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Sylvia Plath is an important figure in the history of American literature mostly because she wrote in a critical time in the country’s history. Consequently, the literary icon is also noted as a pioneer figure in the feminist movement and issues of mental health. Plath was mainly a poet in the post-World War II America, and her genre was primarily confessional poetry. This makes it easy to explore Sylvia’s life through her works of literature. All indications are that Plath’s life was fairly normal, having been born in 1932 at Winthrop, Massachusetts. Her parents were Otto and Aurelia Plath, and they worked as a professor and a shorthand-teacher respectively. Plath’s life is dominated by the fact that she constantly suffered from depression in the course of her life. Her depression is aptly chronicled in her novel “The Bell Jar”, for which the author won a posthumous “Pulitzer Prize” after she committed suicide in 1963. This essay explores Sylvia Plath’s life and how it influenced her work on “The Bell Jar”.
Sylvia Plath’s early life was centered in Boston, Massachusetts, in a standard family home. The poet’s early life was tumultuous as a result of various mental issues. Furthermore, the poet started writing at an early age, and her first poem was published in “The Boston Herald” when she was approximately eight years old (Alexander 54). Her literary induction was in the form of a journal that she kept as a young girl. Eventually, the young author won a scholarship to study literature at Smith College. She worked as a guest editor for “Mademoiselle Magazine” in the summer of 1953. It was also within this period when Plath first attempted suicide. Soon after this suicide attempt, Plath was committed to a mental health facility for a short while. The author was able to win the highly acclaimed Fulbright Fellowship from Cambridge University in England. While she was pursuing this scholarship, she met Ted Hughes, a poet whom she later married in 1956 (Malcolm 43). The relationship between the two has been characterized as stormy, although they went on to have two children together.
“The Bell Jar” is an autographical novel by Plath, and it is a pseudo-chronicle of several events in the poet’s life. Most specifically, the novel addresses the events that transpired after the author’s junior year at Smith College. The main protagonist in “The Bell Jar” is also working as a guest editor for a New York-based magazine and she also suffers a mental breakdown after that stint (Plath 13). These events are mirrored by what happened in Plath’s life during the summer and autumn of 1953. The first draft of the novel was most likely written in the late 1950s. Thereafter, Plath received a fellowship that would have allowed her to complete work on the novel. The first edition of “The Bell Jar” was published in 1963 through a London publisher under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas. The decision to publish the novel under an alias was informed by the author’s attempt to protect several of the real-life characters that were depicted in the book. The novel was also her first and she was not confident about its literary success. The novel only appeared under her name several years after her death.
The parallels between “The Bell Jar” and Plath’s life have always been a subject of debate. The novel’s authenticity has often been attributed to its ability to offer insight into the author’s psyche. In this coming-of-age story, readers are just as interested in the literary icon as much as they are with the main protagonist. Consequently, pundits have always attempted to make a tangible connection between Plath the feminist and the tragic heroine in both the book and in real life. Observers have mythologized that the author suffered from a possible suppression by her misogynist husband. The prevailing theory is that under the patriarchal society of 1950s America, Plath was poised to find both success and failure. Her success as a pre-feminist author is evident from her numerous posthumous accolades, but her untimely death indicates how difficult it was for the author to fit the society of the time. Her incapacitating mental illness is well chronicled in the pseudo-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar”. Nevertheless, the novel does not “label its protagonist’s life as either martyred or heroic” (Wagner-Martin 8). In the book, the author does not attribute any of the main character’s problems to patriarchy, herself, or the society. However, all these three aspects receive some level of criticism in the book. Esther’s main cause of trouble in “The Bell Jar” is said to be a strange and horrible disease. Consequently, it is up to the readers to come up with a literary interpretation of Esther’s disease.
