New York Icons: ‘The Bell Jar’

Studio 360
Studio photograph of Sylvia Plath (with brown hair) by Warren Kay Vantine, 1954 and the first printing of "The Bell Jar," 1966.

“The Bell Jar” is often read as a sort of literary suicide note by poet Sylvia Plath. The autobiographical novel memorably follows her first attempt at taking her own life and her experiences living in a mental institution and undergoing electroshock therapy, but its accounts of weeks spent in New York City preceding the breakdown provide a captivating picture, not just of Plath’s mental state, but of the impossible demands made of women in 1950s.

The novel is set in the summer of 1953, the year that Plath won a guest editorship at “Mademoiselle” to oversee the magazine’s annual college issue. Plath had wanted to be fiction editor, but the magazine named her managing editor instead. Instead of reviewing and editing short stories, Plath attended fashion shows and wrote photo captions, including one in which she praised the “versatility of sweaters.” 

At the time, Plath was an ambitious 19-year-old who had already won literary awards and published poems, but she felt belittled by her editor and preoccupied with the sense that she was laying a remarkable opportunity to waste. “It was my first big chance, but here I was, sitting back and letting it run through my fingers like so much water,” she writes in “The Bell Jar.”

Amidst it all she was also confronted by the sense that she would have to make decisions about pursuing a career, having a family and continuing to write. In that way, “The Bell Jar” poses a question that is still being asked more than 65 years later: Can women have it all?

In that way, and in many others, “The Bell Jar” offers insights to our own society. Far more than a novel about a mentally troubled teenager in the Eisenhower era, Plath’s only published novel is a story that has a lot to tell us about our own time.

Studio 360’s New York Icons series is made possible by a grant from the Booth Ferris Foundation.

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