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Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath:
The Bell Jar (5*)

Another classic not read until now, prompted by the recent news story that permission has been granted for a devotee of the author to be buried near her in the same churchyard at Heptonstall, Yorkshire. Despite living two hundred miles away, the 44 year-old woman has long admired Plath’s writing and had felt “profoundly spiritual” during a visit to the church. It illustrates the strength of attachment some still feel for Sylvia Plath and her stories and poetry.

Published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and not under her own name until posthumously in 1967, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a Roman √† clef novel giving a fictionalised account of events from her life.

Esther Greenwood, a clever young woman who sails through school, wins scholarships and writes brilliantly, secures an internship with a prominent New York women’s magazine. Initially, she muddles through, despite being socially out of her depth and unimpressed by the glamorous lifestyle of the magazine and its editor, Jay Cee. This first half of the story amuses and entertains, rather like The Catcher In The Rye, but better, with a likeable female story teller.

The imagery is rich and abundant. She sees her life spread out before her like the branches of a fig tree, with wonderful futures like fat purple figs beckoning and winking at the tip of every branch, but:

“I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” (Chapter 7)
The signs that all is not well are there from the start in the way she dwells upon things, such as her ex-boyfriend, virginity, the subservience of women, death, medical specimens of dead foetuses in bell jars and the execution of the Rosenbergs – the American couple convicted of spying for the Russians.
“I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick … I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along your nerves” (Chapter 1)
It is a portent of what is to happen to Esther. She descends into mental illness and is treated by a psychiatrist who administers electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) in a brutal way, after which she refuses further treatment. As her mental state worsens, she contemplates various means of suicide. This is a difficult and disturbing part of the book to read.
“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three...nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” (Chapter 10)

Eventually, she hides in the cellar and overdoses on sleeping pills, but survives. With the support of the benefactress who had funded her scholarship, she is treated at an upmarket psychiatric hospital where she receives insulin therapy and further ECT, and begins to recover her sanity. The story ends in a degree of hope and optimism, and is by no means as depressing as it might sound.

Plath’s own early life followed a similar course: born Boston, Massachusetts, academic brilliance, a spell at Mademoiselle magazine, mental illness, a suicide attempt, psychiatric treatment and recovery. She began to write poetry and short stories, and won a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge University, England. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes, a later Poet Laureate, and had two children, but separated when she discovered he was having an affair. In the following months she wrote many of her most acclaimed poems, but then began to sink back into depression. She took her own life a month after The Bell Jar was first published, aged 30. Many hold Hughes responsible.

Some of us will have experienced bleak periods in our own lives – I once had persistent thoughts of jumping down a seven-storey stair well at work – but hopefully nothing like this. Mine have always been due to situations and circumstances rather than from within: reactive rather than endogenous. What an intense and troubled soul she was:  


The video link to her reading of her poem Ariel (in which she becomes, among other things, the horse she rides) if you cannot see it: https://youtu.be/w_iu-uT67aE  


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

44 comments:

  1. I suppose most of us of a certain age know about Plath. Her letters were heartbreaking. I am not sure if I read the portent The Bell Jar. Hughes in my opinion was a prick and not just because he had a fling.

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    1. Hughes doesn't seem to have thought about others much. I'm not sure whether I could cope with reading her letters.

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  2. -* = Never read it? (P.S. did you see my explanation for those marks on the stone?)

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    1. I'm trying to read things I feel I should have read a long time ago, but didn't. I've seen your reply and responded.

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  3. I've always loved Plath's writing, both "The Bell Jar" and her poetry. For many years I called her my favorite poet. She might be still.

    I hope to visit that churchyard one of these days. I have visited Plath's former homes in London, including the one where she killed herself. I believe it was Yeats' house many years before that, if my memory is correct.

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    1. I enjoyed The Bell Jar very much. Her poetry takes a lot more effort to understand; it's very dense.
      We're within an hour of Heptonstall. Might visit.

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  4. I read a few of Plath’s poems years ago but didn’t care for them, so I never tried The Bell Jar and really knew nothing about it except that its author had committed suicide. Now that I have read your post, which is excellent by the way, I may never read it. Perhaps I should muster up the courage, because at 80 years old I don’t have many years left. The excerpts you included are marvelously written and frightening simultaneously. I had thoughts of suicide only once, when I was 20, and have always felt that reading Plath might draw me there again. I’m not being melodramatic, only suggesting that if Plath is a flame, I might be a moth. Better to follow St. Paul’s advice, “Whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things”.

