Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee


7