The Bell Jar is the only novel written by the poet Sylvia Plath. Published one month before Plath died by suicide at age 30, the story follows a young woman, Esther Greenwood, through a mental breakdown, suicide attempt, and electroshock therapy in a hospital. The novel and the spate of brilliant poems Plath wrote right before her death still reverberate today.
1. Sylvia Plath wanted to write a bestseller like The Snake Pit.
Plath always called The Bell Jar a “potboiler”—a term used to refer to something created with the popular tastes of the day in mind. Her intention was to write something like the 1946 novel The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward. Like The Bell Jar, Ward’s book is about her experiences in a mental hospital. In 1959, Plath wrote in her journal, “Must get out Snake Pit. There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don't relive, recreate it.”
2. The Bell Jar is partially based on Sylvia Plath’s “guest editorship” at Mademoiselle.
The first half of the novel follows Greenwood though a summer internship at Ladies' Day magazine in New York. Plath won a “guest editorship” at Mademoiselle in 1953. (Other past guest editors included Joan Didion and Ann Beattie.) The experiences in the novel are based on real events and people. For example, the character Philomena Guinea was based on Plath’s literary patron, Olive Higgins Prouty. The scene in which Greenwood eats an entire bowl of caviar by herself was a real thing Plath did.
3. Like Sylvia Plath, Esther Greenwood tries to die by suicide and is sent to a hospital.
After returning from New York, Greenwood discovers that she didn’t get into a writing class, which accelerates her depression. Likewise, Plath was rejected from Frank O’Connor’s writing class at Harvard. Greenwood’s attempt to die by suicide mirrors Plath’s actions. Greenwood, like Plath, was found and brought to a mental hospital. Plath was taken to McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, which has also treated Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, David Foster Wallace, James Taylor, and Ray Charles, among others.
4. After years of writer’s block, Sylvia Plath wrote The Bell Jar very quickly
Plath repeatedly tried to write about her mental breakdown but found that she was hopelessly blocked on the subject. Then, in 1961, when her poetry collection The Colossus and Other Poems was accepted for publication, the block suddenly disappeared. After “a night of inspiration,” she started working on the novel every morning at “a great pace,” according to her husband, Ted Hughes. She completed a draft in 70 days.
5. The Bell Jar was rejected by American publishers.
When Plath received a $2080 novel-writing fellowship associated with publishers Harper & Row, she must have thought publication was a sure thing. But Harper & Row rejected The Bell Jar, calling it “disappointing, juvenile and overwrought.” While British publisher William Heinemann accepted the book, Plath still had trouble finding an American publisher. “We didn’t feel that you had managed to use your materials successfully in a novelistic way,” one editor wrote.
6. The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.
Plath used a pseudonym for two reasons: one was to protect the people she fictionalized in the book—not only would it embarrass her mother, but her publisher worried about libel suits. She also wanted to separate her serious literary reputation from her “potboiler,” as well as protect the book from being judged as the work of a poet.
Originally, Greenwood was also named Victoria Lucas, but Plath's editor persuaded her to find an alternative. She agreed, and changed the character’s name to Esther Greenwood.
7. The Bell Jar didn’t get the attention Sylvia Plath was expecting.
When The Bell Jar was published in January 1963, it didn’t seem likely to become a literary sensation. Reviews weren't terrible—some were even positive—but they were all, for the most part, indifferent. As Anne Stevenson wrote in the biography Bitter Fame, Victoria Lucas “would be patted on the head for good writing, scolded for weak plotting, and passed over.” This disappointment occurred at the lowest period of Plath's life. She died less than a month later.
8. Sylvia Plath’s mother didn’t want The Bell Jar to come out in the U.S.
The Bell Jar was published under Plath’s name in England in 1966, but it didn’t come out in the United States until 1971. Plath’s mother, Aurelia, didn’t want people she knew to recognize themselves in the book, believing it showed “the basest ingratitude” to Plath’s friends and family. Hughes finally published The Bell Jar in the U.S. because he wanted money to buy a country house—much to Aurelia’s displeasure.
9. The Bell Jar was made into a movie in 1979.
For better or worse, here it is.
10. The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only published novel.
When Plath died, she was writing another novel titled, at different points, Double Exposure or Doubletake, about the breakdown of her marriage to Hughes. Plath told friends it was “better than The Bell Jar” and made her “laugh and laugh, and if I can laugh now it must be hellishly funny stuff.” Whether she finished the novel is unclear. Originally Hughes said the book was 130 pages, but he later revised that number to 60 or 70 pages. In any case, Hughes claims the novel disappeared in 1970. Here’s hoping it someday resurfaces.
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A version of this story originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.