    I have never told anyone or written down before what is revealed in this comment. Thank you.

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    1. I find it helps to know one isn't alone in these thoughts. I keep wondering whether I could write more about my experiences but I haven't thought of a way yet. The book didn't take me there again.

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  5. I am not sure how you ended up giving it 5*. Quality of writing? Story telling? I have read it twice, first time many many years ago when it was a cult book of the 1970s and never got it, and then just a few months ago thinking now I might understand it, and once again did not rate it. I am afraid I almost would go so far as to say I thought it was a crap, I did not warm to Esther at all. By the way, if you ever get to see it there is a marvellous documentary on Ted Hughes that I wrote about last year. It isn't on Iplayer at the moment but might come back. He was devastated when he was blamed by the new at-the-time Feminist movement who came out against him and demonstrated at poetry readings he gave everywhere he went. She was a troubled woman and meeting Hughes was probably one of the worst things she ever did but to blame him alone for her suicide is wrong.

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    1. Before you start making crap jokes, I meant "a crap book".

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    2. I thoroughly enjoyed it - if "enjoy" is the right word. I grimmaced through parts of it. I found much of the first half delightfully and funny. As I believe Hughes said, she had been on course to commit suicide all her life. However, there are those who identify with her and think he should have been her saviour.

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    3. I'm much misunderstood. I never joke with disrespectful intention. It was obviously a typo and I make them myself all the time these days.

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    4. Normally with typos I leave them without acknowledgement because I know that the blogger will understand however with your Yorkshire humour I was not sure whether you would be able to leave it alone.

      As for Hughes, I don't think you can, or should, rely on another person to be your saviour. He was the first to acknowledge that he had been a bastard but as for being responsible for her suicide, no. Having lived with a man for over 30 years with severe mental illness, to put it mildly, it isn't easy.

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    5. Rachel, the mind is a strange thing. I had to go back and look at what you'd written. My mind had subconsciously inserted the omitted word.

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    6. And I wrote in first response to Rachel: "I found much of the first half delightfully and funny."

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  6. Your review made me look up and re-read my own review from 2014. If you are interested, it is here:
    https://librarianwithsecrets.blogspot.com/2014/01/read-in-2014-1-bell-jar.html

    Seven years later, I am still not much wiser about depression and other mental illnesses.
    Like you, I have had difficult times in my life - the worst was probably my husband's sudden death only 5 days after his 41st birthday. Many other problems I thought I had before seemed awfully trivial after that. But still, this was not something from within myself, but something that happened to me, in my life, and needed dealing with.

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    1. I think our views about the book are similar.
      There are two cases in my family of spouses having died at an early age. It's simply the worst thing that can happen.

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    2. I've not read the book and know that I never will. I well recall Meike's post back in 2014. Depression is a strange thing. Losing a child is, many would argue, also traumatic.

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  7. I read this book in the late 1970s, I believe, when Sylvia Plath was a feminist icon. Her struggles in pre-feminist times struck a chord with second-wave feminists who had also been socialized in those times. Not enough attention was devoted to her mental illness, though. Feminist energy went almost completely into demonizing Ted Hughes, who certainly was an asshole to her, but it was an overly simplistic analysis.

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    1. Thanks for that perspective. The period in which we grow up and are socialized obviously play a big part in how we behave, and from my memories of school life in the 1960s and office life in the early 1970s, I can now see that women did not have the same privileges and opportunities as men. I had little understanding of that at the time. Plath's generation was limited even more. One might have thought Hughes, as a poet, should have understood these things better.

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  8. I could never have read the book despite its cult following (perhaps because of it's cult following). I have now got to the stage in my life where so much of life and news is depressing and I want some cheer in my life and the life of those around me..

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    1. I've seen many references to it over the years, but never realised it had a cult following. I found it an uplifting book in the sense of 'light at the end of the tunnel', although knowing what happened to the author in real life dampens things.

