The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's only novel, published the same year that the author committed suicide. Some claim the text is more autobiography than fiction. It tells the story of a young woman who becomes mentally ill, attempts suicide, and is treated in a mental hospital as she grapples with the life expected of women in the 1950s.

The novel appealed greatly to women in the 1960s, when leaders of the feminist movement began to question women's prescribed roles in society. Its frank portrayal of depression and the search for a meaningful life have struck a chord in readers ever since.

1. The Bell Jar wasn't published in the United States until long after Plath's death.

Plath first took The Bell Jar to an American publisher in 1962, but it was rejected for being immature and overly emotional. When Plath died in 1963, her mother fought against its publication overseas, embarrassed by what had been written about the family. It wasn't until 1971—eight years after Plath's death—that it was finally published in the United States. It became an immediate success, selling more than three million copies.

2. Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, accepted partial responsibility for her death.

Within six year's time, Plath and Hughes's mistress Assia Wevill both committed suicide. Hughes blamed his "insane decisions" for Plath's death and his "insane indecisions" for Wevill's death. Hughes believed Plath's suicide was "inevitable." He claimed Plath was on a suicide "track [for] most of her life," and nothing he did or didn't do would affect that path. In contrast, Hughes succumbed time and again to his parents' disapproval of his relationship with Wevill, leaving her feeling rejected.

3. Sylvia Plath used her coworkers at Mademoiselle magazine as inspiration for her characters.

Janet Rafferty, who was chosen as a guest editor by Mademoiselle for her nonfiction submission (Plath won for her fiction submission), was the basis for the character of Betsy in the novel. She said Plath was "an Ivy League snob" and that she could tell that Plath was disappointed in her "broad Midwestern accent." The surviving guest editors, who reunited in 2003, were all shocked by Plath's suicide. One said, "I can't imagine leaving your children. She must have been really ill."

4. For many years, no one knew who wrote The Bell Jar because Plath wrote under a pseudonym.

In 1963 The Bell Jar was published in England under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. Plath said she used the fake name to protect her friends and family, as much of the book is semi-autobiographical. In the second edition of the book, published in 1964, the publisher noted, "Victoria Lucas is a pseudonym, and we are not in a position to disclose any details of the author's identity." This statement created great curiosity among the reading public, as the publisher may well have intended.

5. Plath said the main reason she wrote The Bell Jar was to make money.

Plath referred to the text as a potboiler, a written work produced mainly to make money, which Plath desperately needed. Though much of The Bell Jar is based on events from her own life, Plath told her mother that she fictionalized it to "add color." She said, "It's a potboiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown."

6. In 2013 a "chick-lit" anniversary edition of the book intended to attract new readers was released by British publishers.

Pictured on the cover, a glamorous young woman putting on makeup infuriated readers who believed the design obscured the book's message. The new edition's frothy copy cover also seemed at odds with the book's message:

When Esther Greenwood wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953, she is elated, believing she will finally realize her dream to become a writer. But in between the cocktail parties and piles of manuscripts, Esther's life begins to slide out of control.

7. Although Sylvia Plath was a genius, she was the victim of writer's block.

While Plath was technically a 'genius' with a recorded IQ of 160, she was not immune to writer's block. The Bell Jar sat unfinished for a year, from 1958 to 1959, because Plath struggled to write about her mental breakdown. She went to the writers' colony Yaddo in 1959, and there, she was able to write about the experience for the first time in poetry. After that, in 1961, she wrote furiously, finishing The Bell Jar in a matter of months.

8. Plath's mother suggested a child-parent topic for the book and ended up being portrayed as the villain.

Plath's mother, Aurelia, was, like her daughter, an excellent student. She was valedictorian at Boston University, taught English and German, and was working on her Master's degree when she met Plath's father, Otto Plath. She encouraged Plath to keep journals that detailed the events of her everyday life. In fact, she provided the inspiration for The Bell Jar: "I suggested a child-parent conflict. I little knew what shape it would take," Plath's mother recalled.

9. Although the text was well-received, the 1979 movie version of The Bell Jar got terrible reviews.

The New York Times review of The Bell Jar said that scenes were "appallingly flat" and that the film was "as sane, cheery and level-headed an account of a nervous breakdown as you could ever hope to see." Variety agreed, stating that the direction "provides a sense of headachey dullness 15 minutes into the film."

10. A Boston psychiatrist filed a defamation lawsuit after the 1979 film adaptation.

After the 1979 film of The Bell Jar was released, Boston psychiatrist Dr. Jane Anderson filed a lawsuit claiming she was the basis for the character of Joan Giling. Her lawsuit stated that the film version portrayed her as a sexual predator, inflicted emotional damage, and was defamatory. In the film, though not in the novel, the character based on the doctor is portrayed as a lesbian who makes sexual advances in one scene; it was this scene to which the doctor objected. The doctor asked for $6 million but received $150,000.

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