Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1963

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1963, Readings

Published pseudonymously a month before Sylvia Plath’s death by suicide, The Bell Jar is a subversive semi-autobiographical novel whose reception and cultural resonance have always been inextricable from the life and notorious death of its author.

Plath’s spiky and disaffected protagonist Esther Greenwood is a bright young woman on the precipice of adulthood: she has moved to New York City to start a coveted internship at women’s magazine Ladies’ Day, as Plath once did at Mademoiselle, and is invited into a fast scene of fashion and glamorous parties. Yet Esther feels suffocated by the possibilities the future holds for her and hampered by the weight of societal expectation to achieve happiness either through a proscribed career or through marriage and motherhood. As she watches her female peers either conform or rebel and suffer the consequences, Esther is increasingly alienated and depressed, longing for a freedom and self-sufficiency that feels out of reach. Escalating episodes of mental illness lead her to attempt suicide, and she is institutionalised in a psychiatric ward, where she is treated with electroconvulsive therapy.

Shockingly frank in its depiction of mental illness and studded with Plath’s vivid poeticism, The Bell Jar is an unorthodox narrative of a female coming of age: one marked by ambivalence, unhappiness, and the rejection of social mores. Plath’s first and only novel offers a withering indictment of the narrow possibilities afforded to women in 1950s America, and remains a powerful inflection point to consider the lives and position of young women today.

Through the resonances between Plath’s experience of depressive and bipolar disorders and those of her protagonist, The Bell Jar also invites consideration of the relationship between Plath’s life and writing, and the portrayal of Plath as a figure over time. 60 years after The Bell Jar’s first publication, this masterclass explores its continuing legacy as a feminist classic.

Professor Sarah Holland-Batt

Sarah Holland-Batt is an award-winning poet, editor and critic, and a member of QUT's Creative Writing faculty. The author of three volumes of poetry – most recently The Jaguar (2022) – and a book of essays collecting her poetry columns for The Australian, she is the recipient of numerous honours for her work, including the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry. In 2022, Holland-Batt was appointed as the Judy Harris Writer in Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, an honour offered annually to a distinguished Australian writer whose work offers a literary perspective on health and chronic disease. Her current research interests are situated in the field of the medical humanities, and focus on representations of death, dying, ageing and aged care in literature and the media. She frequently contributes commentary, reportage and analysis on aged care issues to media outlets including 7.30, The Guardian, The Australian, and ABC Radio National.