Sylvia Plath is an American writer and poet. She did not live an exciting life as others will think. In fact, it was quite the opposite. She had struggled with depression and mental illness throughout various points in her lifetime. Her life influence her works with themes, such as self identity and female roles. It indicates how mental illness can greatly affect lives. In Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, Plath’s experiences with mental illness is depicted in the character, Esther Greenwood, to show the hardship of finding oneself in the midst of struggles.
On October 27, 1932, Sylvia Plath was born to her parents, Otto and Aurelia Plath, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents were German and Austrian originated. Her mother, Aurelia, was a first generation American, while her father, Otto, was a Poland immigrant. Her father had an interest in the sciences, so he had worked biology at Johns Hopkins University and then soon entomology at Harvard. The Plath family settled in Winthrop, living near Plath’s grandparents. Because Plath lived so close to her grandparents, she found herself having a strong connection with them (Hobsbaum 241). Her younger brother, Warren, was born on April 27, 1935. Plath’s childhood could be described as a childhood near the sea, which is “associated with innocence and happiness” (Sylvia Plath”, Concise Dictionary). However, a tragedy had struck the Plath family, causing her childhood happiness to not last long. Her father had undiagnosed diabetes, and he soon had his leg amputated. On November 5, 1940, Plath lost a dear loved one, her father. Not only did her father’s death left her devastated but it also largely impacted her life afterwards. In a way, her father’s death became the “central psychological event of Plath’s life” as she writes allusions to her father (Sylvia Plath”, Concise Dictionary). In her later poems, there are connections about her allusions to bees and her father who was interested in entomology. The family moved to Wellesley after the death of the father. Young Plath had successfully excelled in school, receiving straight A’s. Not only did she have excellent grades but she also had a skill for academics and writing. At just eight and a half years old, her poem was published in the Boston Sunday Herald (“Sylvia Plath”, Encyclopedia of World Biography). Plath’s poems were published in “The Bradford”, her school magazine, and was also a coeditor. She had wrote in diaries throughout her school days. In 1950, she graduated from Gamaliel Bradford Senior High School as an excellent student (Hobsbaum 241). Although the death of her father impacted her life, she still managed to succeed greatly in school.
In September of the year 1950, Plath entered into Smith College with scholarships from Olive Higgins Prouty Fellowship and the local Smith Club (Hobsbaum 242). From there, she had graduated summa cum laude. Plath’s ability to write increases and she had a skill for English. She had dated Dick Norton, who was to be the inspiration for the character Buddy Willard in The Bell Jar, and later on, Myron Lotz, who was a Yale athlete (Hobsbaum 242). In the summer of 1953, Plath was chosen to spend a month in New York. From there, she was to learn about the editorial process and to be a guest editor for the “Mademoselle” magazine (“Sylvia Plath”). However, instead of returning home with happy memories, she returned depressed. Suffering mentally, Plath was not accepted into Harvard summer school fiction course that she was looking forward to. As an attempt to cure her depression, she underwent electroconvulsive therapy. At this period in her life, she had suffered with mental illness. One day, she had attempted to overdose with pills and was found nearly dead three days later. Receiving treatments, she had gone to the Massachusetts General Hospital’s psychiatric and later at McLean Hospital in Belmont. Years after her treatments, she had a sexual affair with Richard Sassoon. One of her great accomplishments was that she was voted to have received the largest scholarship given to an undergraduate. At this time, another one of her works was published by Harper’s. At the St. Botolph’s Review party, she had met her future husband Ted Hughes. They had a marriage ceremony by a special license on June 16, 1956 at St. George the Martyr Church in London (Hobsbaum 244). After suffering mentally, Plath’s life was improving. She had gotten an instructorship at Smith College where she also taught freshman English classes three times a week. She had also served on the editorial board of Smith Review. Through her midlife, Plath was associated with Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Karl Jay Sharpio, Ted Hughes, and Simon de Beauvoir (“Sylvia Plath”). She became unsure of herself as she did not know what to identify herself as. She was stuck choosing between being a mother and a wife or a poet (“The Bell Jar”, Novels for Students). The Hughes became pregnant and had their first child, Frieda, on April 1, 1960. Their living conditions could be described as small with only one bedroom available. The Hughes welcome their second child, Nicholas, on January 17, 1962. Throughout her life, Plath had suffered a miscarriage, but luckily was blessed with two children. Just as Plath thought her life was stable, her marriage failed and underwent a divorce. The divorce led to her depression and soon an attempted suicide. Her attempted suicide and depression inspired her works (“Plath, Sylvia”). She suffered mental illness and underwent shock treatments. Plath had written a letter to her mother in August saying. “I simply cannot go on living the degraded and agonized life I have been living, which has stopped my writing and just about ruined my sleep and my health…” (“Sylvia Plath”, Concise Dictionary). The quote shows her desperate call for help. It shows how badly her mental state was at.
