Notes From the Book Review Archives

Katie Roiphe reviews the second volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters in this week’s issue. Plath, who committed suicide soon after publishing “The Bell Jar,” continues to capture the public imagination. Below is Robert Scholes’s 1971 review of that semi-autobiographical novel.

We are all dying, of course, banker and bum alike, spending our limited allotment of days, hours and minutes at the same rate. But we don’t like to think about it. And those men and women who take the matter into their own hands, and spend all at once with prodigal disdain, seem frighteningly different from you and me. Sylvia Plath is one of those others, and to them our gratitude and our dismay are equally impertinent. When an oracle speaks it is not for us to say thanks but to attend to the message.

“The Bell Jar” is about the way this country was in the 1950s and about the way it is to lose one’s grip on sanity and recover it again. It is easy to say that insanity is the only sane reaction to the America of the past two decades. And it is also said frequently that the only thing to do about madness is relax and enjoy it. But neither of these “clever” responses to her situation occur to Esther Greenwood, who is the narrator and central character in this novel.

We follow Esther’s personal life from her summer job in New York, back through her days at New England’s largest school for women, and forward through her attempted suicide, her bad treatment at one asylum and her good treatment at another, to her re-entry into the world like a used tire.

But this personal life is delicately related to larger events — especially the execution of the Rosenbergs, whose impending death by electrocution is introduced in the stunning first paragraph of the book. Ironically, that same electrical power which destroys the Rosenbergs, restores Esther to life. It is shock therapy which finally lifts the bell jar and enables Esther to breathe freely once again. This novel is not political or historical in any narrow sense, but in looking at the madness of the world and the world of madness it forces us to consider the great question posed by all truly realistic fiction: What is reality and how can it be confronted?

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