Plath's Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar was published on this day in 1963, a month before Plath's suicide. The novel describes the fall of Esther Greenwood, a popular, prizewinning student-poet who is spending her summer in New York as a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine. The parallels between Greenwood's life and Plath's experiences a decade earlier begin with the novel's famous opening sentence: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York." This foreshadows the electric shock treatments that Esther will eventually face, and which Plath underwent after her first suicide attempt following her stay at Mademoiselle.

 

But premonitions of disaster are often evident in Plath's journal-writing throughout the early 1950s. The following entry from 1950, Plath now a college freshman, catalogues her fall through an "Alice-in-Wonderland fable" into "the world of 'grown-up' reality":

...* to learn snide and smutty meanings of words you once loved, like 'fairy.' * to go to college fraternity parties where a boy buries his face in your neck or tries to rape you if he isn't satisfied with burying his fingers in the flesh of your breast. * to learn that there are a million girls who are beautiful and each day that more leave behind the awkward teenage stage, as you once did, and embark on the adventure of being loved and petted. * to be aware that you must compete somehow, and yet that wealth and beauty are not in your realm.... * to learn that you might have been more of an 'artist' than you are if you had been born into a family of wealthy intellectuals. * to learn that you can never learn anything valid for truth, only momentary, transitory sayings that apply to you in your moment, your locality, and your present state of mind. * to learn that love can never come true, because the people you admire like Perry are unattainable since they want someone like P.K. * to learn that you only want them because you can't have them. * to learn that you can't be a revolutionary... * to know that there is a mental hospital on the hill in back of the college...

 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.