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Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar"

High time to write our long overdue post about our April meeting with María Antonia de Miquel. After our meeting I heard from many of you, telling me you enjoyed both the chat and the supper after it a lot. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm! 

As you already know, María Antonia is an editor, has worked as a literary director of a few publishing houses and is currently a professor at the Ateneo School of Writing in Barcelona. The "excuse" to invite her to our April meeting was that she figures as a traslator of Spanish edition of "The Bell Jar" (under the pseudonym Elena Rius). Obviously to talk someone with so much experience and knowledge, one hour and a half was definitely not enough. We all hope to have an opportunity to talk to María Antonia again in future.

For now we had enough time to briefly mention María Antonia's three books:

The first two titles are quite clear: one explains the basics of writing a historical novel, the other is kind of a tutorial of how to read to write better. Recomendable not only for writers!

The third and the newest, The Reader's Syndrome (El sindrome del lector) is written under the same pseudonym as the translation of "The Bell Jar", Elena Rius. It's a compilation of essays previously posted on a blog: You should check it out without any doubt!

First thing that might have surprised you was the translation itself. María Antonia made it clear, she doesn´t consider herself a translator. She explained that "The Bell Jar" was previously translated in Argentina and that version was not good to print here in spain - too many language differences. So basically, she sat down with the original, with the Argentinian translation and using both, created the Spanish "La campana de cristal". Actually, it's that process that was partly the reason why María Antonia decided to use the pseudonym: the new translation was based on the Argentinian one, was not totally original, but at the same time was way too different from the Argentinian to put the name of that translator. A funny anegdote that amused all of us.

The rest of the time we spent discussing topics, characters and symbols in the book.

Let me summarize the main points of that discussion. First some points made by María Antonia, they can serve you as clues for further analysis (I quote them exactly the way María Antonia put them in words):
  • The Bell Jar is, clearly, a coming-of-age novel. However, the evolution of its major character, Esther, does not fit the usual pattern of these novels. It would be interesting to analize how Esther’s evolution differs from it.

  • Esther’s experiences with mental illness, bluntly described in the novel, make this one of the few books to deal so frankly with this problem. Apart from reporting on how psyhiatric medicine operated in the 50’s, the novel offers other interesting insights on this matter. Probably every reader -according to his/her personal experience- can relate in a different way to them.

  • In discussing this novel, one unavoidable subject is the bell jar itself, that from the title on hovers over the whole story. Plath uses it to describe madness but, do you think it could stand for other things too?

  • Esther (as Plath herself) feels confused by what society wants of her and what she really thinks and feels. When we read this novel now, more tan 60 years after it was written, it is easy to think that the situation for women has changed very much but, is that really so?

  • How one sees oneself, how the others see you: Esther thinks about this very often. What kind of image does she think she projects? What would she like to be?

  • Sylvia Plath is, first of all, a poet and this is something that one can easily see in her prose: consider the metaphors and images she uses, the way she handles with words. For instance, the idea of “death” comes up under many forms, so that sooon it gets firmly planted in the mind of the reader. 
And some more things that came up in a spontaneous discussion:
  • Plath hoped The Bell Jar would be published by Alfred A. Knopf in New York. Knopf editor Judith Jones wrote to Plath on December 28, 1962 to reject the novel: "Up to the point of her breakdown the attitude of the young girl had seemed a perfectly normal combination of brashness and disgust with the world, but I was not at all prepared as a reader to accept the extent of her illness and the suicide attempt." It was first published on January 14, 1963 in England by Heinemann. Harper & Row published the first American edition of The Bell Jar in 1971.
  • Angry about double-standard behavior, and claimed for herself the right to as much sexual experience as men had. She believed combining the erotic and the intellectual possible,

  • There's a scene in The Bell Jar where Esther Greenwood says that the only newspaper they read in their house was the Christian Science Monitor, which treats suicides and murders as though they never happened. Tabus in the society/in her family

  • One of the main critical issues to confront the reader of The Bell Jar is the problem of classifying the book. Is this book really a novel? It is presented in the form of a long fictional work. This work, in fact, is a good example of what John Barth says of most contemporary women's fiction: "secular news reports." Reading about Plath's life makes it clear that in The Bell Jar, originally published under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, Plath was recording much of her personal experience, very lightly veiled as fiction.

  • This young girl has no idea how to become herself and everyone is pressuring her to choose one of the inadequate role models. Esther would like to branch out in many directions, but she is told in subtle (and also in direct) ways that that route is not possible.

  • All this makes us wonder if Plath, as well as her character Esther Greenwood, was not a victim of multiple failures created by the historical era that Plath was caught in. Esther Greenwood takes on several names and sees her friends as other parts of herself, or fragments of herself; indeed, she calls Joan Gilling her double — not just because Joan is having a nervous breakdown, but because Joan is a modern, dual-natured American. Esther, or perhaps even Sylvia, could not choose just one "fig," or one role — that is, she could not be just a mother, or "just a housewife," or just a one-dimensional editor, or a spinster professor; therefore, Esther had to invent other names and other masks. She could not accept the old traditional cliche that all these feelings and notions would leave her after she had a baby. Perhaps her several selves were actually a sign of mental health, for she did not repress her personality into one shape as so many others did. But society did not support her in this, and soon Esther is convinced that she is a hopeless mental case.

  • Not having control over her body, and not yet coming to terms with her body as a physical, animal entity that must be accepted. This is why the purchase of a diaphram is so important to Esther: it will allow her to be free of the fear of unwanted babies. But this simple purchase, fraught as it is with moral and social conflicts, does not ultimately solve or resolve the dilemma of how Esther feels about babies, nor how she feels about the purpose and destiny of her biological self. When she hemorrhages so badly from the loss of her virginity, we see that, indeed, the body is not always under one's control, and its functions and processes can easily extinguish one.

I hope you enjoyed the meeting and the brief summary of it in this post. Please, feel free to comment and add any things that I might have forgotten!