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Living Under the Bell Jar

A black and white photo of Sylvia Plath holding a flower

Tragedy is a word that many think is overused—or misused—in the media today. In the case of Sylvia Plath, however, it is inarguably applied with its correct meaning. A great poetic talent by the age of thirty, Plath had suffered from depressive illness for years, and in 1963 killed herself in her London flat by gassing herself whilst her two small children slept nearby in their bedroom.

‘Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar’ will be broadcasting on Saturday 11 August (9 pm BBC2). This documentary discusses to her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, which takes as its focus a woman’s mental and emotional breakdown. Set in the 1950s, the book draws upon Plath’s own experiences of her personal and workplace relationships and gives an insight into her younger self’s aspirations and emotions.  Published under a pseudonym (Victoria Lucas) only a month before her suicide, the title refers to her feelings of being trapped under such a jar, unable to breathe.

The British Library website has  ‘An Introduction to The Bell Jar’, described by author Sarah Churchwell as “an acidic satire on the madness of 1950s America, exploring the impossibility of living up to the era’s contradictory ideals of womanhood.”

Another frequently selected set text by examination boards is Plath’s second published collection of poems, ‘Ariel’.  Published posthumously in 1965, the poems were arranged by Plath’s widower, Ted Hughes, who changed her original arrangement and included an introduction by the American poet Robert Lowell, who had been cited by Plath as a profound influence on her work.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.” – Sylvia Plath

The BBC 4’s ‘Great Poets in Their Own Words’ series features Sylvia Plath reading from the collection, and can be found here.

An archived BBC Poetry page on Plath can also be found here.

‘Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar’ will be available by using this link to BBC iPlayer after the programme is broadcast.


Quote from: Plath, S. & Kulkil, V. K., 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books.