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Virtual Book Club VIII

Our Development Officer, Sarah, contributes this month’s Book Club review, on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, in relation to her own interest in the history of psychiatry.

A number of years ago, while I was studying for my MA in History of Medicine, I attended a seminar on Sylvia Plath’s fictionalised account of her hospitalisation for severe depression, The Bell Jar. One participant in the discussion commented that, as a teenager, his mother had warned him against getting involved with girls who were obsessed with Sylvia Plath. Several of the class, myself included, admitted to having been those teenage girls. But what is it about Plath’s poetry that particularly appeals to such a group? The brutal imagery of poems such as the furious Daddy or even Lady Lazarus speaks of a determined rage to succeed in spite of everything, to make an impact on the world. Or is it her life that has the strongest power over us? As literary critic Al Alvarez noted in The Savage God, Plath’s death from suicide in 1963 has been much mythologised: portrayed as the tragic but inevitable outcome of her troubled life.

The Bell Jar (first published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas) is also coloured by this view. It is a fictionalised account of Plath’s early twenties, including a near-fatal suicide attempt, which led to her institutionalisation in a psychiatric hospital, McClean. She was discharged at the end of 1953, but continued to see her psychiatrist, Dr Ruth Beuscher, until she left for England in 1955. Sylvia Plath, like Esther Greenwood, the protagonist in The Bell Jar, was admitted after swallowing sleeping pills in order to escape her escalating depression. The novel was written ten years later, in a bitter period amid furious quarrels with husband Ted Hughes: thus, The Bell Jar seems bleakly prophetic. But this isn’t the only way of viewing the novel. The 1950s and 1960s was also a time in which the meaning of attempted suicide was effectively being re-written in psychiatry and sociology: from ‘failed’ suicide to ‘cry for help’.1 Erwin Stengel, for example, defined attempted suicide as a behaviour pattern in itself, acknowledging that only about one in eight attempts results in death. Stengel suggested that death was not necessarily the ‘purpose’ of a suicidal attempt, and that many were carried out in ‘in the mood “I don’t care whether I live or die”.’2 This offered, perhaps, a more positive outlook on suicidal acts than had been previously been the case, making attempted suicide something that could be responded to, medically and socially.

If Plath had lived longer, we might read The Bell Jar very differently. After all, the novel negotiates the after-effects of her attempted suicide, which is the main factor leading Esther’s mother to finally accept that her ‘baby’ is like ‘those awful dead people at that hospital’.3 Mental illness, intangible as it is, might only be made visible to others, it seems, through a suicide attempt, and the severity of Esther’s effort shocks her mother out of colluding with her daughter to remove her from the hospital as she had done previously. The importance of the ‘visible’ nature of self-harm and suicidal intention is perhaps even more apparent if one adds another episode not included in The Bell Jar: the first time Plath’s mother took her to visit the family doctor for treatment was after noticing partly-healed cuts on her daughter’s legs.4

Cultural forces were also at work in both precipitating an attempt and defining its treatment: not least the threat of violence caused by two world wars and the ongoing Cold War and the shadow of the atomic bomb. This violent modern world contrasted starkly with the American Dream, which was at the forefront of a new wave of consumerism in the 1950s, as well as the changing position of a newly affluent youth culture, reflected in Esther’s magazine internship at the beginning of The Bell Jar. And yet the violence of the new world eventually becomes one with its wealth, the glamour of New York contrasting with Esther’s horror at the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage. This juxtaposition is portrayed similarly in Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 novel, The Loved One, where the glamourisation of corpses for burial, pet crematoriums and the increasing power of Hollywood combine to commodify death. Esther is alienated from this brave new world, and her suicidal attempt characterised as a literary embodiment of the ultimate rejection of society. While The Bell Jar is painful, challenging and scathing of contemporary society, it nonetheless hints at the possibility of creating something from tragedy.

The next book review, to be published in mid November, will be written by our Archivist, Colin Gale, who will be looking at Aislinn Hunter's 'The World Before Us'.