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Plath’s Bell Jar, 50 years on: a powerful look at mental illness

My favourite scene in The Bell Jar is halfway through the novel, when our heroine, Esther Greenwood, takes all her clothes up the elevator and throws them off the roof of her hotel. "Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind," she tells us, "and flutteringly, like a loved one's ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York."

This sentence, and the unforgettable image it evokes of a solitary girl shedding her fancy false skin, bit by bit, is the feminist equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Every time I read it, I am reminded of exactly what it felt like to be that girl: young, anxious, ambitious, and adrift in the chaos of the city; a girl both thrilled and crippled by the problem of how I was supposed to feel and who I was supposed to be.

I remember that sensation of the inside of my life not matching the outside – putting on dress after dress, going to work-related parties, drinking strange-tasting drinks with strange-tasting people. "I was supposed to be having," as Esther puts it, "the time of my life." But on the inside, I felt like the still and empty eye of the tornado "moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."

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Like Esther, I was a small-town girl in my early 20s who ended up getting a dream job right out of school. Like her, I should have been "steering the city like my own private car." And from the outside, perhaps, it looked like I was. In reality, I spent a lot of time hyperventilating into spike-heeled boots in restaurant bathrooms.

I'm not trying to be self-piteous or melodramatic here. I think this is how every reasonable young person feels who is wrested from the gentle, politically correct arms of a liberal-arts education and thrown into the competitive, alcoholic frenzy of single urban life. Particularly young women. That sensation – of being young and promising and enviable; and at the same time lonely and lost and confused – is the bourgeois human condition from age 20 to 25 (and in some sad cases, much longer).

It has inspired a plethora of great fiction, from Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman, J.M. Coetzee's Youth, Melissa Bank's The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? to virtually anything by Lorrie Moore, as well as all of TV's best heroines, from Mary Richards to Carrie Bradshaw to Hannah on Girls.

There's even an episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa ignores her brother's cafeteria shenanigans, nose deep in The Bell Jar. Lisa, were she allowed to grow up, would certainly take after Esther, and Plath herself: a small-town girl bound for great things but hampered by relentless self-criticism and a tendency to over-think; a girl, in other words, who should probably end up running the world but who might just end up in a psychiatric ward, as Esther does. Or worse.

Sylvia Plath killed herself in 1963, four years after The Bell Jar came out under a pseudonym and just a month after the book's British publication under her own name. (It wasn't released in the United States until 1971, in accordance with the wishes of her mother and her husband, the poet Ted Hughes.) Because of the proximity of her death to publication, the novel was, and still is, read largely as a juvenile roman à clef – the fictional version of a misery memoir, or worse yet, the thinking woman's chick lit.

In fact, Plath's novel is so much better than that. Rereading it this week, I was astonished by how beautifully it holds up compared to other work that resonated with me as a teenager (Jack Kerouac's On the Road, say, which now reads like a hash-induced undergraduate journal entry; or any movie with Christian Slater). Its genius lies not in its drama but in its subtlety and restraint. While today's anxious urban heroines are busy self-harming, having masochistic sex or becoming addicted to crystal meth (think of all those memoirs by such clever, troubled girls as Elizabeth Wurtzel and Emma Forrest), Esther finds herself alienated by the simple trappings of city life: a misused finger bowl here, the dull throb of afternoon vodka there, food poisoning from the crab salad in an avocado pear. These are the things that send her skidding into the quicksand of depression.

In honour of the book's 50th anniversary, Faber has rereleased it with a new candy-pink retro cover design featuring a heavily made-up young woman applying powder from a compact. The blowback from fans has been fierce. The London Review of Books called the cover "silly," and the Jezebel bloggers were predictably enraged. Faber has defended the cover by pointing out that it was merely trying to reach out to a new reader for the novel, one who might "enjoy its brilliance without knowing anything about the poetry, or the broader context of Plath's work."

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Personally, I'm all for this. And given the fact that much of the book is focused on the confining trappings of 1960s femininity – high heels, powder puffs and the like – a cover illustrating this is in many ways appropriate.

The Bell Jar is less a book about female oppression than about the loneliness of youth and mental illness. And in any case, one pink cover is in no danger of trivializing the legacy of this great novel. As usual, when it comes to the debate over Plath, everyone needs to just calm down. Forget the biography, focus on the art. Read the book. Meaningful thoughts will follow.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the writer Sylvia Plath died in 1963. This has been corrected.

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About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More


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