Trapped in the bell jar

March 25, 2013

Megan Behrent looks back on Sylvia Plath and what her writing conveyed about women's inequality in the 1950s and 1960s.

FEBRUARY 11 marked the 50th anniversary of the death by suicide of Sylvia Plath at the age of 30. One of the most enigmatic American poets, Plath posthumously became an icon for the feminist movement.

Sometimes referred to as the "American Keats" because of the immense amount of work she produced in such a short life, Plath's poetry and fiction gave voice to the long suppressed anger, grievances and hopes of the incipient feminist movement.

Born in 1932 in Boston, Plath's talent was clear from an early age. The death of her father in 1940 had a profound impact on her life and became a central concern of her later work. By the time Plath enrolled in Smith College in 1950, she was a prolific writer. That same year, a short story and a poem of hers were published in Seventeen and the Christian Science Monitor respectively.

An excellent student, Plath's continued success as a writer earned her the honor of a summer job at Mademoiselle magazine in 1953. Her experience that summer and her subsequent downward spiral into depression and her first suicide attempt provided the material for The Bell Jar.

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath

After her recovery, Plath returned to Smith College and graduated in 1955. She spent the following year in England on a Fulbright scholarship. Here she met poet Ted Hughes whom she would marry in June 1956. The couple spent some time in the U.S. before moving back to England in 1959. One year later, Plath's daughter Frieda was born, and in the same year, her first book of poetry, The Colossus, was published.

Within a few years, Plath's whole world would fall apart. Not long after the birth of their son Nicholas in 1962, Plath and Hughes' tumultuous marriage fell apart when she learned about his relationship with another woman.

By the time of her death, Plath was living in London during one of the coldest winters in 100 years. Recently separated from Hughes, she lived alone with her two young children ages 1 and 3. It was in these conditions, writing early in the morning before her children woke up, that she feverishly wrote the poems that would assure her fame.

PLATH HAD long suffered from mental illness. Indeed, The Bell Jar--Plath's autobiographical novel about the experiences which led up to her first suicide attempt 10 years earlier--was published less than a month before her death under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.

But, the "madness" that is often attributed to Plath had deep social and political roots.

As The Bell Jar vividly describes, 1950s America was an unbelievably stultifying and oppressive environment in which to grow up--particularly for women. The limitations imposed by sexism stymied Plath's talent at every turn.

For many of her readers, particularly women, Plath's life and death became a symbolic narrative of the oppression of women. In her tragedy, many women saw their own.

That Plath was, in life, often overshadowed by her husband, the British poet laureate Ted Hughes, and only gained fame posthumously exacerbated this tendency. Furthermore, Hughes' role as literary executor of Plath's estate and the control he maintained over her legacy angered Plath's fans who saw in him the ultimate symbol of the patriarchy against which they rebelled.

Robin Morgan, a radical feminist and member of the "Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell" (WITCH), a network of radical feminist groups, wrote a poem entitled "Arraignment" in which she charges Hughes with Plath's murder, and accuses the entire British and American literary establishment of acting as accomplices.

If radical feminists' response to Plath's death at times bordered on the extreme, the response by the literary "establishment" gave them good reason to see the battle over Plath as inherently political.

The infamous literary critic Harold Bloom, for example, called Plath "an absurdly bad and hysterical verse writer." In his introduction to Modern Critical Views on Sylvia Plath, Bloom compares Plath to another lesser-known female poet "whose tragic early death gave her a certain glamour for a time."

Describing some of her poems as a "tantrum," he ascribes her fame primarily to the growing "School of Resentment' (i.e. feminism--a school in which he also places such contemporaries as Adrienne Rich whose work he treats with equal condescension and disdain).

One critic, Paul West, writes, "Had Sylvia Plath been ugly, and not died in so deliberate a manner, I wonder if she would have the standing she has." Other critics went so far as to call her "bitchy" and "manipulative."

Plath's tombstone literally became a battleground. In April 1989, her tombstone disappeared from her grave after repeated vandalism during which the last name "Hughes" was erased. The failure of Ted Hughes to replace the stone immediately led to further attacks on him as it was seen by some to be symptomatic of the way he treated her when she was alive.

THE EXTREME identification of many readers with her work and her life was a symptom of the larger radicalization of the period and the birth of a new feminist movement. In an essay in the New York Times, writer Erica Jong describes the now "almost unimaginable" impact of Plath's poetry at a time when so few women writers existed.

