Plath Bell Jar the Life Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Eventually, Esther sneaks into the cellar with a bottle of sleeping pills -- prescribed to her for the insomnia she was experiencing, without any other real attempts to understand or solve the underlying problems of her mental upset -- having left a note for her mother saying she was taking a long walk. Esther then swallows as many of the pills as she is able, and it appears to be several days (it is never conclusively stated in the text) before she is found and taken to the hospital, where she awakens to learn that she has yet again been unsuccessful.

Following her physical convalescence, Esther is subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, which she notes has a soothing effect on her depression. Things begin to look somewhat better for Esther; she is being well-cared for at a private hospital paid for by a rich benefactress and admirer of Esther's work. The novel closes with the future seemingly uncertain, as Esther enters the room wherein she is to receive an interview by the hospital's medical board to see if she can be released without presenting a danger to herself. Esther already alluded in previous narration to a child she had borne, however, so it is known -- even if it is not shown in the novel's final scene -- that life does go on for Esther Greenwood to at least some degree, and that indeed the darkest period of her life seems already behind her.

A Comparison of Heroines

There are many details of Esther's experience that cannot be confirmed or refuted by Plath's own life, largely because her journals from this period are either non-existent or simply remain unpublished and hidden by her estate, primarily her mother and Ted Hughes in the years immediately following her death (Steinberg par. 14-5). There are also many areas that can serve as excellent points of comparison between the semi-autobiographical story of Esther Greenwood as it appears in The Bell Jar and Sylvia Plath's real life, both in terms of the symbolism that creates difference yet illuminates similar qualities, and in the events of both lives -- real and fictional -- that coincide in nearly every detail, showing the obvious crafting of her own story in Plath's one and only novel.

The most obvious incident for comparison is the sleeping-pill suicide attempt that was such a pivotal point in both Plath Esther greenwood's lives. The details of the two incidents are almost identical, from the hiding in the cellar to the newspaper's printing of a kidnapping report before she is found to the series of hospitals that both Plath and Greenwood were transferred to before finally receiving adequate care at a private institution thanks to the largesse of a friend (Plath; Steinberg). From this scene alone, regardless of the other details of Esther Greenwood's summer that are quite obviously taken from the rela-life experiences of Sylvia Plath, it is clear that Greenwood is serving as a surrogate for Plath in her own life story. Though the full trajectory of Plath's life is not, of course, included in the novel, the apparent optimism with which it ends is likely indicative of Plath's real feelings at that pint in her life.

At the same time, it is essential to remember that the novel is a fictionalized and highly symbolic version of Plath's life. It has even been suggested that a more correct and meaningful reading of The Bell Jar focuses in the symbolic elements of the novel itself rather than on the relation the plot bears to Plath's own life or even to the narrative of the novel itself (Buell). According to this view, the clear relationship that exists between Esther Greenwood and Sylvia Plath is largely immaterial in the face of the additional and supporting details and aspects of setting provided by the author as a backdrop for the story. Even if it is her story that is being told, Plath chose to tell it in a highly specific and fictionalized way that colors all of the events and characters in The Bell Jar, real or imagined, creating very real and perceivable differences that nonetheless illuminate the possible inner life and perspective of Plath during the period of her life in which she was writing, and during which she largely lived the story she relates in this novel.

One such fictionalized detail was setting Esther's story during the same summer that the Rosenberg's were being executed, the summer of 1953. Plath had actually spent her time at the magazine and then at her mothers in 1952; from the opening of the novel it is fairly clear that the adjustment of a year was meant to have the story specifically coincide with the Rosenberg's execution: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs...that's all there was to read about in the papers" (Plath 1). The backdrop of fear and of choosing sides that the case of the Rosenbergs presented matches the tone of Etsher's (and Plath's) dilemma in many aspects, making it an excellent if inaccurate symbol.

Accuracy is obviously not Plath's goal with the writing of this book; she does not attempt to tell a complete tale of the summer leading up to her first and up to that point most famous breakdown; instead she tells a highly selective version of the events with certain scenes and characters heightened and others not appearing at all, keeping the flow of a narrative. Esther does not have a previous and highly unsuccessful bout with electroconvulsive therapy mentioned in The Bell Jar, though Plath suffered this treatment at the hands of a doctor who completely botched the procedure, leaving Plath hugely frightened by the experience (Steinberg par. 10). This detail was not part of the story of seeming redemption, rebirth, and even of simply finding oneself that Plath was telling in The Bell Jar, and so it was left out. At the end of the story, when Esther Greenwood approaches the interview that will determine her suitability for release with a definite optimism, it is easy to believe that everything really can work out; this was part of the fiction Plath created.


Things did not work out for Plath in the end, quite obviously, though one can certainly hope that she is less tortured now than she was here on Earth. Esther Greenwood has the comfort of remaining statically poised at the edge of her potential, un-fallen and un-risen -- undecided. Sylvia Plath, like everyone in the mortal realm, had to keep on growing, changing, and adjusting, and as life dealt her a series of disappointment she eventually bowed before the onslaught. The Bell Jar is not an autobiography if only because it captures only a single voice of Plath's rather than the multitude she experienced throughout her life.

Works Cited

Buell, Frederick. "Sylvia Plath's Traditionalism." Boundary 2-5(1) (1976), pp. 195-212.

Gilson, Bill. "Biography of Sylvia Plath." Accessed 3 April 2010.

Liukonnen, Petri. "Sylvia Plath." Accessed 3 April 2010.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper, 2000.

Steinberg, Peter. "A Celebration, This…

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