The Bell Jar

By Sylvia Plath, published 1963

This is an extract from my doctoral thesis, in which I analyze several novels on the theme of fertility rights.

In The Bell Jar, Plath sets up a world that is familiar since her protagonist struggles to access contraception. However, unusually, Esther expresses fear of pregnancy and believes her entire livelihood rests on birth control. Once she secures it, she is lifted from a state of depression, free of the bell jar.[1] Esther is deeply conflicted about motherhood; she sometimes expresses a desire for children, but she fears childbirth and the potential loss of a career as a poet. In her world, it was not possible to do both. It is important to note that Esther is a privileged young woman with access to mental health care and other medical care, as well as the recipient of a funded internship in New York City, therefore the complications she faces would be slight in comparison to a person from a marginalized group.

The Bell Jar was first published under a pseudonym in 1963, and sadly Plath committed suicide the same year. According to critic Janet Badia: “In the years between the novel’s original publication in England in 1963 and its US release eight years later, Plath had been transformed from a poet well known in London’s literary circles to a writer in demand among general and literary readers alike on both sides of the Atlantic.”[2] Given the biographical elements of the novel, Plath’s own letters, and her suicide, it is possible Plath struggled with the same fears as Esther of being “unmaternal,”[3] or was similarly distracted from her craft. Many scholars have drawn parallels between Plath’s own life, recorded in her journal, and the novel.[4] In her review of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. I & II for the London Review of Books, Joanna Biggs reports that, in Volume II, Plath vowed not to have children until she was “better than she [Woolf],” and that she is “damned if I am going to be a wife-mother every minute of the day.”[5] However, Plath became both a wife and a mother. In a letter to her mother, 7 April 1960, she wrote “I’m going to have all my babies at home: I’ve loved every minute of this experience.”[6] However, just a week later it is clear from another letter to her mother that she is feeling anxious about the inherent conflict of motherhood and her work:

These last two weeks, in fact, the last month or so, have slipped by with my hardly noticing the dates & I am eager to begin writing & thinking again. The most difficult thing is the idea of leaving the baby with a sitter….I do want to get about with Ted now & then but the 3-hour interval between her being fed & changed & starting again leaves time for little. I wish I could carry her like a papoose.[7]

Plath’s letters indicate she enjoyed her babies and childbirth, but the conflict she describes is distilled in the character Esther, who is preoccupied with how pregnancy might affect her aspirations to become a professional poet. She articulates her fears that becoming a mother would infringe on her academic and writing goals (p. 81). As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that Esther suffers from a mental illness and is likely depressed (p. 163). However, Esther demonstrates on several occasions in the novel that she does possess the intelligence and awareness to care for other people, but is ill-suited to it or simply chooses not to do so. For example, when Esther is left with her drunken friend Doreen, she first worries about being associated with her, and then with how she will get rid of her. Instead of bringing her friend into her room and caring for her, Esther explains her rationale for leaving Doreen on the floor in the hall: “I made a decision about Doreen that night. I decided I would watch her and listen to what she said, but deep down I would have nothing at all to do with her” (p. 21). Esther takes no responsibility for her friend—not because she is unaware of the expectation to do so, but because she does not want to be burdened with her behavior. In this way Plath analogizes the importance of maternal desire over capability or obligation.

The reader knows from very early on in the novel that Esther is a mother. Esther is relaying this story from the future, at a point in time in which she has a child, and seems to be happily playing a maternal role. In Chapter One, Esther fleetingly tells us that she is narrating long after the summer she spent in New York on an internship, where the novel begins. Referring to the free gifts she received, Esther reports: “For a long time afterwards I hid them away, but later, when I was all right again, I brought them out…I use the lipsticks now and then, and last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with” (p. 3, my emphasis). “After this passage, there is no comment about her baby or experience as a mother,” notes critic Yoko Sakane, who asks: “Has Esther the narrator come to terms with her own motherhood….No answer can be found in the text…”.[8] Although Esther mentions her baby only the one time, critic Mariana Chaves Petersen concurs that she indeed ultimately fulfills the role of a mother: “She is writing her story from another stage in life, in which she is already a mother.”[9] Presumably, therefore, she has managed to also continue writing.

