American novelist Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was famous for her confessional poetry – her debut (and only) novel appeared in January of 1963. Struggling with manic depression, she committed suicide a month after its release. The Bell Jar has since become a classic, laying out a particularly pertinent topic for our era – good mental health (or the lack thereof).
The novel is clearly autobiographical as it ties in with Plath’s battle with suicidal depression – this was well documented after her sudden demise aged only 30. In the years leading up to it, she went through insulin shock and electroconvulsive therapy in an attempt to fight off her inner demons. She moved to London and had wrapped up her debut novel, but after it was published there came her sudden end.
The Bell Jar
Considered a roman à clef (a semi-autobiographical work, essentially) by many other literary critics, the Bell Jar is about young Esther Greenwood. She’s working in 1950s New York one hot summer, but some form of inner darkness gradually emerges and sends her on a dark path towards an existential breakdown.
Greenwood, consequently, embodies many of Plath’s struggles. Initially, she’s a lively young lady who claims an internship at a leading magazine in New York. Due to her introversion, she soon struggles with the hectic social life of the journalists, wanting to distance herself from the more outgoing, party-going sorts.
This is coupled by her strained relationship with men, whom she finds a bit alarming. However, she’s gradually overcome by overwhelming depression and sinks into a private world of inner hostility. Her mother dotes over her during the second half of the novel, with Greenwood swirling around increasing mental anguish.
Unlike Plath’s life, however, the novel ends on an optimistic note. It’s suggested Greenwood would likely go on to have a baby, as well as overcoming some of her issues thanks to a particularly effective doctor.
The Bell Jar must have been unique for its time, considering it openly discusses severe mental health problems. Its focus on alienation, longstanding sexism (she wishes to avoid becoming simply falling in line and becoming a housewife), and overall well-being is particularly resonant and important now. Due to this, its 1963 publication doesn’t appear too distant – it’s an unflinchingly modern novel about human complexities.
Due to her mental health struggles and the quality of her work, Plath’s life has been analysed and adapted (along with some of her work). Sylvia (2003) was one such result, a Gwyenth Paltrow vehicle that has a 39% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes (now 58) criticised the production.
There are two adaptations of the Bell Jar, the first in 1979 – it was directed by Larry Preece and starred Marilyn Hassett and Julie Harris. The New York times savaged it, labelling the film “disastrous” – it also prompted a lawsuit from a psychiatrist, who claimed she was depicted in the adaptation. Simply put, this whole thing could have been a triumph, but fell rather flat on its face.
In 2016, the fabulous Kirsten Dunst announced she was adapting, and directing, a new version. Dakota Fanning will play Esther Greenwood. Jesse Plemons will have a role as well, whom Dunst starred alongside in the second series of Fargo. This version appears to be set for a release this year, but there are no trailers as of yet to promote. Dunst is talented, so we should imagine it’ll be a much better effort than in 1979.