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The Bell Jar is Americanmarker writer and poet Sylvia Plath's only novel, which was originally published under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas" in 1963. The novel is semi-autobiographical with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef, with the protagonist's descent into mental illness paralleling Plath's own experiences with what may have been either bipolar disorder or clinical depression. Plath committed suicide a month after its first publication.

The novel was published under Plath's name for the first time in 1967 and was not published in the United States until 1971, pursuant to the wishes of Plath's husband Ted Hughes and her mother.

Plot summary

Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusettsmarker, gains a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York Citymarker under editor Jay Cee. At the time of the Rosenbergs' execution, Esther is neither stimulated nor excited by the big city and glamorous culture and lifestyle girls her age are expected to idolize and emulate. Instead her experiences frighten and disorient her. She appreciates the hedonism of her friend Doreen, but also identifies with the piety of Betsy (dubbed "Pollyanna Cowgirl" by Doreen, because she's from Kansasmarker), a 'goody-goody' sorority girl who always does the right thing. She has a benefactress in Philomena Guinea, a formerly successful fiction writer, who will, later during Esther's hospitalization, pay for some of her treatments.

Esther describes in detail several seriocomic incidents that occur during her internship, kicked off by an unfortunate but amusing experience at a so-called "ladies' day" banquet, and reminisces about her friend Buddy, whom she has dated more or less seriously and who considers himself her de facto fiancé. She returns to her Massachusetts home in low spirits. During her stay in New York City, she had hoped to return to another scholarly opportunity to attend a writing course taught by a world-famous author, but after being rejected, she decides to spend the summer potentially writing a novel, although she feels she hasn't got enough life experience to write convincingly. All of her identity has been centered around doing well academically; she has no idea what to make of her life once she leaves school, and the choices presented to her (motherhood, as exemplified by the prolific child-bearer and vacuous Dodo Conway, or stereotypical female careers such as stenography) do not appeal to her.

Esther becomes increasingly depressed, and finds herself unable to sleep. Her mother encourages her, or perhaps forces her to see a psychiatrist, who then hastily diagnoses her with a mental illness and administers electroconvulsive therapy. Also, this first therapist is noted by his sex, and also his good looks, which Esther resents. By this time, Esther is suffering from intense insomnia and is traumatised by the therapy, which was improperly administered. When she tells her mother she refuses to go back, her mother smugly and callously announces, "I knew you'd decide to be all right."

Esther's mental state worsens. She describes her depression as a feeling of being trapped under a bell jar, struggling for breath. She makes several half-hearted attempts at suicide, including swimming far out to sea, before making a serious attempt. She leaves a note that says she is taking a long walk, then crawls into the cellar and swallows almost 50 sleeping pills that have been prescribed for her insomnia. She is discovered under her house after a rather dramatic episode in the newspapers has presumed her kidnapping and death, all taking place over an indeterminate amount of time. She survives, is sent to a different mental hospital, and meets Dr. Nolan, a female therapist, who prescribes electroconvulsive therapy and ensures that it will be properly administered. Esther describes the ECT as beneficial in that it has a sort of antidepressant effect, lifting the metaphorical bell jar in which she has felt trapped and stifled. Her stay at the private institution is funded by her benefactress, Philomena Guinea.

Under Dr. Nolan, Esther improves and various life-changing events —such as losing her virginity and her final understanding of death through the suicide of her friend Joan— help her regain her sanity. The novel ends with her entering the room for her interview which would decide whether she was free from the hospital or not.

Although the reader does not find out the outcome of the interview, and the novel ends with the words, "I stepped into the room," it is mentioned in chapter one that Esther, after the events, has a baby.

