IoS book review: The Bell Jar, By Sylvia Plath

Plath's timeless narrative still resonates

Lesley McDowell
Sunday 06 January 2013 01:00

In her study of Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm said of her generation of young women who came of age in 1950s America: "We lied to our parents and we lied to each other and we lied to ourselves, so addicted to deception had we become. We were an uneasy, shifty-eyed generation." But in the era before second wave feminism, it was Plath who "looked with unnerving steadiness at the Gorgon."

In her first and only novel, The Bell Jar, Plath stared down the truths her generation was unwilling to face. It was published in 1963 – five years after Rona Jaffe's novel about young women in the Manhattan publishing world, The Best of Everything, and the same year that Mary McCarthy's The Group, about a group of Vassar graduates, appeared in the US. Plath's autobiographical novel at first seems similar enough. Esther Greenwood has won an internship on a major New York fashion magazine and is suddenly a girl-about-town.

But Plath's narrative – while it deals with first sexual experiences, birth control, and sexual harassment, just as Jaffe's and McCarthy's do – soon veers into different territory: loss of sanity and America's post-war psychiatric care. Esther wants most of all to be a writer. When she is rejected for a place at a prestigious summer writing school, she tries to kill herself. Esther cannot lie to herself: is madness where truth is? This 50th anniversary of Plath's classic, which was slightly reviewed when it first appeared, much to her chagrin and despair, is timeless in its bravery and need for the truth. For the Gorgon is still with us.

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