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Mind Over Pop Culture: The Bell Jar
November 7, 2013
The Bell Jar, a 1963 novel by Sylvia Plath, is best known for being a semi-autobiographical work about the troubled life of the author. While it is definitely that, it’s also an interesting look at a peer support relationship, even if it never gets that title.
The Bell Jar follows the life of a young woman named Esther Greenwood. Esther is a clinical depressed young woman, unhappy with the choice in life to be a wife and mother or in a traditional female profession. She gets an endowment from an older author, Philomena Guinea, which allows her to take an internship at a magazine in New York City. Feeling isolated, she becomes friends with the other young women at the magazine but becomes depressed. After a suicide attempt, she is hospitalized and treated with electroconvulsive therapy and insulin injections. Eventually, she begins to get better, and the book ends with her interview to leave the hospital. Set against the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs and the beginning of the social changes in the ‘60s, the novel highlights the struggles she feels between what she wants and what society wants from her.
One of the conditions of Esther’s endowment is that she writes a letter to her benefactor Philomena. The older woman writes back, and the two become friends, sort of. Philomena is a successful writer who was also in a mental hospital near the beginning of her career, and she helps pay for a private hospital for Esther when she learns of the younger woman’s fear of being unable to write. This act of kindness allows the author to receive proper treatment. The older woman is a model for Esther, someone like her she can look up to. Despite not being a very vivid character in the book (Esther’s depression dims all of the characters), she a solidly positive influence throughout the novel.
What makes Philomena’s character so interesting is that she is based on a real person who was a positive influence in Plath’s life. Plath struggled with clinical depression her whole life, and attempted suicide numerous times before completing the act in 1963. Despite the fact that this illness could be a barrier to her, she earned a scholarship to Smith College, where she graduated with honors. She spent time in a hospital during her time there. Both her scholarship and her time at the hospital were paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, a mentor to her throughout her life.
Prouty was an author herself, most famous for her five Vale novels, about a wealthy Boston family. The third of five books, called Now, Voyager, was adapted into a long running radio show and a successful movie starring Betty Davis. It is about a young woman who is hospitalized after a nervous breakdown, and through therapy, becomes a stronger woman who eventually mentors a young woman with issues of her own. This book made her very wealthy and she used her money to help young women attend college. When she learned about Sylvia’s illness, she used that money and influence to ensure she got the help and support she needed. While the two don’t seem to have been close, the influence of the older woman was undeniably helpful in Sylvia’s life. Prouty suffered a nervous breakdown herself as a young woman and was able to recovery. Using her illness to inform her treatment of Sylvia and to encourage the younger woman to continue her writing, Prouty is a beautiful early example of peer support.
I haven’t read Now, Voyager, but I plan to get as soon as possible. Despite having readThe Bell Jar in high school, there was no discussion of Olive Prouty and her influence on Sylvia Plath’s life. I wish there was more about their relationship, so we could know if it was closer to friendship than it seems to be, but even if it wasn’t, it’s a great example of how people with mental health conditions can help support other people with similar struggles. Even in the limited ways we see her in Plath’s novel, her influence on the younger woman is tremendous.
The Bell Jar is a great novel with an interesting insight in mental health and treatment in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as an interesting look at early feminism. It’s worth the read for the small, shining peer support alone. I highly recommend it.
Next week, we’ll take a look at one of Plath’s other influences, the movie adaptation of Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit. Have you read The Bell Jar? What did you think of Esther’s relationship with her benefactor?