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The Bell Jar is often read as a sort of literary suicide note by poet Sylvia Plath. The autobiographical novel memorably follows her first attempt at taking her own life and her experiences living in a mental institution and undergoing electroshock therapy, but its accounts of weeks spent in New York City preceding the breakdown provide a captivating picture not just of Plath’s mental state, but of the impossible demands made of women in the 1950s.
The novel is set in the summer of 1953, the year that Plath won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle to oversee the magazine’s annual college issue. Plath had wanted to be fiction editor, but the magazine named her managing editor instead. Instead of reviewing and editing short stories, Plath attended fashion shows and wrote photo captions, including one in which she praised the “versatility of sweaters.”
At the time, Plath was an ambitious 19-year-old who had already won literary awards and published poems, but she felt belittled by her editor and preoccupied with the sense that she was wasting a remarkable opportunity. “It was my first big chance, but here I was, sitting back and letting it run through my fingers like so much water,” she writes in The Bell Jar.
Amid it all, she was also confronted by the sense that she would have to make decisions about pursuing a career, having a family, and continuing to write. In that way, The Bell Jar poses a question that is still being asked more than 65 years later: Can women have it all?
Far more than a novel about a mentally troubled teenager in the Eisenhower era, Plath’s only published novel is a story that has a lot to tell us about our own time.
Studio 360’s New York Icons series is made possible by a grant from the Booth Ferris Foundation.
This podcast was produced for Studio 360 by Beenish Ahmed.
Studio 360 is a smart and surprising guide to what’s happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt introduces the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy—so let Studio 360 steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life. Produced in association with Slate.