Classic book: The Bell Jar

Mel Evans takes a look back at The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 50 years on

June 8, 2013
5 min read

bell-jar-2I first read The Bell Jar aged 16, eyes glued to the page until 3am. Judging from the discussions around the 50th anniversary of its publication, and of Sylvia Plath’s death, I’m not the only one. The central character, Esther Greenwood, set a new standard in fictional heroines: honest, cutting, and disillusioned, with a dark, dry wit. Plath wanted to write high art and pop art at the same time, and the novel’s enduring, intergenerational appeal demonstrates her success.

Readers argue over how far to read the novel as autobiography. For those hungry for more from a profound writer who died so young, seeing the book as the ‘truth’ of Plath’s experience offers some kind of answer to her suicide. Others reject this as over-simplifying and urge allowing the character Greenwood to exist more freely as Plath’s careful creation. Either way, The Bell Jar provides a stark portrait of 1950s America’s options for young (white) women, and conveys the conditions that 1960s second wave feminism (mainly centred on the experience of white women) rose in response to.

bell-jarEsther Greenwood is torn between modelling herself on Doreen the sexy slut or Betsy the wholesome virgin. She is disgusted by the lifestyles of affluent young women, as someone who had never been to a restaurant before spending the summer on a writer’s scholarship in New York – that in fact funnels the young women into secretarial work or marriage rather than nurturing their creative paths. Esther compares her own incarceration in a mental health clinic to the restrictions on young women like her in the outside world: ‘What was there about us, in Belsize [hospital], so different from the girls playing bridge and gossiping and studying in the college to which I would return? Those girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort.’

Plath lays bare the connections between society’s norms and oppressions and her protagonist’s journey through suicidal depression. Esther repeats how it is various things around her that ‘made me sick’. Esther’s rejection of being told that ‘what a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from’ crystallises Plath’s critical analysis of 1950s US patriarchy as stifling, suffocating and indeed sickening. Esther instead notes that she ‘wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a 4th of July rocket’, but the barriers to her doing that are clearly internalised nonetheless.

I first came to read this book because it was on the A-Level curriculum, with a young teacher drawing out the finer points of feminist critique for the class. Plath lacked role models herself, but certainly raised expectations of female characters for other women readers. Amidst the 50th-anniversary debates some Plath fans fantasise over who would Sylvia be if she were a young woman today.

Some imagine her as a fervent blogger dissecting the world she sees post-radical feminism, post riot grrrl, post Prozac. Maybe links would be drawn to the impact of current cuts to Disability Living Allowance to people with mental health problems like Plath, who made little money as a writer while she was living. Or perhaps in 2013, after numerous backlashes against gains made by feminist movements, and women still suffering issues like the large pay gap and the 6 per cent conviction rate in rape cases, the outlook for women is simply another kind of depressing.

With the recent release of the anniversary edition has come a new cover and a new controversy over the meaning and purpose of the book. Faber & Faber’s original 1966 cover design, by Shirley Tucker, is a dizzying set of concentric circles, but the new edition is the reflection in a compact mirror of a woman powdering her face (see above for both). Fatema Ahmed in the London Review of Books rightly challenged this switch in focus: ‘The anniversary edition fits into the depressing trend for treating fiction by women as a genre, which no man could be expected to read and which women will only know is meant for them if they can see a woman on the cover.’ F&F contends that the ‘mass appeal’ design could bring in new readers – and it is selling fast.

Several editions of The Bell Jar have covers showing a young woman staring back at the reader. Well, read her, hear her, and share the book with others who might find solace or new understanding in this novel of a young woman’s battle with patriarchy, exquisitely described. I’ll leave it to readers of this review to act on widening the readership of such an important novel, significant to history, feminism, and the potential for political organising of understanding the roots of depression.

If I were to compare The Bell Jar to contemporary literature, perhaps The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie comes closest. In telling of the restricted situation Nigerian women find themselves in now, socially and politically, it is akin to Plath’s rendering of the predicament of white women in 1950s in the US. Plath is held in rightful renown and her story resonates today.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill


7