The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Anne-Marie has provided the forward for this week’s Blog. She writes:

Sylvia Plath’s classic novel, The Bell Jar was written in Primrose Hill in north London after her husband, poet Ted Hughes, left her. Published in England under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas, to mostly tepid reviews (“girlish” “amateur”- the New Yorker), in January 1963, a month before Plath took her life on Feb 11. The novel is a young woman’s coming of age, with ambitions that reject the confining ideals of the 1950s housewife, and struggles with crippling mental illness, which afflicted Plath and others in her family. Plath didn’t live to enjoy her colossal literary stature. Her book was cancelled by her American publisher, Harper & Row (“disappointing, juvenile, overwrought”), and rejected by many others.

In 1971, it was finally published in America. Its reputation gradually grew, far beyond the still-disdainful reviews of male critics. The BBC has listed it as one of 100 Most Inspiring Novels. Hughes was forever shadowed by Plath’s suicide. He was a serial philanderer, and he left Plath for a woman who bore him a child, then killed herself in 1969. Plath told her therapist Hughes beat her, and some suspected that her accounts of abuse was his motivation for destroying her final diary. In the words of a 1979 Bell Jar film poster: “Sometimes just being a woman is an act of courage.”

Please do take a look at Anne-Marie’s Instagram page #hampsteadbookclub

So what did bookclub think?

This book is clearly divided into two parts. The first part of the book deals with Esther’s life in 1950’s New York, the second part deals with Esther’s decent into madness and her time in a psychiatric hospital.  

Most of the bookclub preferred the first part of the book before the protagonist Esther fell into a deep depression. In fact, Rebecca said that she found the second part of the book so depressing she could not finish the book and preferred to read work documents rather than the book.

The first part of the book contains some funny and light moments, Madeleine particularly liked the lunch scene and the relationship with Buddy. Jan too enjoyed the first part she found the depiction of 1950’s New York fascinating. She kept wanting more of the first part. Stephanie loved all the descriptions of the outfits she said it was like ‘Emily in Paris’ and was full of nostalgic charm. Millie said it reminded her of the Netflix series The Marvelous Mrs Maisel; it was full of romanticism of New York more than the reality of how it probably was.  

Most of us agreed even if it was depressing the second part of the book was exceptionally well written. Jan felt that Plath gave a wonderful description of what it was like to be depressed. She felt that this was enriched my Plath’s own experiences with depression. We all agreed that the trigger for Esther descending into depression was not getting on the writer’s course, but as Jan said it might have come out some other time.

There was some discussion on electric shock therapy and it was noted that it is still used today and can be very helpful with depression but nowadays people are given proper anaesthetics.

Anne-Marie commented on how hard it was for female writers to publish in the 1950’s and how harsh the critics were. Rebeca asked if the book was such a classic why did it get such bad criticism?  Anne-Marie said that sexism played a huge role in the 1950’s. Lots of female authors were ignored. She mentioned the writer Ann Petry who wrote ‘The Street’, the book sold over one million copies but it was ignored completely. For an idea of how women were treated Anne-Marie suggested watching the movie The Wife with Glenn Close

There was some discussion about Ted Hughes and how much he contributed to Plath’s depression. It was generally agreed that he was probably an awful person, but Jan loved his birthday letters. There was also some discussion of how grim it was to live in a post war Britain with having to put coins into the meters to keep the heaters going. It was in this climate, in a small rented flat in London with two young children and a husband that had just left her for another woman that Plath wrote The Bell Jar.

There was no doubt that Ted Hughes was an attractive man and as Stephanie pointed out it was important to Plath in her book that men were attractive. Anne-Marie said it was interesting to Americans Ted Hughes is simply Plath’s husband; it is only in the UK that he has a big stature.

Many felt that The Bell Jar was an iconic book and was part of the history of feminism. They could remember reading it as they grew up. Madeleine wished that Plath had been born twenty to thirty years later so she could have benefited from the women’s rights movement. Millie was in her late teens when all her friends went through a Sylvia Plath period. She avoided the book for many years but finally read it. She loved the first part but found the second part hard to follow as she felt it was jumbled, but that was probably because Esthers thoughts were jumbled as she descended into madness.

Rebeca asked why it was called ‘The Bell Jar’. Madeleine said it was because The Bell Jar was something claustrophobic coming down on her but she could see through it.

If you are finding the book depressing, persevere it all works out in the end. It’s a pity the same can’t be said for Sylvia Plath’s life.

If you are interested in finding out more about the life of Sylvia Plath I would strongly recommend the movie Sylvia staring Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow it is available on Amazon Prime.

Movie Recommendations in relation to the book:

Sylvia – available for purchase on Amazon Video

The Wife – available for purchase on Amazon Video.

Future books:

  • 15 March – Do No Harm by Henry Marsh
  • 29 March – Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield
  • 12 April – The White Tiger by Avarind Adiga
  • 3 May – Never Split the Difference by Christopher Voss and Tahl Raz

Other movie recommendations:

Lupin on Netflix.

Les Miserables on Netflix – a modern take on the classic.

I Care a Lot – available for purchase on Amazon Video.

One thought on “The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

  1. Wonderful! Great job. This is the week you weren’t going to write a column, but this is a very nice column.

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