*Uncomfortable Topics

Sexual Assult
Institutional Abuse

Set the Scene

Publishing Date: Jan 1st, 1963
Publishing Location: United States
Author Nationality: White American

the bell jar by sylvia plath

The First President’s Commission into the Status of Women was launched in 1960, examining legislature and advocating for policy that protected and expanded women’s rights, and Elenor Rosevelt was the chair. The findings of the commission were integrated into daily news and heavily quoted for fighting for workplace equality, and lack of implementation on the findings fueled the beginning of the Second Wave.

1963 was a big year for American Feminism. Officially considered the first year of second-wave feminism, this was the year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and Gloria Steinem published an inside look at being a Playboy Bunny. Women were becoming tired of the overbearing Maddona/Whore complex, and housewives wanted more freedom and control over their lives. Women couldn’t even open bank accounts without a father or husband’s permission.

About the Author

Sylvia Plath had published one work of poetry before she decided to publish the book under a pseudonym 4 weeks before she took her own life. Later, a collection of unpublished works by the poet were released.

While the book is a semi-autobiography, the names and places have been changed in the book. Plath grew up in Winthrop, Massachusetts, attended Smith College and was a guest writer at Mademoiselle in New York for a summer.

She married another poet, Ted Huges, when she was attending a women’s college in Cambridge and they later moved back to the states where Plath raised 2 boys.

The Story

When I read other reviews by women who first read this in college, or shortly thereafter, say they still feel the cage of being treated as a product to be sold, and of coming of age to realize your hard work still won’t be taken as seriously as a man’s. Greenwood is at the top of her class and wins a scholarship to write in New York, where she impresses her editor and still feels as if she doesn’t have a say in her future.

When Ester moves back home and falls into a deep depression, and attempts to take her life multiple times unsuccessfully until she is put in an asylum. The treatments are terrifying but the time alone leads to introspection that helps Ester eventually break free.

If you’ve ever experienced mental health issues or depression, the clear visuals in this book will resonate with you. Her bleak descriptions of her symptoms never let you know when she has fully broken.

The majority of the trap for Ester is marriage and the fact that women were living their lives supporting men. Her relationship with her college boyfriend is strife with emotional and mental abuse. The question of who will marry her is asked again and again. She does not want to work for a man, but would like to make her own materials, and she found few ways to employ herself using the brain she was praised so highly for.

Constantly, Ester is racked with feelings of inadequacy and indecision. She is far from indifferent, with strong opinions she rarely finds the words to voice out loud. If she had decided to start taking up more space, would she have felt like life was worth living longer?

Topics & Takeaways

There are many ways that Ester talks about the bleakness of the aftermath of sexual assault. Instead of trying to open up and look for help, she has to keep quiet and it contributes to her alienation from men.

Sexual assault is still heavily present in women’s lives to this day. There was a recent study in the UK showing that men have sexually harassed every woman in the UK. And in response to the sexual assault and finding out that her boyfriend had cheated on her in college, she goes out to try and figure out what it is all about. That’s similar to how I behaved after my first sexual assault. Searching for a way to reclaim your body as your own.

It fascinates me how Plath’s connections with other females throughout the book feel stagnant. She makes friends with a rebellious young woman who loses her at parties and ruins her opportunity to hang out with preppy girls in the process. Her mother can only see her mental health issues as a personal failing. But by making friends with a woman from her college also in the institute, and by opening up to her female therapist, she finally starts to recover.

She’s never fully fascinated by the men in the book, but is revolted and cuts off the friendship with the woman who makes romantic advances to her. She uses men as playthings and looks to detach herself from her partners to ensure she doesn’t end up married.

I feel Plath’s disillusionment. Working in a glitzy field in a big city, she didn’t feel the connections we desire as people, and she felt like her whole life would be pigeonholed into a role of domesticity even when she was a working woman. There was no way for her to become truly independent.

I feel so grateful as a woman to be able to hold my own money, make a paycheck even if I get married or pregnant, and that my work can exist outside of roles that are traditionally considered feminine. This book challenged me to review the relationships I had with men to see how they valued me as a person separate from a female.

Plath took a big risk with this writing, using it to explore topics like sexual liberty and mental illness in such depths. But this book still resonates with women, more than half a century later as we question what society expects of us as we determine how to build lives we want to live for ourselves.

What to Read Next

This book is a very heavy read. You may need to take breaks and there really is no shame in that. Try to read something a little lighter after, like Feminasty by Erin Gibson or Moving Beyond Words by Gloria Steinem.