is that the publication of The Bell Jar tipped her back into the adolescent angst that she thought she had escaped.
The seeds of self-destruction were always there, regardless of her circumstances. “Sylvia was doomed,” remarked her high school English teacher when he heard of her suicide. Even when she had posed as a fun-loving, carefree high school girl, he had detected the rigidity and falseness behind that sunny mask. It’s noteworthy that there was a history of depression on both sides of her family. She was able to make art from her illness, but the more prosaic truth was that she was mishandled by the psychiatric profession. That is one of the messages of The Bell Jar. Effective treatments for her condition either did not exist or were in an early stage of development. She became something of a guinea pig for drug regimens and electroshock therapy. So I conclude that Sylvia Plath speaks to us, but not for us. We understand her struggles, but most of us, thankfully, can’t begin to understand the desperate remedy that she seized.