This posthumously published novel is a roman à clef which follows the descent of Esther Greenwood from promising young journalism student through her depression, suicide attempts, shock treatments, and ends with her entering her interview to possibly leave the hospital. It was first published in England in 1963 under a pseudonym; it wasn’t published in the United States until 1971, though, against the wishes of Plath’s mother.
It opens with Greenwood in a women’s hotel in New York City, working as an intern for a series of women’s magazines. In this pre-feminist period, Esther Greenwood struggles to forge an identity in college and in her internship, with her female friends and the men she dates and encounters. Throughout, she resists the expectations of marriage and motherhood, despite the best intentions of her neighbors and friends. While the general trend is one of descent, as Esther’s depression and suicidal tendencies increase over much of the novel, there are potentially proto-feminist, potentially hopeful moments in the novel. Perhaps most hopeful is her psychiatrist’s prescription of a diaphragm for her, which allows Esther to lose her virginity, virginity and sex being one of the ways in which Ester feels powerless in the marriage economy.
Many reviewers complain about Plath’s immaturity in this novel. And certainly, reading it for the first time since I was eighteen, there are many places where I see my eighteen-year-old self feeling connection—Plath’s despair that her ability to make straight As will no longer serve her in the real world was one which I quite identified with, along with her desire to rest after being a dutiful daughter. However, at this point, I see it primarily as a period piece—an important one—telling a tragic story of one woman’s mental illness. It’s impossible to read this without being influenced by Plath’s own story, even though the novel itself seems to end on a hopeful note, knowing of Plath’s own suicide makes it nearly impossible for me to completely believe in that hopefulness.
What is hopeful, however, is the proto-feminism apparent in the novel. While Esther’s first psychiatrist orders terrifyingly dangerous shock treatments and treats her in a quite condescending manner, her subsequent female doctor is much more sensitive to her experiences, and ensures that her subsequent therapy and shock treatments are not painful, but are therapeutic. Throughout the novel, Esther encounters tentative forms of healing sisterhood, whether in the women’s hotel after food poisoning or in the mental hospital with her fellow inmates and female doctor. This for me is the takeaway, the protofeminism possibilities which Plath imagines in the novel.