The Bell Jar is American writer and poet Sylvia Plath's only novel, which was originally published under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas" in 1963. The novel is semi-autobiographical with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef, with the protagonist's descent into mental illness paralleling Plath's own experiences with what may have been either bipolar disorder or clinical depression. Plath committed suicide a month after its first publication. The novel was published under Plath's name for the first time in 1967 and was not published in the United States until 1971, pursuant to the wishes of Plath's husband Ted Hughes and her mother.
Sylvia Plath was an excellent poet but is known to many for this largely autobiographical novel which was first published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The Bell Jar has become a classic of American literature.
The book is based on her own experience yet one has to be careful not to confuse this novel with an autobiography, it has been written with a certain audience and effect in mind, 10 years after the actual events.
Esther, an A-student from Boston who has won a guest editorship on a national magazine, finds a bewildering new world at her feet. Her New York life is crowded with possibilities, so that the choice of future is overwhelming, but she can no longer retreat into the safety of her past. Deciding she wants to be a writer above all else, Esther is also struggling with the perennial problems of morality, behaviour and identity. In this compelling autobiographical novel, a milestone in contemporary literature, Sylvia Plath chronicles her teenage years - her disappointments, anger, depression and eventual breakdown and treatment - with stunning wit and devastating honesty. --Penguin Books
A summary and analysis of the chapters can be found online int he Classic Notes at GradeSaver.
Sparknotes also provides detailed summaries of the chapters and character analysis as well as context information.
Peter Steinberg's Plath site has a detailed plot summary
A superficial comparison of Esther and Sylvia Plath
read an interview with Aurelia Plath, Sylvia's mother, about the publication of The Bell Jar, her opinion on how autobiographical it is, and why she published Letters Home, at The NY Times (you need to register but it's free).
"A vulnerable young girl wins a dream assignment on a big-time New York fashion magazine and finds herself plunged into a nightmare. An autobiographical account of Sylvia Plath's own mental breakdown and suicide attempt, The Bell Jar is more than a confessional novel, it is a comic but painful statement of what happens to a woman's aspirations in a society that refuses to take them seriously... a society that expects electroshock to cure the despair of a sensitive, questioning young artist whose search for identity becomes a terrifying descent toward madness. --Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, gains a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York ...