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Authors: Sylvia Plath

Tags: #Fiction, #Psychological, #Literary

The Bell Jar (39 page)

BOOK: The Bell Jar
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In the summer, the Hugheses
moved to Devon to live in a thatch-roofed country house, and on November 6,
1961, the secretary to the Saxton trustees wrote that they had voted to give
her a grant in the amount of $2,080, “the sum you suggested.” Sylvia replied,
“I was very happy to receive your good letter today telling about the Saxton
Fellowship. I certainly do plan to go ahead with the novel and the award comes
at a particularly helpful time to free me to do so.”

               
On January 17, 1962, a son,
Nicholas, was born. The days were divided among the babies, housework, and
writing, but on February 10, 1962, Sylvia punctually delivered her first
quarterly report on the progress of her novel to the Saxton trustees. “During
the past three months the novel has progressed very satisfactorily, according
to my drafted schedule. I have worked through several rough drafts to a final
version of Chapters 5 through 8, completing a total of 105 pages of the novel
in all, and have outlined in detail Chapters 9 through l2.” Then she gave in
detail the plans for
The Bell jar.
Although the novel was going well,
Sylvia complained to a friend that she felt she was doing little work: “a
couple of poems I like a year looks like a

 

 

lot
when they come out, but in fact are points of satisfaction separated by large
vacancies.” On May 1, 1962, in the next quarterly report to the Saxton
trustees, she wrote, “The novel is getting on very well, and according to
schedule. I have completed Chapters 9 through 12 (pages 106-166) and projected
in detailed outline the next lap of the book.” By June 1962 she could tell a
friend: “I’m writing again. Really writing. I’d like you to see some of my new
poems.” She had begun the
Ariel
poems and was confident enough to want
to show them, to have them read, to read them aloud. These poems were
different: her husband has written that “Tulips” “was the first sign of what
was on its way. She wrote this poem without her usual studies over the
thesaurus, and at top speed, as one might write an urgent letter. From then on,
all her poems were written in this way.”

               
On August 1, 1962, Sylvia sent
her final progress report to the Saxton trustees:

 

         
The
novel is rounding out now, shaping up pretty much as planned, and I have
completed Chapters 13 through 16 (pages 167-221) and am hoping the last lap
goes as well.

 

               
After a vacation in Ireland,
Sylvia and Ted decided to separate for a while. The summer had been difficult. She
had suffered repeated attacks of flu accompanied by high fever. Another winter
in Devon seemed impossible. She began to commute to London, where she was
“getting work with the BBC” and hunting for a flat. The manuscript of
The
Bell Jar
had been sent to the trustees of the Saxton Fellowship in the
States, and Heinemann had accepted the novel in England and was setting it into
type. A few days before Christmas, Sylvia moved herself and the children to
London, where she had signed a five-year lease on a flat:

 

         
...a
small miracle happened--I’d been to Yeats’ tower at Ballylea while in Ireland
& thought it the most beautiful & peaceful place in the world; then,
walking desolately around my beloved Primrose Hill in London and brooding on
the hopelessness of ever finding a flat...I passed Yeats’ house, with its blue
plaque “Yeats lived here” which I’d often passed & longed to live in. A
sign board was up--flats to rent, I flew to the agent. By a miracle you can
only know if you’ve ever tried to flat hunt in London, I was first to
apply....I am here on a 5 year lease & it is utter heaven...and it’s Yeats’
house, which right now means a lot to me.

 

               
Sylvia took the finding of the
Yeats house for a sign. She told a friend that when she went out to look for
flats that day, she had “known” she would find it, and so, with that
confirmation, she began to make plans with energetic assurance. She was working
on a new novel, and the
Ariel
poems were continuing to flow. She told
another friend that she thought of
The Bell jar
‘‘as an autobiographical
apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past.”
But the new novel, about more recent events in her life, she regarded as
strong, powerful and urgent.