Although Plath was not mentally stable, her writing life was indeed successful. Plath’s early works refer to the father figure and racism (Hobsbaum 241). She refers her father image in “Daddy”, “The Colossus”, and “Lady Lazarus”. In The Bell Jar, the narrator experiences many incidents and Hobsbaum states, “what binds these together, if anything, is a persistent sense of loss, focused on the memory of a father” (Hobsbaum 249). In the novel The Bell Jar , the narrator experienced the loss of her father, like Plath. In this case, Plath’s grief over her father binds her works together. Her works “And Summer Will Not Come Again” And “Den of Lions” was both published by Seventeen. Her work was accepted by the Boston Globe and Christian Science Monitor. “Sunday at the Mintons” had won a prize and was published in August 1952. Her early poems were formal in technique, for example, “Female Author” in luces full rhymes and was iambic. At Cambridge University, she was a foreign student. She had tied for first in the Glascock Poetry Contest, along with her thesis for the Marjorie Hope Nicolson Prize. Her poems were published by Delta, Chequer, and Granta. She typed records in a psychiatric clinic of Manhattan General Hospital, and her work “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” was inspired by so (Hobsbaum 245). While Plath was pregnant with Nicholas, she completed poems in Crossing the Water, a posthumous collection of poetry. In 1963, Plath’s novel The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym, Victoria Lucas (“Sylvia Plath”). It was based off her New York experience and her breakdown. The Bell Jar was published less than one month before her suicide (“The Bell Jar”, Novels for Students). Her major works includes: Colossus, The Bell Jar, Ariel, and The Collected Poetry. Colossus is a book of her poems during her life. Ariel include poems that are on a more personal level, inspired from her angers, insecurities, fear, and loneliness (“Sylvia Plath”, Encyclopedia of World Biography). Overall, her works all have deeper meaning towards them, especially those inspired by her life.
Because of the heartbreak the divorce has caused her, Hughes is a replaced of Plath’s father in her poetry. Following the divorce, Hughes left her and her children and Plath moved away with her children to 23 Fitzroy Road (Hobsbaum 256). However, due to the cold weather, her children and her became ill. She often had mood swings and was scarce on money. Plath wrote one more poem called “Edge” on February 5, 1963. During her last five months of living, she ad wrote almost all of the poems in Ariel. On February 11, 1963, in London, Plath’s struggles with her mental illness had come to an end. Plath had died by committing suicide, leaving children with two mugs of milk and buttered bread before her death (“Sylvia Plath”, Encyclopedia of World Biography).
During the time of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, there was an absence of feminism in the U.S. It considered that men had dominated this time period. For example, when America got involved in World War II, more than six million million women went to work; however, they were to stop working after the war had ended (“Historical Context: The Bell Jar”). During this time of American history, “women’s social and financial standing usually hung on their husbands’ occupation and respective income” (“Historical Context: The Bell Jar”). This time period had more men in the work force, meaning women were less paid. In the 1950s, women were expected to marry, and they did not go to college to support themselves (“The Bell Jar”, Novels for Students). The 1950s was a time when men received two and a half more times more degrees than women. One sources states that in 1960, “five percent single women , thirty two percent married women, and forty nine percent other women was in the American work force” (“Themes and Construction: The Bell Jar”). Another example of comparing sex roles in the 1950s were that men were three times more likely to commit suicide. It was stated that the mental health care in the 1950s improved since the past years (“Sylvia Plath”). The historical background of The Bell Jar deals with the absence of feminism and male domination.
Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar displays the hardship of finding one’s identity and the struggles of mental illness. The novel is told under the perspective of Esther Greenwood, the main character. Plath’s life has influenced her novel since the narrator undergoes problems like Plath, such as being unable to find one’s identity, being haunted by the past, and being depressed. Plath brings the theme of despair and sufferings together with metaphors and dark imagery. Plath’s works see “nature and human experience as mythic” (“Plath, Sylvia”). The Bell Jar analyze themes of “adolescence with metaphysical concerns of disembodiment and annihilation (“Themes and Construction: The Bell Jar”). It mentions how a young girl , in a way, destroyed herself as she was mentally unstable.
The plot of The Bell Jar is divided in to three parts within the span of eight months. Like Plath, Esther Greenwood narrates her experience in New York City, along with her past from college. During this all, she shows her emotional and mental side and struggle to find her identity, and she is not satisfied with men. Greenwood loses her ambition when she was failed into the writing course (“The Bell Jar”, Novels for Students). This causes her to go mental and she begins to do bizarre things, and she even attempts suicide.It focuses on her psychological and mental state. She even becomes obsessed death and suicide.
The themes in The Bell Jar include search for identity and the rebellion against standard female roles. Greenwood is often indecisive on herself, deciding whether she wants to be with a wife with children or continue a life as a poet. Greenwood found herself in relationships, but they all failed and did not satisfy her. Greenwood’s view on marriage was that a wife should obey her husband and do duties for him and their children (“Sylvia Plath”, Encyclopedia of World Biography). The causes of her depression includes that she would not excell as a wife. Plath uses her works to “assert a strong female identity and to balance familial, marital, and career aspirations have established her as a representative voice for feminist concerns” (“Sylvia Plath”). In Plath’s work The Bell Jar, the main character , Esther, isn’t the tradition woman. She is not married, and nor will ever be. She chose the career path of writing, and is not a household wife. In the 1950s, there was an issue with sex roles. In the The Bell Jar, three certain women showed their side of feminine identities. Jay Cee, The editor, has sacrificed her femininity to become an editor. This shows that she is passionate in her work that she focuses on herself and not men like other females. Philomena Guinea, a writer, has also succeeded in her job on her own. Dr. Nolan, Esther’s psychiatrist, succeeds as a professional in her work force. However, there are women that does the opposite and depends on men. For example, Esther’s mom encourages her daughter to marry well and not succeed in her job (“Themes and Construction: The Bell Jar”). In this time of society, there is a social pressure of marriage. Due to these influences, Esther puts effort into men and does lose her virginity. In a way to find her identity, she competes in bizarre ways. One day at a banquet, Esther eats as if she wants to eat more than the other interns (“Themes and Construction: The Bell Jar”). Another example is that she feels defeated when Buddy Willard loses her virginity before her.
In The Bell Jar, there is a theme of a cultural clash. Esther did not come from wealth. Because of that, she considers herself outside of the social circle at college and does make attempts to fit in. Esther is very educated and has her looks, but she is socially an outsider (“Themes and Construction: The Bell Jar”). There is also symbolism seen in the novel. The symbol of the Bell Jar has a significant meaning. It represents the condition of a mental breakdown. It correlates to the novel because Esther is often seen having mental episodes. She often feels as she is inside the jar, she isolates herself away from the world whenever she deals with her mental illness. Near the end of the novel, Plath writes in The Bell Jar, “How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (Plath 197). This quote shows that Esther still does not have freedom against the feeling of being trapped. However, it does get to the point where she feels she feels cured but still she feels as though the jar is still there to trap her away from the world again. Mental illness is not something to get over easily. Although Esther may seem as if she is cured mentally, she feels as if her depression could always come back to get her. Because she felt trapped in the jar, her view on the world differed.