Written in the early 1960s, and Sylvia Plath's only full-length prose work, The Bell Jar is an autobiographical novel that relates the childhood longings and descent into madness of Plath's alter-ego, Esther Greenwood.
Plath was so concerned about the closeness of her novel to her life that she published it under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas (just as in the novel Esther plans to publish a novel of her life under a different name). It only appeared under Plath's real name in 1966, three years after she committed suicide.
The story relates a year in the life of Esther Greenwood, who seems to have a rosy future in front of her. Having won a competition to guest edit a magazine, she travels to New York. She worries about the fact that she is still a virgin and her encounters with men in New York go badly awry. Esther's time in the city heralds the start of a mental breakdown as she slowly loses interest in all the hopes and dreams.
Dropping out of college and staying listlessly at home, her parents decide that something is wrong and take her to a psychiatrist, who refers her to a unit that specializes in shock therapy. Esther's condition spirals even further downwards due to inhumane treatment in the hospital. She finally decides to commit suicide. Her attempt fails, and a rich older lady who was a fan of Esther's writing agrees to pay for treatment in a center that does not believe in shock therapy as a method for treating the ill.
Esther slowly starts her road to recovery, but a friend she has made at the hospital isn't so lucky. Joan, a lesbian who had, unbeknownst to Esther, fallen in love with her, commits suicide after her release from the hospital. Esther decides to take control of her life and is once more determined to go to college. However, she knows that the dangerous illness that put her life at risk could strike again at any time.
Perhaps the single greatest achievement of Plath's novel is its outright commitment to truthfulness. Despite the fact that the novel has all the power and control of Plath's best poetry, it does not skew or transform her experiences in order to make her illness more or less dramatic.
The Bell Jar takes the reader inside the experience of severe mental illness like very few books before or since. When Esther considers suicide, she looks into the mirror and manages to see herself as a completely separate person. She feels disconnected from the world and from herself. Plath refers to these feelings as being trapped inside the "bell jar" as a symbol for her feelings of alienation. The feeling becomes so strong at one point that she stops functioning, at one point she even refuses to bathe. The "bell jar" also steals away her happiness.
Plath is very careful not to see her illness as the manifestation of outside events. If anything, her dissatisfaction with her life is a manifestation of her illness. Equally, the end of the novel does not pose any easy answers. Esther understands that she is not cured. In fact, she realizes that she might never be cured and that she must always be vigilant against the danger that lies within her own mind. This danger befell Sylvia Plath, not very long after The Bell Jar was published. Plath committed suicide in her home in England.
A Critical Study
The prose which Plath uses in The Bell Jar does not quite reach the poetic heights of her poetry, particularly her supreme collection Ariel, in which she investigates similar themes. However, this does not mean the novel is not without its own merits. Plath managed to instill a sense of powerful honesty and brevity of expression which anchors the novel to real life.
When she chooses literary images to express her themes she cements these images in everyday life. For example, the book opens with an image of the Rosenbergs who were executed by electrocution, an image that is repeated when Esther receives electro-shock treatment. Really, The Bell Jar is a stunning portrayal of a particular time in a person's life and a brave attempt by Sylvia Plath to face her own demons. The novel will be read for generations to come.