Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
I 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.
Esther 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.
We work ourselves into the ground for little economic benefit. It's high time to for a change, writes Aidan Harper.
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright