The Bell Jar is an autobiographical novel that conforms closely to the events of the author’s life. Sylvia Plath was born to Otto and Aurelia Plath in 1932 and spent her early childhood in the seaport town of Winthrop, Massachusetts. Otto Plath died when Plath was eight years old, and she moved with her mother, younger brother, and maternal grandparents to Wellesley, an inland suburb of Boston. Plath excelled in school and developed a strong interest in writing and drawing. In 1950, she won a scholarship to attend Smith College, where she majored in English. The Bell Jar recounts, in slightly fictionalized form, the events of the summer and autumn after Plath’s junior year. Like Esther, the protagonist of The Bell Jar, Plath was invited to serve as guest editor for a woman’s magazine in New York.

After returning to Wellesley for the remainder of the summer, she had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Plath’s struggle with bipolar disorder led to her suicide attempt. In its aftermath, she received electroshock therapy. The brutality of this experience provided the subject matter for The Bell Jar, as well as for her poems “Lady Lazarus” and “Mirror” (1962) which were published after Plath’s eventual death by suicide. Today, many readers and critics revere these works, among others, for their unflinching depiction of mental illness and despair.

After attempting suicide, Plath went on to complete a highly successful college career. She won the prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge University in England, where she met the English poet Ted Hughes. They married in 1956, and after a brief stint in the United States, where Plath taught at Smith, they moved back to England in 1959. Plath gave birth to her first child, Freda, the following year. The same year, she published The Colossus, her first volume of poetry. Her second child, Nicholas, was born in 1962. Hughes and Plath separated shortly afterward; her instability and his affair with another woman had placed great strain on their marriage. Plath and her children moved to a flat in London, where she continued to write poetry. The poems she wrote at this time were later published in a collection titled Ariel (1965). In February 1963, she gassed herself in her kitchen, ending her life at the age of thirty-one.

Plath most likely wrote a first draft of The Bell Jar in the late 1950s. In 1961 she received a fellowship that allowed her to complete the novel. The Bell Jar was published in London in January 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath chose to publish the work under a pseudonym in order to protect the people she portrayed in the novel, and because she was uncertain of the novel’s literary merit. The novel appeared posthumously in England under her own name in 1966, and in America, over the objections of her mother, in 1971. The Bell Jar has received moderate critical acclaim, and has long been valued not only as a glimpse into the psyche of a major poet, but as a witty and harrowing American coming-of-age story. Plath is primarily known not as a novelist, but as an outstanding poet. Ariel cemented her reputation as a great artist. Her other volumes of poetry, published posthumously, include Crossing the Water (1971), Winter Trees (1971), and The Collected Poems (1981), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Sylvia Plath’s literary persona has always provoked extreme reactions. Onlookers tend to mythologize Plath either as a feminist martyr or a tragic heroine. The feminist martyr version of her life holds that Plath was driven over the edge by her misogynist husband, and sacrificed on the altar of pre-feminist, repressive 1950s America. The tragic heroine version of her life casts Plath as a talented but doomed young woman, unable to deal with the pressures of society because of her debilitating mental illness. Although neither myth presents a wholly accurate picture, truth exists in both. The Bell Jar does not label its protagonist’s life as either martyred or heroic. Plath does not attribute Esther’s instability to men, society, or Esther herself, although she does criticize all three. Rather, she blames mental illness, which she characterizes as a mysterious and horrific disease.