The Bell Jar
To read a chapter by chapter summary of The Bell Jar, please click here.
William Heinemann Ltd. in London published The Bell Jar on 14 January 1963 under the name Victoria Lucas. Over the next few months, it received mostly favorable reviews. Unfortunately, Sylvia Plath never had the chance to read many of them. Within a few weeks of her death, Hughes gave Heinemann permission to reveal Plath's identity as the author of the novel.
The name Victoria Lucas was a pseudonym Plath used for several reasons. She did not want to be associated with the novel as she knew the book would hurt people she cared for in America. She even asked Heinemann to never have the book published there. Additionally, she did not want the novel, if received badly, to deflect the reception of her poetry, and vice versa.
The Bell Jar is an unusual book as it has three different first editions: two in England and one in the United States. The true first edition is the Heinemann edition. Heinemann published a subedition under the Contemporary Fiction imprint of Heinemann in September 1964. On 1 September 1966, Faber published The Bell Jar crediting Plath as the author. This is what I call the second, first edition. If you have this book, and it is missing the dedication to Elizabeth and David Compton, you have a first printing. Faber corrected this oversight in later printings. Through much controversy, The Bell Jar was published in the United States by Harper & Row on 14 April 1971. The demand for the novel was so high, the Estate of Sylvia Plath feared a pirated edition would come out as copyright on The Bell Jar was to expire imminently. Correspondence between Olwyn Hughes and Aurelia Plath is held in the Sylvia Plath Collection at the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College.
In Plath Profiles 5 (2012), I published an article detailing "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Over the decades, Plath's editors have made many small and some significant changes to her text. The result is that the book reads quite differently from the way Plath intended and the paper argues (recommends) that readers and scholars should only use an edition of The Bell Jar printed in England between 1963 and 1995. The first Heinemann edition (1963) is the only version of the novel sanctioned by Plath; and we can include the Faber editions published from 1966-1995 because they claim to use the same setting of type as the first Heinemann edition. By and large any American edition (published in 1971) has a different text block from the one authorized by Plath.
In the late August of 1953, in Wellesley, a suburb twelve miles outside of Boston, Sylvia Plath had a breakdown and attempted suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. She kept a journal when she was growing up and abruptly, in July 1953, the journal entries stop. They were resumed several months later and it is generally assumed that she did not keep a journal for much of that fall or winter while she recuperated. For the person who admires Plath, be they obsessed or just a casual reader, those months of not knowing what she did are a great void.
The Bell Jar is a loosely autobiographical novel which recounts the events leading up to the breakdown and the recovery. Plath changed the names of some people and merged others into a single identity for the sake of her novel. There are some well known facts that are easily recognizable in the novel. We know that Plath had a guest editorship much like Esther's. We know that Plath's first suicide occurred after the guest editor experience and that the attempt was an overdose of sleeping pills. And, Plath's boyfriend Richard Norton appears in the novel disguised as Buddy Willard. The list can go on and on. Plath's personal papers from her guest editorship are held by the Lilly Library, Indiana University. These papers reveal much about her schedule, events, and assignments. The Lilly Library also holds some letters to Plath from Richard Norton.
The Bell Jar provides the reader and fan with many answers to the horrible summer of 1953. I have seen a copy of the August
1953 Mademoiselle for which she guest edited. It is most interesting to see who the actual Doreen and Betsy are based on, and it
is fascinating to read Plath's contributions. Also printed for the first time in the issue was Plath's wonderful
villanelle "Mad Girl's Love Song." If you can obtain a copy of Nancy Hunter-Steiner's A Closer Look at Ariel, I
strongly recommend reading it. Nancy lived with Plath the summer after her breakdown. They rented an apartment in Cambridge and took
classes at Harvard. Plath weaved many events of that summer into the novel and Hunter-Steiner paints a wonderfully informative (though
not always pretty) picture of 1954 Sylvia Plath.
The Bell Jar is a novel about babies, disappointments, expectations, doubles & liars. It is not just about a girl who goes to NYC, tries to commit suicide and recovers slowly but surely. Ending your synopsis there would take away from the novel. It is richly humorous, and a sharp commentary on social values for the time period. Esther, though she says she is stupid and sick, is really a very proud character. Esther writes this novel as a survivor, as being "born twice--patched, retreaded and approved for the road (BJ 20)."
The novel is in 20 Chapters. The main subjects presented all revolve around Esther, making her the only fully realized character in the novel. The other characters, with exception to Buddy Willard, are mostly flat and incomplete. A careful reading of Plath's journals letters from 1950-1953 can lend some understanding to Plath's novel.
To read a chapter by chapter summary of The Bell Jar, please click here.
To see a bibliography of reviews of The Bell Jar, please click here.
I hope to add content to this section on Letters Home at some point. In the meantime, here is some information about Letters Home.
Letters Home is one of the few Plath books to be published first in the United States, rather than in the United Kingdom. Harper & Row published the book on 3 December 1975; Faber followed on 20 April 1976. The letters are heavily edited; the original manuscript is part of the Sylvia Plath materials at the Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington. The letters are selected; what I mean by this is the book is not a complete publication of letters to and from Plath, though many scholars are calling for such a publication.
Letters Home has been adapted into play by Rose Leiman Goldemburg (1980). Goldemburg's adaptation has also been dramatized by Films for the Humanities (1986).
To see a bibliography of reviews of Letters Home, please click here.
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
Faber published Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams on 17 October 1977. Harper & Row published it about 15 months later on 2 January 1979. Both books contain the following prose works: Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, America! America!, The Day Mr. Prescott Died, The Wishing Box, A Comparison, The Fifteen-Dollar Eagle, The Daughters of Blossom Street, Context, The Fifty-ninth Bear, Mothers, Ocean 1212-W, Snow Blitz, Initiation, Sunday at the Mintons', Superman and Paula Brown's New Snowsuit, In the Mountains, All the Dead Dears, Day of Success, The Smiths: George, Marjorie (50), Claire (16), Charlie Pollard and the Beekeepers, Rose and Percy B, Cambridge Notes, Widow Mangada, Among the Bumblebees, Tongues of Stone, That Widow Mangada, Stone Boy with Dolphin, Above the Oxbow, The Shadow, and Sweetie Pie and the Gutter Man. The British edition prints two more stories than the American version. Those are A Day in June and The Green Rock, both written in 1949.*
To read a short summaries of the stories in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams click here.
These reviews are very basic and done so on purpose. Many of Plath's short stories were formula written, in that she studied the contemporarily published short stories and then wrote stories aimed at the market. It is an example of the genius that she possessed as well as an example of her apprenticeship. In the reviews, I have made some references to the real events of Plath's life that she used as material for her stories.
Plath wrote many more short stories than those which appear in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. With a few exceptions, all short stories contained in this volume appeared in print. Plath's first published story was "And Summer Will Not Come Again" in the September 1950 issue of Seventeen magazine. Plath's last published short story, in her lifetime, was "The Perfect Place", which was printed in the October 28, 1961 issue of My Weekly, a British women's weekly magazine. Both of these stories are not printed in this collection. For more information on this "The Perfect Place" and its discovery, please see pages 97, 99, 135-6 in my biography. My paper "'I should be loving this': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar" published in volume 1 of Plath Profiles, discusses the discovery in greater detail as well as shows comparisons between the short story and The Bell Jar.
To see a bibliography of reviews of Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, please click here.
*The Embers Handpress published these stories individually in 1981 and 1982, respectively, as fine press limited editions.
The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)
The Journals of Sylvia Plath was published by The Dial Press on 31 March 1982
in the United States only. The book was heavily edited by Ted Hughes and
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath was published by Faber in April 2000 and Anchor Books on 17 October 2000 to critical acclaim. Universally considered long overdue and brilliantly edited by Karen V Kukil, Plath's journals, in either format, have always been read through the eyes of controversy.
Sylvia Plath began writing in a journal at quite an early age. Her mother, Aurelia Plath, used to slip dated journals into Sylvia's stocking at Christmas. In 1945, however, Sylvia requested that she be given an undated journal because, "When the big big moments come, one page is not enough." (LH 31)
There have been many conflicting opinions regarding her private Journals. Some question if it was right to publish them (or to even consider publishing them). Others praise these pages because it gives explicit insight into her strong sexuality, her sharp tongue and her determination to get everything down on paper. Reviewer, and ex-boyfriend, Peter Davison in his 18 April 1982 Washington Post article "Sylvia Plath: Consumed by the Anxieties of Ambition" is not particularly fair. He says:
I think the Journals can hardly be counted among the important items in the Plath catalogue. Their
biographical significance, given their vacuous self-absorption, consists mainly in the light they throw on
Plath's suspect ambitions for herself. Their writing style inadvertently repeats some of the major
metaphor chains in her poetry. But by any reasonable comparison with Plath's finished work, this is a
depressing bore, scrapings of the last bits of dried flesh from the empty hide of the poet."