               
When
The Bell jar
was
published, in January 1963, Sylvia was distressed by the reviews, although
another reader, not the author and not under the same sorts of stress, might
have interpreted the critics’ views of the novel far differently. Lawrence
Lerner in the
Listener
wrote, “There are criticisms of America that the
neurotic can make as well as anyone, perhaps better, and Miss Lucas makes them
brilliantly.” The
Times Literary Supplement
observed that the author
“can certainly write,” and went on to say that “if she can learn to shape as
well as she imagines, she may write an extremely good book.” In the
New
Statesman)
Robert Taubman called
The Bell jar
“the first feminine
novel in a Salinger mood.”

               
In 1970, Aurelia Plath, her
mother, wrote a letter to Sylvia’s editor at Harper & Row in New York about
the anticipated publication of the first American edition of
The Bell jar:

 

I realize that no explanation of the
why
of
personal suffering that this publication here [publication of
The Bell jar
in
the United States] will create in the lives of several people nor any appeal on
any other grounds is going to stop this, so I shall waste neither my time nor
yours in pointing out the inevitable repercussions....I do want to tell you of
one of the last conversations I had with my daughter in early July, 1962, just
before her personal world fell apart. Sylvia had told me of the pressure she
was under in fulfilling her obligation to the Eugene Saxton Fund. As you know,
she had been given a grant by this fund to enable her to write a novel. In the
space of time allotted, she had a miscarriage, an appendectomy, and had given
birth to her second child, Nicholas.

         
“What
I’ve done,” I remember her saying, “is to throw together events from my own
life, fictionalizing to add color--it’s a pot boiler really, but I think it
will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown....I’ve
tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting
lens of a bell jar.” Then she went on to say, “My second book will show that
same world as seen through the eyes of health.” Practically every character in
The
Bell jar
represents someone--often in caricature--whom Sylvia loved; each
person had given freely of time, thought, affection, and, in one case,
financial help during those agonizing six months of breakdown in 1953...as this
book stands by itself, it represents the basest ingratitude. That was not the
basis of Sylvia’s personality; it was the reason she became so frightened when,
at the time of publication, the book was widely read and showed signs of
becoming a success. Sylvia wrote her brother that “this must never be published
in the United States.”...The very title
The Bell Jar
should imply what
Sylvia told me and that is what the astute reader should infer....

 

               
It was the coldest winter in
London since 1813-14. Light and heat went off at unannounced intervals. Pipes
froze. She had applied, and her name was on the list, but a telephone had not
yet been installed. Each morning before the children woke at eight, Sylvia
worked on the
Ariel
poems. Here the sense of human experience as horrid
and ungovernable, the sense of all relationships as puppetlike and meaningless,
had come to dominate her imagination. Yet she wrote with intensity, convinced
that what she was now writing could be said by no one else. Always there was
the need to be practical, to find time for the deliberate expression of
anguish. Sylvia wrote, “I feel like a very efficient tool or weapon, used and
in demand from moment to moment....” She had seen a doctor who had prescribed
sedatives and had arranged for her to consult a psychotherapist. She wrote for
an appointment and had also written to her former psychiatrist in Boston. A
recurrent problem of sinus infection developed. She had fired her
au pair
girl
and was waiting for a replacement “to help with the babes mornings so I can
write... nights are no good, I’m so flat by then that all I can cope with is
music & brandy & water.”

               
In spite of the help of friends
and anticipation of spring (she was to return to the house in Devon around May
Day), she was despairing and ill. But the poems continued to come, even in the
last week of her life--several extraordinary poems. To those around her it
appeared that she had not given up. Frequently she seemed bright, cheerful,
full of hope.

               
However, on the morning of
February 11,1963, she ended her life. Who can explain
why?
As Sylvia had
written earlier in the last optimistic pages of
The Bell Jar:

 

How did I know that someday--at college, in Europe,
somewhere, anywhere--the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t
descend again?

 

--that
bell jar out of which she had once struggled brilliantly, successfully,
apparently completely, but of which she could write with the clarity of one who
has endured: “to the person in The Bell Jar, black and stopped as a dead baby,
the world itself is a bad dream.”

 

 

BOOK: The Bell Jar
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