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    2. It became a bit of a cult book in the early '70s along with Mary McCarthy's The Group and de Beauvoir's Second Sex. It doesn't seem to happen with books so much today but then there were books that you just HAD to read because all your friends were reading them and talking about them. I could list many more.

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  9. I found it hard going when I read it years ago.

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    1. The subject matter makes some of it hard to read, but I didn't find the actual writing difficult.

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  10. It took me ages to find Plath's grave. We used to go on regular family outings looking for it. It's in a 'new bit' isn't it? It never occurred to me to look there. (It's been a while so I hope I've remembered this right). Used to go climbing in Heptonstall Quarry in my youth.

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    1. I haven't been to either the church or Heptonstall so don't know, so thank you, I now know to look in the new part if I go. Interestingly, Plath herself had little connection with the village other than through Hughes who was raised in the area, and she likes the bleakness of the surrounding moorlands.

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  11. I could never tackle this book, afraid of the subjects. I think I'll give it a go.

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    1. There are books I won't read, too: anything involving horrific violence is one category.

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  12. I've read much about Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar. I couldn't read The Bell Jar as the subject matter is too disturbing to me. I love her poetry. I've seen many pictures of her grave generally with many pens left by her fans.

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    1. I might have found it disturbing in the past, and I shouldn't tempt providence by thinking I won't in the future, but I enjoyed it in the present.

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  13. Never read the book, sounds a pretty depressing read sadly for Sylvia Plath. Approaching the cliff edge of suicide has had many people teetering on the edge, so perhaps that point in history is a good lesson to take hold off. Plath was disturbed for part of her life, Hughes sadly played the roaming male attitude and broke her heart. But in the end both were brilliant writers, and it is on this we should judge them.

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    1. As mentioned, I didn't find it depressing, although might have done at one time. I suspect possibly all brilliant writers are odd in some way - in fact possibly all who are brilliant at anything, not just writing.

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  14. I read the posthumous edition when I was a young adult. Her fictionalized account of having lived with mental illness stuck with me (and so many of my young, female friends) for a long time.

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    1. It would have made a deep and lasting impression on me if I'd read it around the age of 20. It's very powerful.

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  15. I am glad you enjoyed "The Bell Jar" so much. I did read it when I was twenty and your post reminds me that I really should read it again. I visited her grave just two years ago. Many ball point pens had been left there. I did not see room for that silly woman's grave. I wonder if my request will be honoured - to be buried next to Thomas Hardy in Westminster Abbey as I felt "profoundly spiritual" when I visited his grave. Actually, he has two graves!

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    1. I'm glad I read it. You could have lots of graves: head in Sheffield, legs on the Derbyshire moorland, heart in East Yorkshire ...

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    2. That is a grave thought Tasker.

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    3. I met Bruce Chatwin at a party in Glasgow before he was famous.
      When I said I believed in the need for roots he looked at me coldly and said he did not believe in roots.
      I countered with Graham Greene's remark, *My roots are in rootlessness* which he liked.
      He said that when he died he wanted to his bones scattered in the desert. I thought this a tad poser-ish.
      As I was leaving the party with a girl I noticed Bruce was sitting in a room with a crowd around him, telling them about nomads. He was wearing a white linen suit.
      Haggerty

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    4. Excellent story worthy of someone well-connected who should have a blog of their own, but I'm struggling to associate Chatwin with Plath.

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    5. No association whatsoever, Tasker.
      Chatwin had not been published when we spoke.
      My thoughts were with Yorky, thinking about being put to rest in Westminster Abbey.
      Near the Abbey there is a maze of posh streets with exquisite houses.
      A bronze plaque marks the home of T.E. Lawrence.
      In this area there is a beautiful church in a courtyard, and a haberdashery that deals exclusively with vestments for High Church priests.
      It makes me think of *The Quest For Corvo* by AJA Symons which has been reissued as a Penguin Classic.
      Haggerty

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  16. You know, I read this when I was in my 20s. Interestingly enough, it started to frighten me. I cannot remember exactly what it was, but I identified with something she'd written so strongly that I thought that her end would be my end. I think that I should read it again from a more mature point of view.

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    1. I could well have been frightened by it a certain times in my life. That it didn't seems to suggest I'm more comfortable in myself than at some earlier times.

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