Hardly a fair criticism especially considering that Sylvia Plath posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry the same year for her Collected Poems (1981). Though her edited Journals were being worked on before the Pulitzer was announced, their publication was made more important because of the award.
When Sylvia was writing these pages in the 1950's men essentially ran poetry. Only a few notable women poets were publishing or had published by this time. Therefore, one cannot express any surprise when Plath is very highly critical of other women poets and writers. Plath also wrote about her day to day life. She wrote fleeting thoughts and sometimes carried on about subjects that were most important to her. When she was pregnant with her first child she says "Children might humanize me. But I must rely on them for nothing. Fable of children changing existence and character as absurd fable of marriage doing it. Here I am, the same old sourdough." Reviewer Nancy Milford in her 2 May 1982, New York Times review writes "Isn't this precisely why we read a writer's journals? Not as a key to the poetry, but to know about the life from which the poems sprang. Poetry is never simply autobiography; even if its heat and urgency is stoked by the dilemmas of ordinary life..."
It is clear that at the time of publication the literary world was divided. There is a universal agreement concerning the Journals and their coming to being and their editing.
Fran McCullough's Editor's Note tries to enlighten the reader of the abridged edition that cuts were made to follow a few rules: "to include what seemed to us the most important elements relating to her work, her inner life, and her vigilant struggle to find herself and her voice." (xi) But, to the basic concern of the book must of the 'ordinary commentary' fell by the wayside. In my opinion this the editing delayed Plath scholarship for 18 years. The full text was only accessible to visitors at the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College where the original Journals and other Plath manuscripts were held.
The honesty with which this book was presented caused much controversy as well. McCollough admits that because many of the people Plath knew and wrote about in her journal were still living the publishing of the journals became complicated. Much like Aurelia Plath's belief that the characters portrayed in The Bell Jar were written out of the 'basest ingratitude', the friends, peers and family that would read Plath's journals might have their feelings hurt. Also, names were changed and much of Plath's intimacy was edited out. At the end of her Note McCullough says "The book these journals make is an enormously moving document, and it seems best simply to let it speak for itself." But how can such a chopped up, unevenly presented book be left to speak for itself?
In his Foreword for Journals Ted Hughes hoped to "serve a useful purpose." (xi) The journals form part of an unofficial autobiography; meant for her eyes only. Would Plath have desired these pages and words to be published? Probably not but she was an avid reader of Virginia Wolff and was very familiar with their content. Sometimes her journals read as though they were written to be read by others. Hughes writes that Plath "strove to see herself honestly and fought her way through the unmaking and remaking of herself. And the Sylvia Plath we can divine here is the closest we can now get to the real person she was in her daily life" (xiii).
Writing of this magnitude and praise Hughes has set the casual reader of the Foreword up for a stab in the back. For two pages he praises the genius Plath discovered in herself and then rips it away in his ending paragraph. The journals existed in notebooks and loose leaf sheets of paper. For the period of Plath's mental breakdown in August 1953 through late 1955 there are no entries. There were more Journals than meet the eye though. Hughes concludes his essay with: "Two more notebooks survived the while...and continued to within three days of her death. The last of these contained entries for several months, and I destroyed it because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival). The other disappeared."
Disappeared? Destroyed? There has never been a greater scandal in all of Plath's publishing history. (I lie. The substitution and rearranging of poems collected in Ariel for its 1965 publication in England and 1966 publication in America is just as cheeky. Bad Ted.) What could have been so awful that it was worth destroying and, however unintentional, losing? One can only speculate that the turbulent passages in 1958 and 1959, where the journals terminate, could have led to a better understanding in the last three years of Plath's development as a poet, novelist and short story writer. One also wonders if the critical self-examinations would continue in the last years. It is my guess A. Alvarez's touching words on Plath's suicide that the "loss to literature is inestimable" is just as relevant the loss Plath's last journals.
To see a bibliography of reviews of The Journals of Sylvia Plath, please click here.
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000)
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath is a colossal book. One reading of Plath's journals is simply not enough to absorb its enormity and importance. In the journals, it is possible to see Plath's creative mind working and re-working thoughts, images, story plots, poems, and much more. She captures dreams, conversations, and memories with explicit detail.
This section is currently being written. Please stop back later this decade.
To see a bibliography of reviews of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, please click here.
