In all published fiction there is the legal disclaimer “All characters and events are a product of the author’s imagination. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Sylvia Plath’s editor, Frances McCullough, in the prologue to the 25th anniversary edition of “The Bell Jar” affirms that this legal disclosure is substantially false. The characters and events in this American classic parallel the short life of the author. The novel was published in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas eight years before its U.S. publication owing to resistance by her ex husband, Ted Hughes, who held the copyright. After Ms. Plath’s suicide he promised her mother that it would not be published in the U.S. during her mother’s lifetime, but copies had leaked out, and the U.S. copyright had been lost.
Of greater interest to me is that the novel was twice rejected by editors. It was considered by them to be disappointing, juvenile and overwrought. Ms. Plath’s collection of poems, “Ariel”, had been well received and her suicide enhanced sales of that collection. The decision to publish “The Bell Jar” in the U.S. was not made by literary editors, but by one of Harper & Row’s sales managers, Frank Scioscia. He thought it would sell, and being the female bookend to Holden Caulfield of “The Catcher in the Rye”, it did. I agree with the literary editors although my perspective is not that of the 1950s and early 1960s when the book was an awakening for women and to a lesser degree, psychiatry.
The main character, Ester Greenwood, is a star student who suffers a mental breakdown that leads to shock treatment. Like the author, she is a writer, who wants to be a poet. Unlike the author, publication of her works was not required to feed her and her children.
The novel is negative about the use of shock treatment. The opening paragraph is a premonition.
“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’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers-google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.”
I have heard about that weekend from my parents, because I came into the world the weekend that the Rosenbergs were leaving it.
This was a book that used to be read in American high schools. With the concern about teen suicide, I am not sure if it still is. Here suicidal tendencies evolve from young angst founded on intellectual pretensions. It predates drug induced suicide.
Although dated in my opinion, it still would be as worthwhile a read for young adults as “The Catcher in the Rye.” The latter remains a mystery to me, as it is still enjoyed by teenagers, although I never cared for the book. For adults, “The Bell Jar” is a period piece. The shock has worn off since the 1960s, so today the plot and characters are banal. It is a quick read, if you want to read what is considered a “classic”.