Parallels of Plath's life to the novel

The book contains many references to real people and events in Plath's life. Plath's real-life magazine scholarship was at Mademoiselle magazine beginning in 1953. Furthermore, Philomena Guinea is based on Plath's own patron, Olive Higgins Prouty, author of Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager, who funded Plath's scholarship to study at Smith Collegemarker. Plath was rejected from a Harvard course taught by Frank O'Connor. Dr. Nolan is thought to be based on Plath's own therapist, Ruth Beuscher, whom she continued seeing into adulthood. A good portion of this part of the novel closely resembles the experiences chronicled by Mary Jane Ward in her autobiographical novel The Snake Pit; Plath later stated that she'd seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see "mental health stuff," so she deliberately based details of Esther's hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward's book. Plath was actually a patient at McLean Hospital, an upscale facility which resembled the "snake pit" much less than certain wards in Metropolitan State Hospitalmarker, which may have been where Mary Jane Ward was actually hospitalized.

Film adaptations

  • 1979: director Larry Peerce, starring Marilyn Hassett as Esther Greenwood, the protagonist. Tagline: "Sometimes just being a woman is an act of courage." After the movie came out, Jane Anderson claimed she was portrayed as the character "Joan" in the movie and filed a lawsuit. She felt that her character was ill-represented, which resulted in her subsequent emotional trauma.
  • 2008: Plum Pictures has announced plans for a new Hollywood version of the novel. The movie will be written by playwright and screenwriter Tristine Skyler, while Julia Stiles will star as the novel's protagonist, Esther Greenwood., while actress Rose McGowan will play the role of the character Doreen. As of early 2009, the film remains in development.

References from other media

  • The book is featured in the first scene of Sun Yanzi's video for the song 'Unforgettable' ('我懷念的').

  • The book is referenced in the Showbread song "The Bell Jar".

  • In season one of Gilmore Girls, when Rory mentions she is going to a party with fellow students from Chilton, Lorelai suggests that she might as well stay home and read The Bell Jar. In season three, when Rory has to write her Harvard application essay on a character she admires, she considers Sylvia Plath before pointing out that the whole "head in the oven story" may not convey the best image to the selection committee. In season four Rory asks Lorelai if she has read The Bell Jar during one of her stubborn conversations.

  • In John Green's Paper Towns, the character Margo decides not to commit suicide because of The Bell Jar.

  • In the movie Heathers, after Veronica (Winona Ryder) "accidentally" kills her friend Heather, she notices a copy of the CliffsNotes for The Bell Jar lying on the bed and decides to cover the murder by writing a fake suicide note.

  • In the Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers, Mallory Knox is seen reading The Bell Jar a scene prior to killing her parents.

  • In the movie "Reality Bites", Janeane Garofalo's character says to Winona Ryder's character, who is depressed: "Man, you are IN The Bell Jar."

  • In a flashback episode of Ned & Stacey, Amanda Moyer (Nadia Dajani) is shown reading The Bell Jar as a depressed and cynical high school student.

  • In the Daria episode "The F Word", a student is seen reading The Bell Jar during a class assignment about failing purposely.

  • In Californication episode "Girls, Interrupted", Mia's creative writing teacher exclaims "You think I wanted Sylvia Plath to come over here and go all Bell Jar on me?" as protagonist Hank Moody tries to save her from what he thinks could be an overdose of sleeping pills, taken at the house of the teacher.

  • In the Warehouse 13 episode "Breakdown", Pete falls under the sway of Sylvia Plath's typewriter, which is purported to steal energy. Claudia mentions that she lived in The Bell Jar.

  • In the movie "Suburban Girl", starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, the book "The Bell Jar", is seen on the floor amidst other various books and cd's etc during the segment titled "Brett's Blue Period".


  1. The Bell Jar - Harper Perennial Classics Edition. ISBN 0-06-093018-7 p. xii by Frances McCullough
  2. Two Views of Plath's Life and Career--by Linda Wagner-Martin and Anne Stevenson
  3. Correspondence with Frank O Connor & Seán Ó Faoláin, "O’Connor [traveled] to the States to give his famous course on Irish Literature at Harvard (Sylvia Plath was an aspiring student whom he refused a place on his course to)."

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