Plath was an avid journal keeper, and this part of her life is evident in her novel. Biographers have claimed that the author would never miss her journal entry even when she was tired or unwell (Holbrook 21). Nevertheless, none of her entries included any literary works such as poems or short stories. Her journal was mainly used to write down anything pertaining to her personal life. These journal entries were used in the course of writing “The Bell Jar” and also for another unpublished book about her relationship with her husband. Critics have always wondered why the treasure that was Plath’s journal entries was not used to write short stories and other forms of narratives. The author is also noted to have been a highly organized person, a factor that is evident in her novel. One of her biographers notes that “daily routines were the kind of thing Plath liked to describe in letters to her mother, so we know that [she and Hughes] planned to write for four to six hours a day, 8:30-12:00 in the morning, 4:00-6:00 in the afternoon” (Brain 19). The highly organized routines of the author are a monumental part of her book. Although the book is about a woman whose life is falling apart, there is a strong factor of organization in the story. The mental breakdown of the main character is systematic and organized. Observers have noted that the author stuck to her writing routine even in the last moments of her life when her health problems had deteriorated. “The Bell Jar” is a routine observation on a tragic life, and this juxtaposition gives the book an authentic feel.
The author’s portrayal of mental illness in the book is another issue that parallels Plath’s real life. First, readers of the novel are likely to accept Esther’s condition seriously because it mirrors the author’s struggles. Consequently, the author’s portrayal of Esther’s mental illness earns validity because of Plath’s perceived insights into mental health issues. The book’s overall authenticity is mainly based on Plath’s willingness to portray an issue that had affected her life for several years in a realistic and candid manner. Nevertheless, the parallels between Plath and Esther’s life present a quagmire to the readers. The readers do not have a choice when they are reading the book, as they are forces to empathize and sympathize with the literary icon. When reading “The Bell Jar”, readers are quite aware that even though there is hope for the book’s heroine, the author’s life ended tragically. This fact has a significant impact on the book’s readership because the Plath’s eventual death acts as the final chapter in the novel. On one hand, readers are cheering on Esther as she confronts her problems. On the other hand, they are angry and disappointed by the fact that although Plath was quite aware of her problems, she did not make it in the end. The issue of the entangling fates of Esther and Plath has a significant influence on the readers of “The Bell Jar”. The contents of the novel also make it difficult for pundits to decipher the real extent of Plath’s mental condition. Therefore, it is still hard to determine whether Plath was suffering from a fatal condition mental condition or she was just suffering from a form of neuroticism that ended up escalating.
Plath’s life was characterized by a general lack of support from her family and those who were around her (Fournier 89). This aspect of the author’s life is strongly represented in the novel through Esther’s coming-of-age story. Plath suffered a series of social breakdowns in her life beginning with the death of her father when she was eight years old. Later on, she goes through various marital issues with her husband, all of which ended up with their eventual separation. All of this happened before the advent of the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Therefore, it was normal for Plath to suffer in silence without getting any form of social assistance. In “The Bell Jar”, Esther suffers a similar fate as she is unable to get either social or professional support. The main character is neglected by her professors and her physicians alike. Most of Esther’s treatments are incomplete and haphazard. The conditions of both Esther and Plath raise the question of whether the two are products of institutional and social failures in the 1950s and 1960s. The book allows the readers to wonder if Plath’s personal life was as hopeless as that of the novel’s heroine (Malcolm 65). Consequently, it is up to the readers to decide whether there is anything that could have been done to save Plath from eventual doom using the context of the 1950s and 1960s societies.
Plath’s life is well documented to the readers of “The Bell Jar” and the book offers deep insight into the life of a besieged woman of the pre-feminist era. However, the readers of this book find that they have to rely much on the author’s biography if they are to understand Esther’s life. In the course of Plath’s life, there were various disconnections and they are all brought together in Esther’s coming-of-age story. The author’s mental issues also and the fact that she eventually succumbed to her condition make “The Bell Jar” an emotional read. There are several questions about Plath’s life that could have been answered through her novel but they were not. However, Esther’s situation is easy to understand for readers who are familiar with Plath’s life.
Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. Da Capo Press, 2013.
Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. Routledge, 2014.
Fournier, Bob. Trauma and the Golden Lady: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath. FriesenPress, 2016.
Holbrook, David. Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. A&C Black, 2014.
Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Vintage, 2013.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New Canadian Library, 2015.
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Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath. Routledge, 2013.