Sylvia Plath was born in Massachusetts in 1932. Her father died when she was eight, after which her mother worked hard to support Sylvia and her brother and send them to school. As a brilliant student, Sylvia won a scholarship to Smith College, a famous university for women.
In the summer before her senior year she tried to kill herself, but the attempt failed. After a stay in an asylum she went back to school. After graduation she won a scholarship to study at Cambridge University in England. There she met and married the British poet Ted Hughes. Sylvia was by this time becoming a well-known poet: she published a collection called The Colossus in 1960 and taught for a year at Smith College. The couple finally settled in Devon, England. They had two children. The marriage broke up in 1962.
During the last months of her life, Sylvia wrote the famous poems published after her death in the collection called Ariel. These poems are deeply personal.
The Bell Jar, her only novel, is basically autobiographic. It was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963. By this time Sylvia was living alone with her two small children in a small flat in London. A few weeks later she took her own life, this time all too successfully, at the age of 30.
The main character of the Bell Jar is Esther. She’s a straight A-student who lives with her mother in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. She has won a trip to New York as a guest editor of Ladies’ Day, a famous women’s magazine. Here she finds out that her education hasn’t really prepared her for her future. She rebels against the standards which seem to prescribe her future. She loses grip on herself and becomes mentally ill. The feelings and experiences of Esther are very frankly described, in this way the novel is far ahead of its time.
The book is in the first place a record of psychological experience. But just by telling her own story the author is protesting against Puritan New England society, especially against its treatment of women and its attitude towards mental illness.
This society seems to enclose women in a ‘bell jar’, leaving them no room to move freely. The choices a woman can make on how to spend her life, all seem very unattractive: women who manage to make careers for themselves will live a solitary existence; marriage, on the other hand, leads to a depressing existence of dish-washing, housekeeping and babysitting. There is no way of fulfilling the whole woman. For this reason Esther describes life as a fig tree; she’s unable to pick a fig but at the same time she is afraid that the figs are going to rot away so that they’re no choices left:
“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”
The Bell Jar has some interesting similarities with The Catcher in the Rye: both books are basically autobiographic; both describe the life of an adolescent who cannot adapt to society and the main characters tell their story looking back at events that have happened in the past.
However, the main themes of the books differ very much. Sylvia Plath wants to share her experiences, rather than to convince the reader. J.D. Salinger wants to show the reader how ‘phony’ society is in the fifties.
The main characters, Holden and Esther, show some resemblances too. Both lost a family member. Moreover they rebel against certain elements of society and are sent to an asylum. Holden feels himself surrounded by ‘phonies’. Esther rebels against the double standard in which different rules apply to men then to women.
The main characters differ, however, with regard to their mentality: Holden is indifferent about what people think of him and is doing exactly what he likes; Esther, on the other hand, is sensible to what others think of her and is doing exactly what other people expect from her. Holden blames everybody but himself for his problems and will never search the causes of his problems in himself. Esther, however, has the feeling that something is wrong with herself. She visits a psychiatrist, but unfortunately this person is more interested in the money of the patients than in their complains. This difference is important because it explains why Esther wants to commit suicide while Holden only considers to live ‘in a little cabin near the woods’. Holden not really has problems with himself but only with the society surrounding him, an escape from this society might solve his problem; Esther, who has the feeling that something is wrong with herself, can’t solve her problems by escaping from society; her only solution seems to be suicide. Another, but less important, aspect is that the mental health of Esther is much worse than Holden’s.
It’s also remarkable that both authors, at an advanced age, do what their main characters didn’t manage to do: Sylvia Plath commits suicide and J.D. Salinger moves to ‘a little cabin near the woods’. Another special fact is that both authors have published only one novel.
In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath shows us aspects that doesn’t fit into ‘The American Dream’; an ideal which includes freedom and equality for all people. For women in the sixties this wasn’t reality. I consider The Bell Jar as a moving and well written testimony. It shows the loneliness of someone who is mentally ill in the United States of the sixties. It is written in a way that the pain and emptiness becomes perceptible.