On a bitter cold February day in London, Silvia Plath, aspiring author, left milk and bread for her two toddlers sleeping upstairs. Then she turned on the gas. She was thirty.
Ms Plath is celebrated for her 1963 novel,The Bell Jar, a fictionalized account of her own life that reads both as feminist literature and a depression memoir. She is also lauded as the author of her dark and edgy Ariel poems.
Last year, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of her death, The Guardian published some reflections from leading women authors. Some brief extracts:
I wonder if Plath would have been saved had she been born in a different time: in a time when psycho-pharmacologists are no more shameful to visit than hairdressers and women write celebrated personal essays about being bad mothers and cutters and are reclaiming the word slut. Would she have been a riot grrrl, embracing an angry feminist aesthetic? Addicted to Xanax? A blogger for Slate?
I remember my next-door-apartment neighbor knocking on my door, when I was about 31 – my kids were maybe five and two. She said something like, "Anne Sexton is dead – she's done it too," and some floor of some world seemed to fall away from under us, and keep falling and falling. We stood there for a while, looking at each other.
The Bell Jar was published at the same time as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was reissued after its long ban in the USA. The misogynist masterpiss billets half the population to the whorehouse. All women are for sex. Rich women are for cash. Poor women are for housework. Why wouldn't a woman go mad in a world like this? Why wouldn't a woman as gifted as Plath become terminally depressed and end in suicide? Pills don't change the world. Feminism did.
It was really only when William Styron published A Darkness Visible in 1990 that depression entered mainstream social discourse and began to lose its stigma (even growing into a badge of honour for a while). Ironically, now that we regard it as a standard, hardly shameful diagnosis, routinely treatable with drugs, we may have lost a raw sense of how awful, terrifying, and bleak is the real thing. The Bell Jar restores the horror.
Appearing in the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, The Bell Jar was part of that revolution – but also a book of biting wit, mordant social observation, and a moving exploration of how a search for integrity can lead to disintegration.
However brief and fragile her moment of hope, however anguished those last months of her life, Plath recognised the timeless incandescence of her achievement. It was, she wrote: "A gift, a love gift/Utterly unasked for …" It was, it is, a star passing from her hand into ours.
I first read The Bell Jar when I was 21 or 22 back in the early seventies. I had no idea what depression was, even though I was going through one at the time. But the metaphor of the bell jar was instant and indelible. I revisited Ms Plath some 14 or 15 years ago soon after a series of crushing depressions. This coincided with the release of Journals, published in full for the first time.
Here we see a side of her suggested in The Bell Jar, a person able to experience joy and exuberance in full measure. But she also writes of her world coming apart and the center not holding. Women have more options 50 years later, but despair is despair. The bell jar travels through time. Despite all the medications and treatments, the bell jar is as lethal now as back then. It claims as many victims, perhaps more.
The metaphor is enduring. That is why, even today, Sylvia Plath lives among us.
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Published On: February 28, 2014