In the whole of Sylvia Plath’s career, she only ever published one novel. The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical account of a young woman who suffers from a depressive breakdown after returning home from a prestigious editing internship in New York. The bulk of Plath’s work was devoted to poetry, and the original publication of The Bell Jar was done under a pen name.
Plath did not want the novel’s reception to detract from her poetic legacy, nor did she want the people who made their way into The Bell Jar as characters to become aware of what Plath had written about them. Plath’s concerns were valid, as many readers of The Bell Jar have noted that the people who populate Esther Greenwood’s (Plath’s autobiographical protagonist) world come off as flat, unsympathetic, and even grotesque.
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For Plath to write honestly about illness, she had to honestly describe what illness does to one’s relationships. Esther’s illness renders her unable to thoughtfully engage with the people around her; she harbors hostile feelings for her friends, for her fellow patients at the mental health facility where she stays, and even for her own mother. This cold lack of sympathy has put readers off since the book’s release. We never get to see how a healthy Esther would interact with others, so it is easy to interpret this coldness as a trait, rather than a symptom. But there’s something many readers and Plath fans may not be aware of: Plath never intended for The Bell Jar to be the end of Esther’s story.
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The Bell Jar ends just as Esther is about to stand before a panel of doctors who will determine whether or not she may be released from their care. It appears to be a cliffhanger, but the beginning of the novel holds a clue as to what becomes of Esther. Early in the novel, Esther briefly describes what became of the various gifts she had received as an intern in New York:
For a long time afterward I hid them away, but later, when I was all right again, I brought them out, and I still have them around the house. I use the lipsticks now and then, and last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with.
This simple passage implies that The Bell Jar is written by an older, healthier Esther, who may even be a mother, if “the baby” is meant to be interpreted as her own. This means that there is a significant period of time during which Esther becomes “all right again” to which we are not privy. But historical documents indicate that Plath intended on filling in this gap and showing us Esther’s world through the eyes of her recovery.
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Plath referred to The Bell Jar as her “an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past.” To Plath, The Bell Jar was an exercise in catharsis, and one could even say that The Bell Jar’s true purpose was to act as the foundation for the novel on wellness Plath intended to write— it is worth noting that Plath began writing the sequel between when The Bell Jar was accepted for publication and when it was actually published.
Plath’s mother Aurelia was open about her daughter’s unfinished projects, and it is because of Aurelia that we have so much information about the unfinished sequel. She once said that
The companion book [to The Bell Jar] which was to follow this—and I have this all spelled out in letters from her—was to be the triumph of the healed central figure of the first volume and in this the caricatured characters of the first volume were to assume their true identities.
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Unfortunately, Plath’s wellness was inextricably tied to her relationship with Ted Hughes. Plath’s marriage to Hughes had a powerful effect on her mental health, and when things in the relationship began to deteriorate, so too, did Plath’s psyche. When Plath discovered that Hughes had been having an affair, she set fire to not only his manuscripts, but hers as well, including what would have been the sequel to The Bell Jar. With the sequel obliterated from existence, Plath began to work on a different novel, one in which the protagonist is betrayed by her unfaithful husband (this version of the novel seems to have disappeared, according to Hughes).
Neither The Bell Jar‘s sequel, nor its permutation were ever released. About a month after the first publication of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath died by suicide. The novel, or novels, she intended to write would never be.
Sylvia Plath’s legacy as one of the first writers to thoughtfully and honestly write about mental illness has reverberated throughout the reading community ever since its release.
If you, or a loved one is struggling with mental illness, don’t suffer alone. Seek professional help; call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or if you prefer, chat with them online here.
Featured Image Via Sylvia Plath Info