Remembering Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

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Probably the best thing about being a teacher who is really a dilettante is being able to dip into the long list of books that I’d like to reread or read for the first time and initiate conversations with students who are (for the most part) willing to go along for the ride. Last fall, I picked The Bell Jar off this list, which I hadn’t read in about ten years. I have this working theory that there is a “statute of limitations” on books I’ve read. There’s not a set duration of time that needs to lapse since reading any given book; this depends on the reader, and the reader’s relationship to the book. For a work like The Bell Jar, though, ten years–especially when those ten years involve one’s early 20s to early 30s, the age when Plath committed suicide–gives one time enough to warrant a re-acquaintance with the world of Ester Greenwood.

As a story, it absolutely holds up. Ester has a dry, sardonic voice that will endear any reader who’s a sucker for an unreliable narrator. Much has been made of The Bell Jar as a feminist classic, which is why I assigned it to a feminist theory class. Most disheartening, though, was that so many students recognized Ester’s struggle to seek out an identify that isn’t only defined by being a mother as one that still endures. And indeed, this struggle is now framed as an unintended consequence of women who want to “have it all”–as if it’s audacious to live out the full potential of one’s humanity and demand that society revisit entrenched sexism.

On the 50th anniversary of her death, a handful of writers who happen to be women reflected on the influence of The Bell Jar. Unsurprisingly, one my favorites writers, Jeannette Winterson, hits the nail on the head about why this story remains powerful:

“The Bell Jar was published at the same time as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was reissued after its long ban in the USA. The misogynist masterpiss billets half the population to the whorehouse. All women are for sex. Rich women are for cash. Poor women are for housework. 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 was gifted. She could have been great. Wrong generation. Wrong medication.”

 

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