The thing most everyone knows about Slyvia Plath is that she’s a writer who committed suicide. They do not talk about her life, her career, and very rarely her actual work. Plath was most famous for her poetry and novel The Bell Jar. While I was aware of who Plath was, I had always been under the idea The Bell Jar had something to do with horror for some unknown reason and not being a horror fan myself, had steered clear from it. While it does deal with mental health issues, the book itself is far from what I had originally been led by other sources to think of it as.
What’s more, so is the author. In reading Elizabeth Winders book, I found myself learning more about Slyvia Plath than school had ever attempted to teach me (which was pretty much nothing). The Bell Jar focuses on Plath’s own experiences and struggles as an editor at Mademoiselle, a 1950s magazine. It’s what shaped the novel she would later write, and she used the people around her as inspiration for their book counterparts.
But Elizabeth Winders is not a fictional account, but a biographical one of that time. Winder interviews all of the finalists involved in Mademoiselles college issue of 1953. Each recounts that summer, and the picture of Slyvia Plath painted is at odds with the one she seemed to have in her head.
She’s a bright, young girl with opinions and ambitions that she’s forced to tamper down because of the society around her. She’s compared to Marilyn Monroe on numerous accounts. The Slyvia Plath depicted in this biography is an ambitious Smith student, with a whole world to look at. Not the depressed woman who would later take her own life. In this biographical account, all of Plath’s own brilliance is shown in a whole different light then what the world has written her off as in the years following her death—the mad woman who put her head in the oven.
Plath’s destruction is a failing of her time. An era that didn’t know what to do with women still, forced them into the home and marriage no matter what their ambition or real purpose would have been. It’s an interesting examination of society’s failings of women of that time period and how seeing the destruction Slyvia went through, and her own classmates also experienced at the hands of a failed system led to the second wave of the women’s rights movement that would follow.
In fact, I even recommend reading the biography before you dive into The Bell Jar. It gives you context and understanding into a complex woman driven mad by trying to live up to society’s expectations of her instead of her own.