‘The Bell Jar’ at 40

What does Esther Greenwood have to say to us now?

Mike Krzeszak/Flickr

Who needs another feel-good coming-of-age story when there’s a classic bleak coming-apart-at the-seams tale to savour?

Forty years after it was first published in North America, The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s acid chronicle of teenage depression in Eisenhower-era America, stubbornly resists simple categorization. Like its head-sick teenage heroine Esther Greenwood, the novel doesn’t really fit in among its sunnier, more conventionally appealing peers.

And not unlike your above average teenage contrarian—you shall know said creature by her crossed-arm scowl—it doesn’t really want to fit in either.

The Bell Jar concerns itself solely with the recollection of a “queer, sultry summer” in 1953 and a singular season in the life of Esther Greenwood, 19. An inveterate overachiever with dreams of becoming a poet, Esther is in the middle of a highly coveted internship at a quasi-literary women’s magazine called Ladies Day in Manhattan.

It’s a dream come true and, as often happens when dreams take on reality, it’s the worst summer of her life.

Life only gets worse once summer gives way to fall. Esther has a nervous breakdown, undergoes shock therapy, attempts suicide, is subsequently institutionalized, and experiences the ultimate rookie nightmare: she hemorrhages, freakishly, after losing her virginity to a ‘playboy’ academic. (I can’t decide which is worse, frankly, losing a pint of blood or losing it to the soiled academic. Leaning toward door Number Two: wah-wah.)

For some, Plath’s tale of a young woman’s mental unraveling is a roman à clef, an opaque accounting of her own struggle with mental illness. Others slot the story under the YA heading, seeing it as a kind of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret minus the wide-eyed observations on peculiar adult behaviour (What is up with mom?) and little-girl faith in the healing powers of a training bra.

The novel is all those things and more. It’s also a peculiarly personal variant on the künstlerroman or ‘formation of the artist’ story. Esther Greenwood aspires to be a poet—could Plath have known how that ambition would actually make her heroine sound crazier four decades later? And the account of her stumbles toward her vocation could just as easily have been titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Basketcase.

The Bell Jar is a nightmare not a dream. So why is it so popular, and with women of nearly every generation since its publication especially? Why do so many women, well past the pulpy red cuticles of adolescent angst, call Esther Greenwood a bosom pal?

Because overwrought Esther, and her crackup, feels true. You don’t have to go crazy like her to be able to relate to the nightmare of being a young woman of surpassing intelligence and average comeliness in a culture that really doesn’t value either much.  Every young woman— even a few older gals—has felt the hysterical power of that epiphany.

No other female character in the history of fiction remains as credibly pissed off, upset and disoriented by being a brain and not a beauty—by being a freaking woman when it would be so much easier to be a man—as Esther Greenwood.

That’s not to say that ‘What Esther Means’ to generations of young women hasn’t changed over the years. When the novel was finally published in the U.S. in 1971, eight years after it debuted in the UK and as many years after Plath had taken her own life by gassing herself in the kitchen of her London flat, Esther was seen as a casualty of a repressive male-dominated culture, one that for all its talk about education, still offered only one officially approved status position for women: that of wife.

Esther rejects it completely, however. She doesn’t want to marry anyone ever, and for good reason. Says Esther: “And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat.”

As Emily Gould points out in her excellent essay on the novel’s 40th anniversary, while the novel takes up the obstacles of sexism and repression as it relates to the development of a fiercely intelligent young woman, it also takes up the issue of what it means to be a writer. The problem for Esther is that sex and vocation seem to clash. Marriage and a career are “mutually exclusive” endeavors.

Contemporary readers might find it interesting to note that while Esther struggled with her desire to work rather than have a family, an entire generation of 30-something career women find themselves staring into the middle distance wondering how to have a family before it’s too late.

Forty years later, I sometimes wonder if Plath would think that was crazy. Or maybe she’d just think it was a darkly funny reversal that only underlines the straitjacket of biology.

Perhaps more fascinating is how much the social critique inherent in The Bell Jar seems to improve in contrast to the popular values espoused in contemporary society. The revolutionary idea that any young woman with a good head on her shoulders could be made miserable by a magazine internship in New York—what kind of weirdo is she?—is one I’d like to see spread. At the moment, a ‘fabulous’ career in publishing or fashion is not only the plotline of most chick-lit novels or romantic comedies, it’s even the basis of some reality shows. Esther’s complete rejection of the nonsense that passes for the feminine ideal, which is really just a pretty combination of consumerism and neurosis, remains exhilarating to this day.

At one point in The Bell Jar, Esther does the truly unthinkable, at least according to modern standards. Standing on the roof of her Manhattan apartment building she offers her fashionable new wardrobe to the night. Confides Esther: “Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.

Who needs a closet full of Manolo Blahniks and “statement” purses to feel whole, even to feel authentically broken? Sadly, we do. Call her crazy, but at the very least Esther knew the truth in that.

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