Free Study Guide for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath BookNotes|
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Her first book of poetry, Colossus and Other Poems was published. It was highly acclaimed by critics. The poetry was especially noted for its great care in style and its exquisite language. She wrote the Collosus poems with a great sense of discipline and a painstaking method that involved working with a thesaurus. She began working on her manuscript of The Bell Jar with the help of a small grant. In 1962, Plath had a second child. At the same time she was working on The Bell Jar, she was working on her next book of poems, Ariel. In writing this collection of poems, Plath discarded her earlier method and wrote, as she said, "at top speed, as one might write an urgent letter." These poems center around the themes of despair and chaos in living. In 1962, Sylvia separated from her husband. The Bell Jar was accepted for publication. In London it was published in 1963. The next month, Plath committed suicide. The Ariel collection was published posthumously in 1965. Three more books of poems were also published posthumously: Uncollected Poems (1965), Crossing the Water (1971), and Winter Trees (1972). In her poems, she broke silence on a number of subjects, especially anger and macabre humor. Her poetry influenced the direction of poetry for the next twenty years. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.
In the U.S. The Bell Jar was published in 1970. Her mother wrote to the publishers requesting that they not publish the book, saying that her daughter had intended to write a companion novel of this time in her life seen through a healthy perspective. Aurelia Plath wrote that alone, the book "represents the basest ingratitude." Plath had written to her brother telling him the "book must never be published in the U.S." She had written it under a pseudonym (Victoria Lucas) because she doubted its literary merit.
Plath opens the novel with Estherís obsession with the Rosenberg trials and the news of the impending execution. While this is clearly intended as a parallel to Estherís own eventual electroshock therapy, it is also a parallel to something more significant--the intolerance of the society and the danger one risks by going against the grain of the norm. Historians are still divided on whether the Rosenbergs were really spies for the Russians as they were accused of being. They were immigrants and they were Jewish and they were politically left wing. None of these things fit into the norm of 1950s America. The Rosenbergs, a couple, encountered the tyranny of the norm. They were executed amidst enormous media sensation. Their trial and execution were treated in the lurid detail of the raunchiest scandal magazine.
The parallel between the Rosenberg executions and the feminist movement is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first sight. The Rosenbergs encountered the brutality of the societyís backlash against anything different. Women in the 1950s who did not fit in with what was expected of them were left feeling inadequate, unattractive, unwanted, ugly, and crazy. There were very few role models visible of women who did not conform to the norm. Keep in mind that Plathís is a feminism for European-American middle-class women. The concerns of this feminism are with reconciling the demands of a career with that of a family. The private psychiatric hospital described in The Bell Jar is filled with bored, middle-class housewives and mothers of debutantes. The dysfunctional gender role assigned to women during the fifties--stay at home and get your satisfaction there alone--reached its logical conclusion in the boom in the psychiatric profession especially as it concentrated on the treatment of women.
The reader will perhaps be surprised in reading about the common use of shock therapy and lobotomy in the treatment of psychosis during the time the novel is set. Only a few years after this time, the discovery of psychotropic drugs (anti-psychotic drugs) made these procedures largely unnecessary. The medical explanation for these treatments is not appropriate for our purposes here. In brief, the idea behind shock treatment was that the patient suffered depression and mood swings as a result of an imbalance in her/his physical body. Shocking the brain waves sometimes pacified patients and sort of jolted them out of their depression or severe mood swings. Insulin shock was often preferred to electro-shock, having a similar though more subtle effect. The lobotomy was practiced in some places with great frequency. It was a surgical procedure in which holes were drilled into the side of the head at the area just above the temples. Needles were inserted into the brain. The effect was a flattening of affect (feeling). Patients who had undergone this operation lost all affect and were more passive patients. Plath clearly feels ambivalent about both shock treatment and lobotomy. However, it is clear that insulin and electroshock were important treatments in her own recovery.
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. 09 May 2017