The story of a poet who tries to end her life written by a poet who did, Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” (Harper Row) was first published under a pseudonym in England in 1963, one month before she committed suicide. We have had to wait almost a decade for its publication in the United States, but it was reissued in England in 1966 under its author’s real name. A biographical note in the present edition makes it plain that the events in the novel closely parallel Sylvia Plath’s twentieth year. For reasons for which we are not wholly to blame, our approach to the novel is impure; “The Bell Jar” is fiction that cannot escape being read in part as autobiography. It begins in New York with an ominous lightness, grows darker as it moves to Massachusetts, then slips slowly into madness. Esther Greenwood, one of a dozen girls in and on the town for a month as guest editors of a teen-age fashion magazine, is the product of a German immigrant family and a New England suburb. With “fifteen years of straight A’s” behind her, a depressing attachment to a dreary but handsome medical student, Buddy Willard, still unresolved, and a yearning to be a poet, she is the kind of girl who doesn’t know what drink to order or how much to tip a taxi driver but is doing her thesis on the “twin images” in “Finnegans Wake,” a book she has never managed to finish. Her imagination is at war with the small-town tenets of New England and the big-time sham of New York. She finds it impossible to be one of the army of college girls whose education is a forced stop on the short march to marriage. The crises of identity, sexuality, and survival are grim, and often funny. Wit, irony, and intelligence as well as an inexplicable, withdrawn sadness separate Esther from her companions. Being an involuntary truth-seeker, she uses irony as a weapon of judgment, and she is its chief victim. Unable to experience or mime emotions, she feels defective as a person. The gap between her and the world widens: “I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty.” . . . “The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.” . . . “That morning I had tried to hang myself.”
Camouflage and illness go together in “The Bell Jar;” moreover, illness is often used to lift or tear down a façade. Doreen, a golden girl of certainty admired by Esther, begins the process by getting drunk. The glimpse of her lying with her head in a pool of her own vomit in a hotel hallway is repellent but crucial. Her illness is followed by a mass ptomaine poisoning at a “fashion” lunch. Buddy gets tuberculosis and goes off to a sanatorium. Esther, visiting him, breaks her leg skiing. When she had her first sexual experience, with a young math professor she has picked up, she hemorrhages. Taken in by a lesbian friend, she winds up in a hospital. Later, she learns that the friend has hanged herself. A plain recital of the events in “The Bell Jar” would be ludicrous if they were not balanced by genuine desperation at one side of the scale and a sure sense of black comedy at the other. Sickness and disclosure are the keys to “The Bell Jar.” On her last night in New York, Esther climbs to the roof of her hotel and throws her city wardrobe over the parapet, piece by piece. By the end of the novel, she has tried to get rid of her very life, which is given back to her by another process of divestment—psychiatry. Pain and gore are endemic to “The Bell Jar,” and they are described objectively, self-mockingly, almost humorously to begin with. Taken in by the tone (the first third of “The Bell Jar” might be a mordant, sick-joke version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), the reader is being lured into the lion’s den—that sterile cement room in the basement of a mental hospital where the electric-shock-therapy machine waits for its frightened clients.
The casualness with which physical suffering is treated suggests that Esther is cut off from the instinct for sympathy right from the beginning—for herself as well as for others. Though she is enormously aware of the impingements of sensation, her sensations remain impingements. She lives close to the nerve, but the nerve has become detached from the general network. A thin layer of glass separates her from everyone, and the novel’s title, itself made of glass, is evolved from her notion of disconnection: the head of each mentally ill person is enclosed in a bell jar, choking on his own foul air.
Torn between conflicting roles—the sweetheart-Hausfrau-mother and “the life of the poet,” neither very real to her—Esther finds life itself inimical. Afraid of distorting the person she is yet to become, she becomes the ultimate distortion—nothing. As she descends into the pit of depression, the world is a series of wrong reverberations: her mother’s face is a perpetual accusation, the wheeling of a baby carriage underneath her window a grinding irritation. She becomes obsessed by the idea of suicide, and one of the great achievements of “The Bell Jar” is that it makes real the subtle distinctions between a distorted viewpoint and the distortions inherent in what it sees. Convention may contribute to Esther’s insanity, but she never loses her awareness of the irrationality of convention. Moved to Belsize, a part of the mental hospital reserved for patients about to go back to the world, she makes the connection explicit:
What was there about us, in Belsize, 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.
Terms like “mad” and “sane” grow increasingly inadequate as the action develops. Esther is “psychotic” by definition, but the definition is merely a descriptive tag: by the time we learn how she got to be “psychotic” the word has ceased to be relevant. (As a work of fiction, “The Bell Jar” seems to complement the clinical theories of the Scottish analyst R. D. Laing.) Because it is written from the distraught observer’s point of view rather than from the viewpoint of someone observing her, there is continuity to her madness; it is not one state suddenly supplanting another but the most gradual of processes.
Suicide, a grimly compulsive game of fear and guilt, as addictive as alcohol or drugs, is experimental at first—a little blood here, a bit of choking there, just to see what it will be like. It quickly grows into an overwhelming desire for annihilation. By the time Esther climbs into the crawl space of a cellar and swallows a bottle of sleeping pills—by the time we are faced by the real thing—the event, instead of seeming grotesque, seems like a natural consequence. When she is about to leave the hospital, after a long series of treatments, her psychiatrist tells her to consider her breakdown “a bad dream.” Esther, “patched, retreaded, and approved for the road,” thinks, “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.”
That baby is only one of many in “The Bell Jar.” They smile up from the pages of magazines, they sit like little freaks pickled in glass jars on display in the pediatric ward of Buddy’s hospital. A “sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly” seems to wait for Esther at the end of the ski run when she has her accident. And in the course of the novel she witnesses a birth. In place of her never-to-be-finished thesis on the “twin images” in “Finnegans Wake,” one might be written on the number and kinds of babies that crop up in “The Bell Jar.” In a gynecologist’s office, watching a mother fondling her baby, Esther wonders why she is so separated from this easy happiness, this carrying out of the prescribed biological and social roles. She does not want a baby; she is a baby herself. But she is also a potential writer. She wants to fulfill herself, not to be fulfilled. To her, babies are The Trap, and sex is the bait. But she is too intelligent not to realize that babies don’t represent life, they are life, though not necessarily the kind Esther wants to live; that is, if she wants to live at all. She is caught between the monstrous fetuses on display in Buddy’s ward and the monstrous slavery of the seemingly permanent pregnancy of her neighbor Dodo Conway, who constantly wheels a baby carriage under Esther’s window, like a demented figure in a Greek chorus. Babies lure Esther toward suicide by luring her toward a life she cannot literally bear. There seem to be only two solutions, and both involve the invisible: to pledge faith to the unborn or fealty to the dead. Life, so painfully visible and present, defeats her, and she takes it, finally, into her own hands. With the exception of the psychiatrist’s disinterested affection for her, love is either missing or unrecognized in “The Bell Jar.” Its overwhelming emotion is disgust—disgust that has not yet become contempt and is therefore more damaging.