‘New York for Esther is full of sexual menace, bewildering rituals, and spiritual and literal poison’
In March 1970, the poet Ted Hughes found himself in a tricky real estate situation. There was a charming seaside house he wanted to buy, in Devonshire, but the necessary funds weren’t at hand. Of course he could have sold one of his two other homes, but one was the home he had shared with his now deceased ex-wife Sylvia Plath, another was a solid investment, and so on. In the end, he wrote to Sylvia Plath’s mother, Aurelia, asking for her blessing to sell one of his other assets: her daughter’s first and only novel, written a year before her suicide in 1963, for which Hughes suspected there might now be a market in the United States.
The Bell Jar had been published in the UK under a pseudonym, to middling reviews, in 1963. American publishers had turned it down then, finding it deficient in plot and cohesion—“We didn’t feel you had managed to use your materials successfully in a novelistic way,” one editor wrote to Plath. A few weeks later, Plath, estranged from Hughes and living alone in London with their two small children, gassed herself. The posthumous publication of Ariel, a collection of poems written in a blaze of creativity during the last months of Plath’s life, brought her worldwide renown. Hughes seems to have assumed that this would prompt American editors to reverse their initial opposition to the novel, though in his letter to Aurelia Plath he made clear his low opinion of the book, suggesting that in a few more years it would be of interest merely as a “curiosity for students.” Aurelia Plath protested the plan; she saw the novel as representing the “basest ingratitude” toward the people her daughter had caricatured, including herself. Hughes ignored her, and The Bell Jar was published by Harper & Row in 1971. It has remained in print continuously ever since.
It’s always interesting when a very strange book is also an enduringly popular book. The Bell Jar has sold more than three million copies and is a mainstay of American high school English classes; it was made into a movie in 1979, and another version, starring Julia Stiles, is currently in production. Like The Catcher in the Rye, it is a touchstone for a certain kind of introspective, moody teenager—the kind of teenager who used to listen to the Cure and, later on, Tori Amos, and who these days listens to—actually I have no idea, but she definitely has a blog. (There are an amazing variety of embarrassing shrines to The Bell Jar online.) Unlike Catcher, it also has other sources of partisan support: feminists of the 1970s claimed Plath as a martyred patron saint of repressive domesticity, and mental illness advocates have found in her work easily identifiable symptoms and syndromes that were misdiagnosed and barbarically treated.
As much as it was initially underappreciated by the British press, The Bell Jar was overpraised on its American publication. As such, it has frustrated generations of critics and biographers by refusing to be quite the great novel you’d want a great poet’s only novel to be. The book’s appeal comes into focus only when a reader drops her outsized expectations; after that, a more complex story reveals itself. Under the pretense of describing mental breakdown and recovery, Plath was free to bare her stand-in narrator’s nastiest, most selfish impulses. In doing so, she both dramatized and exemplified the conflict inherent in trying to be both a great writer and a nice person.