I was 15 the first time I read The Bell Jar on the advice of two friends who were reading it. I had no idea what to expect. It unraveled slowly, I had no idea where it was going, but I followed it to the end. I loved it. I loved that it expressed that unnamed malaise that sinks into your skin in adolescence, the boredom, the isolation, the doubt, the lethargy, the general feeling of distance from people and things in life that are supposed to bring joy. I thought it was just a brilliant fictional novel until I discovered author Sylvia Plath's story and the fact that The Bell Jar is actually semi-autobiographical... The student writing scholarship in New York, the horrific shock therapy treatments, the despair. Roman á clé... Peeling back the subtle façade of fiction you find that she is revealing her descent into a dark cloud.
Its so interesting that the first cover (pictured above) is the very first cover, published in the UK in 1963, and was officially authored by Victoria Lucas, Plath's pen name. The book was not published in States, on request of her family, until long after her death in 1971. Plath committed suicide only a month after the UK publishing of her novel, and in 1967, years after her death, a reprint of the book plastered her real name on the cover.
Although The Bell Jar contains plenty of false names, you can easily piece together the real life events of Plath's life from those of the main character/narrator, Esther, from the novel. The scholarship opportunity Esther was given to be guest editor of a magazine lands her in New York, New York, but to her dismay, the giddy excitement of Manhattan shared by the other girls is lost on her. This was based on the exact experience that Plath had when she won a scholarship in 1953 sponsored by Mademoiselle magazine. Characters were so modeled after people in Plath's life... the wealthy patron-supporter, the ex-boyfriend, the scholarship colleagues. The interactions between Esther and the other girls from the scholarship were so based upon her real life scholarship colleagues, that one of the Mademoiselle girls later claimed that they could no longer speak to one another after the book was published and suffered divorce and social isolation from having their business exposed in the novel.
Sylvia's family knew well her own personal struggles with depression. She had already made at least one suicide attempt by the time she traveled to New York and her family had tried to seek help for her. In the 50s and 60s depression was so misunderstood, its doubtful anyone knew the depths of the problem or had knowledge of the few treatments that were offered. One unfortunately popular, sickening treatment of the age was electric shock therapy, which Sylvia experienced under the guidance of a psychiatrist she was seeing regularly. The account described in the book by Esther is harrowing.
Its unknown what her mother's reaction to The Bell Jar was, but we know that she suppressed its printing in America for 8 years after Plath's death. Sylvia wrote to her mother in a letter about the book: "What I've done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalizing to add color- it's a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown.... I've tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen though the distorting lens of a bell jar."