Still, Esther’s position on children is inconsistent throughout the novel. While she reports that: “Children made me sick” (p. 113), she also makes references to a life with children in a positive sense. Typically the positive thoughts come in the form of daydream: “I had always imagined myself hitching up on to my elbows on the delivery table after it was all over…smiling and radiant…reaching out for my first little squirmy child” (p. 63). Later, she thinks: “It would be nice, living up by the sea with piles of little kids and pigs and chickens, wearing what my grandmother called wash dresses, and sitting about in some kitchen with bright linoleum and fat arms, drinking pots of coffee” (p. 144). According to critic Luke Ferretter: “a fulfilling marriage for Esther remains entirely within the realm of fantasy.”[10]

This novel is ostensibly about a young women overcoming mental illness and gaining independence, but Esther is fixated on childbirth and babies. She repeatedly uses as a specific marker in time an experience with her boyfriend, who studies medicine, during which they watch a woman give birth: “we had seen…a baby coming out of a woman,” (p. 52), “on the day we saw the baby born” (p. 58), “we went to see a baby born” (p. 60) “the baby was being born” (p. 61). Interestingly, Esther consistently refers to the experience as when she saw “the baby being born,” rather than “a woman giving birth” or “a woman having a baby.” In fact, Esther tells us that she could not see the woman’s face, as it was blocked by her stomach (p. 61). To Esther, the birth is clearly something that is happening to the woman, and not something the woman is doing. From Esther’s perspective, the woman giving birth lacks all agency, and Ferretter argues that this functions as one example of “a feminist critique of medical institutions with which [Plath’s] characters interact.”[11]  This language indicates that to Esther, motherhood is something that was inflicted on women, something that causes suffering, and perhaps leaves the woman without a choice in the matter.

Indeed, it is evident that Esther does view pregnancy as something that will be inflicted on her, and she is fearful of it. Esther first casually tells the reader that she never intended to get married (an assumed first step to motherhood for the time) (p. 24). Several more times in the novel, she discusses her fears of becoming pregnant, and her belief that marriage and an exciting life are mutually exclusive. She is conflicted over how to maintain a family and a writing career because she believes a writer needs to have meaningful experiences. However, two of three meaningful experiences she can articulate are love affairs and babies: “I needed experience. How could I write about life when I’d never had a love affair or a baby or seen anybody die?” (p. 117). The complication, as she states repeatedly throughout the novel, is that she does not desire a family. Alternative careers do not interest her. In reference to a traditional career as a typist, she says: “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters” (p. 72). She articulates this further with her therapist: “‘What I hate is the thought of being under a man’s thumb,’ I had told Doctor Nolan. ‘A man doesn’t have a worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line’” (p. 212).

[1] Approaching the procedure, Esther narrates: “I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear…”, Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (Faber & Faber, 2001), 213.

[2] Janet Badia, “The Bell Jar and other prose,” ed. Jo Gill, The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). 124.

[3] Plath, The Bell Jar, 213.

[4] Luke Ferretter, Sylvia Plath’s Fiction: A Critical Study (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).

[5] Quoted in Joanna Biggs, “I’m an Intelligence,” London Review of Books, December 20, 2018.

[6] Karen V. Kukil and Peter K. Steinberg, eds., Letters of Sylvia Plath. Volume 2: 1956-1963 (London: Faber & Faber, 2018), 456.

[7] ibid, 459-460.

[8] Yoko Sakane, “The Mother, The Self, and the Other: The Search for Identity in Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and Takahashi Takako’s ‘Congruent Figure’,” U.S. Japan Women’s Journal No. 14 (1998): 38.

[9] Mariana Chaves Peterson, “Female Relationships, Motherhood, and Loss of Language in The Bell Jar and ‘Mothers,’” Plath Profiles 11 (August 31, 2019).

[10] Ferretter, Sylvia Plath’s Fiction, 150.

[11] ibid, 125.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: