50 Years of The Bell Jar

393138_329889077123675_1260583387_nFifty years ago today, Sylvia Plath’s iconic novel, The Bell Jar, was published under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. It was not until 1973 that the book saw the light of day in the US (her mother had attempted to block it from US shores).

Sylvia killed herself less than one month later.

Sylvia’s novel is difficult for me because it lacks the immediacy of her poetry. But taking it on its own terms, it is a terrifying look at madness. The listlessness. The boredom. The braying, nagging feeling of disappointment as if the question had been asked: this is all there is? It was answered in Sylvia’s book, which posited that there was no real reason for all that anxiety and sadness. Most madness memoirs today focus on depression or drug addiction or sexual abuse. But Plath’s – or Easter Greenwood’s?- problem was none of those things. It was simply that it was damn hard to be a girl in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

She desperately wanted to write novels, and I think if she’d lived, she would have done just that. But her poetry is so much more vivid, more alive, more emotional. It is worth noting that the message and imagery of The Bell Jar is identical to the poetry. But somehow, the condensed form put the thoughts under pressure, and made them explode in your face.

The Bell Jar became a feminist manifesto for the reason described above – it was hard to be a girl, and want sex and be scared of it, and to know that if anyone found out you were having it, it would be the end of you. The men had none of these struggles. The Bell Jar was an attempt to describe the repercussions of that oppression, and to document the madness that was galloping after her, and would soon overtake her.

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  1. Yeah, it’s interesting: when I first read The Bell Jar in high school, it was that feeling of anxiety about my future, and “is this all there is” that I clicked with (although, like you: her poetry is so electric, so much more alive than the prose – except for lines here and there). But once I started reading it as an adult, all I could see was that it was a novel of the oppression of being a girl in a sexist society – or, maybe more: a nonconformist in a society that DEMANDS conformity. THAT is the struggle. And the 1950s, especially for women of her race and class, was a very very conformist time. She bought into it hook line and sinker – she wasn’t a rebel, you know? Other women put on black berets and moved to new York City and hung out with Beats and “dropped out”. Sylvia could never have done that. It’s a really fascinating schism, very much of her time and place. It’s really claustrophobic reading The Bell Jar, isn’t it? I want to tell her to relax, hang on, you can throw out your bras in about 15 years, seriously, things will get better. Ironically, it was that tension that helped create her art. Happy birthday Bell Jar!

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