The Bell Jar Author/Context
Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 on the 27th of October in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father was an immigrant and her mother was a first generation American. Her father died in 1940 as a result of a leg amputation. Plath attended high school in Wellesley Massachusetts, and began to write poetry and short stories. She attended Smith College on a scholarship, and in 1952 won a Mademoiselle short story contest which allowed her to work as a guest editor. She returned home from this and later attempted suicide. She spent several months in an institution. Afterwards, she graduated from Smith and then went to Cambridge University on a Fulbright scholarship. There, she met poet laureate of England, Ted Hughes, and married him that year. She finished her time in Cambridge and they moved to the United States. Plath started writing poetry more seriously. Her first book of poetry The Colossus and Other Poems was published in 1960. She had two children and eventually separated from Hughes for a while. In 1963, The Bell Jar was published under a pseudonym. A month later, Plath committed suicide.
Although Plath only published one book of poetry during her life, her posthumous publications and her novel, have made her a mainstay of contemporary poetry. The poems from her final days were compiled and edited by Hughes. In 1965, these poems were published in Ariel. Although it was not the edition Plath had envisioned, Ariel became a classic work of modern poetry and continues to be read all over the country. In 1981, Hughes published an edition of Plath's collected poems that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
The Bell Jar, published originally under the pseudonym 'Victoria Lucas,' was not printed with Plath's name until 1966. Although it was a popular book, it received new notoriety from its association with Ariel. The Bell Jar is not regarded as a novel in the traditional sense, because it is not a piece of fiction. Instead, it is considered to be a deep work of slightly fictionalized autobiography. Elizabeth Bronfen says, "we can now perhaps come to value The Bell Jar for its astonishingly astute depiction of two aspects of postmodernity." These aspects are of the outer person and her inner identity. The theme of this conflict dominates Plath's only novel.
Plath's poetry has been equally influential for its straight forwardness and honesty. In this, Plath is also lauded for being one of the first breaks in a long male literary tradition. Her endeavor to become recognized and respected as a writer was concomitant with a nation of women trying to become equal to and respected by their American male counterparts. Her poetry is unique and different from the post-world war poetry that had dominated the literary scene for the past decade. Her voice was that of a new and altered generation.
Plath's literary abilities, coupled with her personality and early demise, have combined to create a mythology and a hero for many people. Her desperate voice in The Bell Jar and Ariel went unheard until she took her own life. It is only after her death that she achieved the fame of which she had always dreamed. Her effect on literature is more than in her art. Her personality demanded a new honesty and realness from writers. Although many critics have qualms with her decision to end her life, most agree that her life demands that social conventions be questioned. In the words of Ronald Hayman, "it is she who effectively argues through her writing that the old conventions need to be reassessed."
Bronfen, Elisabeth. Sylvia Plath. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1998.
Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1991.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.
Plath Sylvia. Ariel. New York: Harper Perennial, 1965.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.