Born in 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts, Sylvia Plath had her first poem published when she was eight years old. Her first poetry collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, was published in 1960, and the collection Ariel in 1965. In 1981, she received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, becoming the first person to receive the honour posthumously.
The Bell Jar is Plath’s only novel. It was first published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and then again in 1967 under her real name. While it is fiction, the book is inspired by Plath’s own experience at women’s magazine Mademoiselle in New York City.
The Bell Jar describes a difficult six months in the life of college girl Esther Greenwood, who is chosen for a month-long summer internship at Ladies’ Day magazine. However, Esther finds the work unrewarding and struggles to fit in with the other girls on the programme. She dreams of becoming a poet, but is paralysed by the fear of making the wrong choice.
“From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked […] but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
“De la punta de cada rama, como un suculento higo morado, un futuro maravilloso me atraía y me tentaba. [...] pero elegir uno sigmificaba perder los demás, y mientras permanecía allí sentada, incapaz de decidirme, los higos empezaban a arrugarse y a ponerse negros, y uno por uno caían en el suelo a mis pies”.
Esther becomes depressed, and begins to imagine ways of committing suicide. One serious attempt leads to her hospitalisation.
This episode mirrors Plath’s own breakdown at the age of twenty, after which she was diagnosed with clinical depression. However, The Bell Jar is more than thinly-disguised autobiography. Throughout, Plath critiques the oppressive and competitive culture of 1950s America. The opening of the novel refers to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a real-life American couple who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. […] I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.”
“Fue un verano raro, tórrido, el verano en que electrocutaron a los Rosenberg, y yo no sabía qué había ido a hacer a Nueva York. [...] no me quitaba de la cabeza qué se sentiría, cuando te queman viva por dentro”.
In the post-war period, women were stripped of many of the liberties they had gained during the Second World War. They were expected to be educated, but forced to go back to being wives and mothers rather than workers. Fiercely intelligent, Esther resents her societal role as an ornament trapped in a suffocating glass display case, or “bell jar”.
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”
“Para quien está en la campana de cristal, vacía e inerte como un bebé muerto, el mundo es la pesadilla”.
In the novel, Plath masterfully and painfully dissects depression. Trapped in the introspective “sour air” of the bell jar, Esther loses her empathy. When her friend Doreen shows up at her door drunk after a date, Esther leaves her in a pool of vomit in the hotel corridor. Instead of being grateful to her benefactress, Mrs. Guinea, who pays for her education and her medical treatment, Esther can’t “feel a thing.” Even after her suicide attempt, when she is shown her reflection in a mirror, her description is impersonal.
“You couldn’t tell whether the person in the [mirror] was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head.”
“No se podía saber si la persona del cuadro era hombre o mujer, porque tenía el pelo rapado, y le brotaba en penachos, erizados como plumas de gallina, por toda la cabeza”.
It is only after psychoanalysis and shock therapy that Esther’s sense of self begins to reassert itself.
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.
I am, I am, I am.”
“Respiré hondo y escuché el antiguo reto de mi corazón.
Soy, soy, soy”.
While Plath’s protagonist sees hope in the future, the author herself took her own life only a month after the publicaction of The Bell Jar. Since then, its acclaim and its notoriety has soared. While she was writing it, Plath separated from her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, and there has been much speculation about their marriage in the shadow of Plath’s lifelong battle with depression. In 2003, a biographical film entitled Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, attempted to tell the couple’s story.