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50 Years On: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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© 2 January 2013.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Literary Fiction · Special Guests ).

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s only novel was originally published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. A modern classic, the novel is based partially on Plath’s own life and is celebrated for it’s darkly funny, razor sharp portrait of 1950’s society, selling millions of copies worldwide. On the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death, Faber and Faber have released a new edition of The Bell Jar with a stunning cover that will bring even more readers to the troubled genuis that was Sylvia Plath. As Emily Hourican writing in the Irish Independent in 2006 said, “Plath had an intense ambition of her own. She was an excellent student, her talent recognised with scholarships, prizes, publication. She didn’t just settle for participation, she had to demonstrate perfection.”

The daughter of Aurelia Schober,  a master’s student at Boston University when she met Plath’s father, Otto Plath, who was her professor, Plath was ambitiously driven to succeed. She kept a journal from the age of 11 and published her poems in regional magazines and newspapers. Her first national publication was in the Christian Science Monitor in 1950, just after graduating from high school.

After graduating from Smith College, Plath moved to Cambridge, England, on a Fulbright Scholarship. In early 1956, she attended a party and met the English poet, Ted Hughes. Four months later, Plath and Hughes were married, on June 16, 1956.

Plath returned to Massachusetts in 1957, and began studying with Robert Lowell. Her first collection of poems, Colossus, was published in 1960 in England, and two years later in the United States. She returned to England where she gave birth to the couple’s two children, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes, in 1960 and 1962, respectively.

Then it all went wrong. In 1962, Ted Hughes left Plath for Assia Gutmann Wevill. That winter, in a deep depression, Plath wrote most of the poems that would comprise her most famous book, Ariel. In January 1963, The Bell Jar was published. Then, on February 11,  during one of the worst English winters on record, Plath wrote a note to her  neighbour downstairs instructing him to call the doctor,  and she committed suicide using her gas oven.

Controversy continues to surround the events of her life and death, as well as her writing and legacy. Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry and is best known for her two published collections: The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel.  Although only Colossus was published while she was alive, Plath was a prolific poet, and in addition to Ariel, Hughes published three other volumes of her work posthumously, including The Collected Poems, which was the recipient of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize. She was the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize after death.

Emily Hourican describes Plath’s death: “The tragedy of an early death, particularly a suicide, is ghoulishly matched by the interest it provokes. Lives lived intensely then extinguished suddenly command great pity but also curiosity; regret but admiration, too. It’s rock ‘n’ roll; the glamour of something short and sharp eclipses the sorrow of it, and focuses public attention in a way that the gentle unfolding to old age can never do. This glamour clings to Sylvia Plath . People who don’t read poetry read Plath. Teenagers who don’t read anything read Plath. Her many fans show an intense, possessive adoration in which her life and work are never separated”

Hourican goes on to say, “Forcing herself to excel at everything, the pressure she brought to bear on a fragile nature is astonishing. No wonder cracks appeared. After one mental breakdown, so remarkably documented in The Bell Jar, she moved to Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship, full of hope for new beginnings, determined to give expression to the emotions that seethed inside her.”

The Bell Jar tells the story of Ester Greenwood who wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953 – she is elated, believing she will finally realise her dream to become a writer. But between the cocktail parties and piles of manuscripts, Ester’s life begins to slide out of control. She finds herself spiraling into depression and eventually a suicide attempt, as she grapples with difficult relationships and a society that refuses to take women’s aspirations seriously.

As Greenwood says ‘I was meant to be having the time of my life.’

Sylvia Plath

Plath is not alone as a sufferer of depression – it affects one in four of the population. This Christmas saw the launch of a FREE App to help anyone affected by depression, suicidal thoughts or bullying. Developed by Twitter based social enterprise #depressionhurts, the App is located on a ‘cloud’ for instant access from your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop.

Norah Bohan, co-founder of #depressionhurts, says “One of the big issues with depression, suicidal thoughts or bullying is that people need help immediately. We wanted to provide a go-to app to allow people to find instant information, help and emergency support for themselves or others.”

#depressionhurts is a Twitter based enterprise that has no budget, other than ‘a currency of goodwill’ yet has managed to provide an incredible support service, including creating websites www.depressionhurtsireland.com and www.depressionhurtsuk.com. The App, designed by Pratheesh Kumar of cgsireland.com, follows this pro bono tradition.  Another supporter has generously printed & will distribute 25,000 copies of a downloadable ‘help card’. Designed to fit wallet or purse, it includes key help & contact information. Cards will be distributed to various colleges, youth centres, community groups with some given direct to the general public in Dublin.

The App & video advert to accompany it, which features Dublin’s The Lindy Hops, was launched on Friday 14 December on Twitter.

Click here to download the App.