The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath
Contributed by Bobbie Heil

Plath’s novel begins by referring to one of the most important events of the early 1950’s: the executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. In 1950 the Rosenbergs were arrested and accused of being spies for Russia; Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass worked at the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos, NM; he gave the Rosenbergs information on nuclear weapons, which they then turned over to the Soviets. They were brought to trial and found guilty in 1951, and Greenglass was the chief witness for the prosecution. Subsequently they were both found guilty and sentenced to death. In the two years that followed, the case was appealed through the courts and in world opinion - many felt they were being unfairly punished. But on June 19, 1953, they were both executed at Sing Sing Prison in New York.

The prosecution of the Rosenbergs was only one example of the fear of Communism which gripped the nation and its leaders. This was also the time of Joseph McCarthy, the U.S. senator who dominated the early 1950s by his sensational but unproved charges of Communist subversion in high government circles. And in the year before the novel begins, 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general from World War II had been elected as president. 

It’s difficult, however, to talk about the "historical context" of the novel without examining Plath’s life: the book is almost wholly autobiographical with the real names of people and places only thinly disguised (one reason her mother didn’t want the book published in the United States - see Points to Ponder). Plath was born in 1932 in Massachusetts and spent her early childhood years in Winthrop, a seaside town close to Boston (Esther visits this town in chapter 12). Her father, a distinguished professor of biology at Boston University, died when she was eight. This brought radical changes for the family, which included a younger brother and her maternal grandparents. After her father’s death, the family moved to Wellesley, a conservative upper-middle-class suburb, where her grandmother ran the household, her grandfather worked at the nearby country club and her mother taught students in a secretarial training program.

Like Esther, Sylvia was precocious and bright, winning prizes and scholarships throughout her youth. In September of 1950, she entered Smith College on a scholarship endowed by Olive Higgins Prouty, a novelist, who later would become a friend and patron. Plath excelled in college, becoming class president, had stories and poems published in magazines, etc. In the summer of 1952 she was chosen to be a guest editor at Mademoiselle, which included a month-long internship in New York City. The Bell Jar follows her life exactly - her return to Boston that summer, the electric shock treatments which followed, along with her well-publicized disappearance and her later hospitalization. This, however, is where the novel leaves off.

Plath did return to Smith College and by the time she had finished, she had sold more poems, won more prizes and graduated summa cum laude. She also had won a Fulbright, and spent a year in Newnham college at Cambridge University in England. There she met the British poet Ted Hughes, who she married in 1956. In 1960 she had her first child and published her first book of poetry, The Colossus. But by 1962 Hughes had left her, and she spent a cold winter in London, now with two young children, feverishly working on new poetry (which would become part of Ariel after her death). In January of 1963, The Bell Jar is published in England. On the morning of February 11, 1963, she committed suicide.

From the moment Ariel appeared in print, it was a sensation, with a double-page spread in Time. The late 60s and early 70s was the beginning of the women’s movement, and Plath’s poetry and autobiographical novel were (and often still are) seen as proto-feminist texts.

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