Sylvia Plath wrote at least three "stories" for children: "The Bed Book", "The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit", and "Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen". Plath wrote all three stories prior to having children of her own. After she and Ted Hughes had Frieda, Plath's only writing for children were spectacular poems about her children. Like her children's stories, these poems are tender and full of care and concern, showing a nurturing instinct and ability to her writing that is largely over-shadowed by the raw power of her more famous compositions. What these stories for children to show, ultimately, is Plath's range. She attempted to write in many genres, and although she found more success in poetry. These three works receive, generally, very little attention. However, they are fun, quirky, and creative; enhanched in each instance by illustrations by well known illustrators.
The Bed Book
Faber & Faber published The Bed Book in the UK on 23 February 1976. Harper & Row published it in the US on 6 October 1976. The British edition features illustrations by Quentin Blake; the American edition has illustations by Emily Arnold McCully.
The Bed Book first appears in Plath's journals on 29 March 1959 (p. 476). She experienced a deep fear when starting this story, commenting, "If you are dead, no one can criticize you, or, if they do, it doesn't hurt" (478). It took Plath a full month to get something written and by 3 May 1959, she had sent her manuscript to the Atlantic Press. Atlantic kept the manuscript for months and Plath ceases to mention it after November when she was at Yaddo.
In The Bed Book, Plath's beds can fly through air into space, fit in a pocket, travel under water, or in a tank over land. One can watch birds or have a snack, or one can sleep on an elephants back. One can sleep under ground under layers of snow - or bounce or paint, the possibilities are endless. Plath creates thirteen beds: fishing, cats, acrobats, submarine, jet-propelled, snack, spottable, tank, bird-watching, pocket-size, elephant, north-pole, and bounceable.
Plath's imaginary beds are reminiscent of her "Green Rock", a short story she wrote in 1949. In "The Green Rock", Plath and her brother invent castles, mountains, and sailboats out of a rock visible in Winthrop Bay at low tide.
The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit
The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit was published in the UK on 4 March 1996 by Faber & Faber, and in the US on 27 May 1996, by St. Martin's Press. Both editions feature illustrations by German illustrator Rotraut Susanne Berner.
Plath wrote The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit on or before 26 September 1959. She first mentions the story on this date in her journals (p. 508), while she was at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York. She references only the character, Max Nix. This is the only children's story Plath wrote during pregnancy.
Plath's story is set in Winkelburg and is about Max Nix and his family. Max is one of seven brothers, and notices that everyone around him has a suit - and these suits identify and define their wearers. But, Max wants an anything suit for any occasion; in short, an it-doesn't-matter suit!
One day a package arrives and inside is a suit of mustard-yellow color. The entire family tries on the suit, and each finds fault with it, expressing concern for what others might think about this radical mustard-yellow suit - a suit we are told repeatedly that "had never been seen before in all of Winkelburg."
Papa Nix works at a bank. Paul is a skier. Emil is a tobogganer. Otto is a paperboy. Walter is an ice-fisher. Hugo is a fox-hunter. Johann milks cows. Each succeeding Nix requires the suit to be hemmed to make a perfect fit. After Johann, it is Max's turn to try on the suit - and after final alterations, it too fit him perfectly.
For all the various reasons the other Nix's did not want the suit, Max did and he wore it for every activity, finding it always to be advantageous.
Perhaps this story's message, that it is dangerous to be over concerned with what other people think, is better than the story itself? Plath herself dealt with such self-consciousness constantly, growing up as she did in the 1940s and 1950s. It is more important to be yourself than to let society - or the clothes you wear or the occupation you hold - define who you are and who you become.
The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit appears on audio, read by Andrew Sachs and Susan Jameson, and published by Penguin Audio.
Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen
Published by Faber & Faber on 9 April 2001, Collected Children's Stories assembles all three of Plath's stories for children. The edition prints, for the first time, her story "Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen." The illustrator for the stories is David Roberts.
Plath's story mrs. cherry's kitchen originates to 4 January 1958. The story was meant for the children's magazine Jack & Jill and was titled Changeabout in Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen (304). The notes add some depth to the story because certain kitchen gadgets fail to make her final cut (i.e. roasting spit and electric fry-pan). By 26 January, Plath finished and submitted the story to Jack & Jill.
Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen is a brief, whimsical story. But, a lot happens despite its brevity. Each of Mrs. Cherry's kitchen and household appliances thinks it can perform another's duties better. Coffee-Percolator wants to make ice cream; Toaster wants to make ice cubes; Iron wants to put dimpled-squares into waffles; Egg-Beater wants to make white ruffles in shirts; Oven wants to iron; and Washing Machine wants to bake a sponge cake. Of course, this makes a mess and the kitchen pixies, who authorized the change-about, must clean up the mess quickly before Mr. and Mrs. Cherry return home.
To see a bibliography of reviews of Plath's stories for children, please click here.