For women like her, "doomed" to be future mothers. Domesticated animals, future wives"; Plath's work was liberating, part of a growing feminist literary canon. "Though death-bound," she argues, "it was already exultant...We had found our '60s Sappho--just after she leapt from the Leucadian cliff."

In Ariel, readers and writers of the 1960s found a powerful expression of the rage at women's subjugation in society and in literature. It was a groundbreaking work both in content and style and solidified Plath's status as one of the most American poets. From the moment it appeared in print, it was a media sensation featured in the Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Harper's, Newsweek and Time, where "Daddy" was reprinted.

The intensity and anger of the poems written between 1962 and 1963 was both shocking and refreshing for many of her later readers, particularly women. In "Lesbos," Plath demolishes conventional depictions of domesticity, exposing in her first line the "Viciousness in the Kitchen!" She continues,

Meanwhile there's a stink of fat and baby crap.
I'm doped and thick from my last sleeping pill.
The smog of cooking, the smog of hell
Floats our heads...

Plath became known as "the poetess of pain" and "the Saint Joan of Suicides." The poems in Ariel are brilliant and haunting. "Daddy" one of the most famous and angriest of her poems, is a powerful expression of rage that is both personal and political.

While it's ostensibly about her relationship with her father and Hughes, for a new feminist movement breaking out of the chains of women's oppression, the last line of the poem reads like a declaration of independence which had much wider political resonance.

The poem, "The Applicant" is an indictment of the commodification of women, describing a woman as if she were an appliance to be bought and married. The "applicant" of the poem is presented with a woman who is

A living doll everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook.
It can talk, talk, talk.
My boy, it's your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

And, her last poem, "The Edge"--written days before her suicide--is haunting, describing the body of a dead woman as "perfected."

Plath's life and work became for many a concrete expression of the slogan of the feminist movement that the "personal is political." The formal innovations and experimentations in her poetry allowed this voice to break through conventional poetic modes and inspire millions.

WHILE PLATH'S autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, was published one month prior to her death in England under a pseudonym, its re-publication under her own name in the U.S. in 1971 served to coalesce Plath's status as an icon of the feminist movement. An immediate bestseller, it outsold her poetry, becoming for many the ultimate feminist coming of age story of the time.

In the midst of the burgeoning feminist movement in the U.S., it quickly became a staple of consciousness raising groups. It has sold well over 3 million copies since 1972--a testament to its enduring legacy.

Loosely based on her experiences in New York City in 1953, the first half of the novel traces Esther's growing disillusionment as an intern at a women's magazine in Manhattan living in the ironically entitled "Amazon" hotel, which was based on the Barbizon, a women-only hotel where Plath lived during this period.

The first half of the novel is replete with images of the consumer culture and commodification of women in American society. It traces Esther Greenwood's growing awareness of the contradictions between what, as a woman, she is "supposed" to want and her increasing dissatisfaction with the options available to her.

The poisonous environment of the magazine world is highlighted in a scene in which she is literally poisoned by the fictional Ladies Day magazine.

Outside of the magazine world, Esther seeks an escape from sexist double standards, but finds instead violence and the constant threat of rape. Her experience with men in New York City demonstrates the perilous maze she must negotiate in her attempts to take control of her sexuality.

Through her relationship with Buddy Willard, Esther is confronted with the hypocrisy of world in which she is to remain chaste, pure and loyal--while Buddy is not. This hypocrisy enrages Esther.

Buddy Willard makes Esther aware of the complete alienation and subjugation of female sexuality in the sexist world of the 1950s. Plath emphasizes the violence and pain female bodies are subjected to within the medical establishment as maternity wards are transformed into a Poe-like torture chamber where women are alienated from their own bodies.

She is horrified after witnessing the condescension of doctors to a woman in labor whose existence they barely acknowledge.

Meanwhile, Buddy and his mother, for whom motherhood is the only valid aspiration for a woman, belittle her artistic ambitions. Not surprisingly, she associates marriage and children with a complete loss of self, "like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state."

The stillborn fetuses in jars that Buddy shows her become a metaphor for stunted female sexuality and creativity, providing the symbolic title for the novel.

Seeking sexual fulfillment, Esther instead finds violence, objectification or the fear of a lifetime of domestic imprisonment.

Esther's first step toward freedom after her suicide attempt occurs when Doctor Nolan, the female psychiatrist who is crucial to her recovery, refers her to a clinic to buy a diaphragm. This is crucial to her control over her own sexuality, body and thus her life.

