The Bell Jar

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The Bell Jar


Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963) was first published in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, a few weeks before Plath's suicide. It was published under her own name in England in 1966, and not published in the United States until 1971. Much of the novel is based on Plath's life. Her father died when she was eight years old and at that time her family moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts, outside Boston. She attended Smith College, and during the summer of 1953 worked at Mademoiselle magazine in New York. Later that summer Plath suffered from depression, underwent electroconvulsive therapy, attempted suicide, and was subsequently hospitalized. However much the events of The Bell Jar parallel those of Plath's real life, the novel remains a fictionalized autobiography. Plath herself called it a “potboiler,” acknowledging that she had employed the techniques of a fiction writer in order to achieve a certain effect and to favor particular interpretations of the events depicted. Rather than read The Bell Jar in terms of the author's biography, we might read it in one of two other ways: as a kind of biography of American culture in the 1950s or as a record of the uses of literature, especially poetry.

Two methods have long been established for profile journalism. One was Lillian Ross's way: a tape recorder, notations of personal habits and surfaces, an immense process of selection and a story whose aim was to appear to narrate itself. In Picture, Ross's account of the making of John Huston's film The Red Badge of Courage, her method of oblique analysis and deflection produced a masterpiece. But quite another style emerged from the same magazine in the '30s: a style whose irony--the regulated hatred of the journalist for his subject--was plain from the first paragraph to the last. Of this subgenre, Wolcott Gibbs's profiles of Thomas E. Dewey and Alexander Woollcott are the masterpieces; the journalist, without ever saying "I," made his presence unmistakable with every twist of syntax. Gibbs's subjects may never have met him, but they certainly knew what hit them (Johnson, 1998).

Ross's style, which Malcolm has refined, is a more elusive thing: when it cuts somebody clean through, you are never sure quite how the deed was done. The process becomes more baffling when the author dwells on the privilege of the first-person singular. This, in fact, was Malcolm's advance on Ross: the reporter now frankly solicits attention to the materials of the workshop; she tells you how she got interested in the story, and confesses her bewilderments and anxieties. In the middle of things, you often find her awkwardly questioning herself; the awkwardness is left in, not without a sense of the rewards that belong to candor. Academic critics call this "schematizing subjectivity." Editors call it putting yourself into the picture. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives, Malcolm wrote as someone persuaded of the wisdom of the psychoanalytic profession, yet vulnerably uncertain of her confidence in the bearers of that ...
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