Why Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar' is Still Relevant 50 Years Later, Especially For Millennials
In Annie Hall, the character of Alvy Singer quips, “Sylvia Plath, interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.”
While Plath has been romanticized, to minimize her influence to her final act is not fair. One of the first female poets to engage in the Confessional style of poetry, she revealed to readers, female and male alike, her inner anxieties with frankness. Perhaps Plath’s greatest legacy is demonstrating courage to discuss her own issues, opening the door for more open dialogue on issues of mental illness. Of course, this was completed through her poetry, and her singular novel, The Bell Jar, which due to its roman-a-clef elements was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Bell Jar’s initial publication. As a recently graduate with a degree in literature, I enjoy the classics, but I am nevertheless surprised with how Sylvia Plath’s literary stand-in Esther Greenwood survives the test of time.
The analytic focus of Plath’s work often focuses on the suicidal elements. Granted, the suicide attempt of Esther takes up a good deal of The Bell Jar, but I do not think that specific element is the defining feature of the novel. As a literature student, and recent grad, I am more interested and captivated by Plath’s portrait of a young woman on the verge of adulthood, who is unsure of her place. In that light, I see much of myself, and friends, in Esther’s struggle to self-hood.
Like Esther, I feel the world and its craziness sinking into my bones. Interestingly, especially in light of the leaks about the NSA surveillance, we find ourselves in an environment too familiar to our protagonist. The Bell Jar begins with this historical note: “It was queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs … ” It was the age of the Cold War, high suspicion, and the House of UnAmerican Activities. It was an age of uncertainty, somewhat like our post-9/11, War-on-Terror age. Esther notes how the news of the Rosenbergs affects her, how their execution occupies her mind. While the circumstances are not quite the same, there is a feeling of malaise in the news and events around us.
Like Esther, I recognize that I am “supposed to be having the time of my life.” If Taylor Swift is to believed, being an early 20-something is supposed to be fun.
It is an age to be enjoyed and savored. Since graduating, and being on the precipice of the “real world,” I certainly do not feel carefree. I feel anxious and unsure of myself. Similarly to Esther, I’ve had some wonderful opportunities in the past few years, whether it be a (partial) scholarship or a competitive internship, but I can’t help but nod along with Esther’s parenthetical, and oft-quoted, sentiment: “I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
Like Esther, I am discontent with settling, but unsure of where to begin. I find myself mirroring Esther’s list of “inadequacies.” While Plath is writing in the context of the gender-boxing 50s and 60s, I still feel lost, in the 21st century, without ingenious cooking skills or expensive side activities such as horseback riding. I write, I read, I analyze the world around me, a similarly “plain English major.” But the options are before me, and I have my pick; I am twenty-two with a degree and work experience. Or, I should have my pick, but the choice is paralyzing. Or, I should have my pick, but there are thousands like me, and the job market is not promising. Or, to quote the entirety of this beautiful passage:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Through the character of Esther Greenwood, Plath shows her readers the universality of feeling unsure of oneself. When I first read The Bell Jar, I felt relief, knowing that someone understood the anxiety of being a young woman in a crazed-and-difficult world. The relevance of her work carries through today. While Plath’s writing may not offer any answers as to overcoming this “bell jar” of anxiety, readers may be relieved to find they are not alone in this struggle.