By the time the novel was written and published, birth control, most notably in the form of the pill, had become legal. In the 1950s, however, when Esther gets fitted for a diaphragm, it was not.

The fact that Esther must break the law to gain control of her own body resonated with later feminists reading the novel in the early 1970s as stories of illegal abortions were publicized at mass speak outs and consciousness raising sessions. For Esther, the ability to control her own body gives her an immense sense of freedom. For Plath's fans, the legalization of abortion in 1973 would provide the same feeling of freedom and control.

CRUCIAL TO the novel is Esther's own breakdown, suicide attempt and recovery. Her frank discussion of mental illness, her own depression and suicide attempt was on its own radical for the period. But, Plath makes clear that mental illness is never only a personal problem.

In The Bell Jar, it's not just Esther who is ill--it is the entire world of 1950s America.

As Phyllis Chesler, a pioneer of the feminist critique of psychiatry argues,

Female unhappiness is viewed and "treated" as a problem of individual pathology, no matter how many other female patients (or non-patients) are similarly unhappy--and this by men who have studiously bypassed the objective fact of female oppression. Women's inability to adjust to or to be contented by feminine roles has been considered as a deviation from "natural" female psychology rather than as a criticism of such roles...

Each woman as a patient thinks these symptoms are unique and are her own fault. She is neurotic, rather than oppressed. She wants from a psychotherapist what she wants--and often cannot get--from a husband: attention, understanding, merciful relief, a personal solution...

Chesler's study of women and psychotherapy demonstrated the sexism within established psychiatric practices of the period by noting the disproportionate number of female psychiatric patients and the disproportionate number of women involuntarily committed. As a result, Chesler argued for the importance of a collective rather than an individual solution.

Plath in The Bell Jar likewise demonstrates the way in which women are pathologized for not conforming to established sex roles.

While the primary thrust of Plath's political critique in The Bell Jar is focused on the specific conditions of women's oppression in 1950s America, the novel clearly places this personal narrative in the larger historical and political context of the Cold War and McCarthyism.

Plath begins the novel by describing Esther's horror at the execution of the Rosenbergs--one of the most polarizing political events of the decade. Esther's revulsion at their execution reflects a growing alienation from and rebellion against the 1950s status quo. The anti-communist hysteria evident in the execution of the Rosenbergs exposes the violence of the supposedly "sane" society that increasingly confounds Esther.

By the end of the novel, Esther recognizes that her own depression and breakdown is a reflection of the world around her. The "bell jars" which trap women, and distort their view of the world so that "the world itself is a bad dream" aren't limited to the asylum.

In fact, Esther notes, the women in the college dorms that she returns to after her hospitalization are trapped under their own bell jars. These become reflections of the personal and psychological cost of living as a woman in an oppressive society that denies any possibility for female liberation.

As Jeannette Wintersen notes in reflecting on Plath's legacy in the Guardian:

Why wouldn't a woman go mad in a world like this? Why wouldn't a woman as gifted as Plath become terminally depressed and end in suicide? Pills don't change the world. Feminism did.

The Bell Jar was a call to action because it is a diary of despair.

PLATH'S WORK is fascinating precisely because it is both familiar and unimaginable. We identify with it, and, are horrified. Her life and work demands that we ask the question "Why?" The urgency of this question pervades her work.

Published as a new generation of women began to ask the same question on a mass level, it coincided with a political moment in which that urgency tapped a nerve.

Published only eight days after Plath's death, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique had a profound impact because it reminded women that they were not alone, that the "problem with no name" was a collective not an individual problem.

Within a few years, women would protest the Miss America Pageant, organize child-ins, fight for equal pay and demand the right to choose. While Plath never considered herself a feminist, one can't help wondering what would have happened had she lived long enough to witness the birth of a movement which would change so many women's lives.

Fifty years later, Plath's voice still has profound resonance. In a world where the gains of the women's movement have been severely eroded, her tale is all too relevant. The redesigned cover of the 50th anniversary edition of The Bell Jar, featuring a woman fixing her makeup, has rightfully come under fire. It's a painful reminder that the commodification of women is alive and thriving in the present.

And, as cases of violence against women in Steubenville, Ohio, and at Notre Dame University (where freshman Lizzy Seeberg committed suicide after being sexually assaulted) make clear: Plath's story continues to speak to women because the conditions that produced it are all too familiar in the present.

In remembering Plath, and reflecting on her legacy, one can only hope that a new movement arises to challenge sexism and fight for the liberation of all women from the bell jars she so powerfully exposed.

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