Reflections on her legacy
by Kate Moses
8 February 2013
When I think of The Bell Jar, I do not think first of the story of Esther Greenwood's harrowing entrapment in the suffocating air of her own madness. I do not think of the echo chamber of disillusionment and despair behind Sylvia Plath's first suicide attempt at 20 and the tragic finality of her successful attempt at 30. What I think of is the one moment in Plath's novel when she casts her fictional counterpart beyond the trajectory of the story's events. Recalling the "piles and piles" of swag heaped upon herself and the other college girls who'd won summer jobs at a New York fashion magazine, Esther describes the gilt make-up kit and bedazzled sunglasses case she still keeps. "I use the lipsticks now and then," she says, and here is Esther's singular moment out of time: "… and last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with."
It is this hopeful leap into the future that pierces me: the older Esther, a mother now, practical and resourceful – just as Plath was during the creation of The Bell Jar. Pregnant with her second child, awaiting the imminent publication of her first poetry collection, Plath wrote her novel in a matter of months, the grant she'd received to fund its completion strategically repurposed so she could get started on yet another book – the poems we now know as the Ariel poems. Plath's Ariel was no less a story of redemption than The Bell Jar: the story of a woman, a mother, a daughter, a wife, an artist who still believed not just in the possibility of happiness, but in herself. However brief and fragile her moment of hope, however anguished those last months of her life, Plath recognised the timeless incandescence of her achievement. It was, she wrote: "A gift, a love gift/Utterly unasked for …"
It was, it is, a star passing from her hand into ours.
Wintering, inspired by Plath's Ariel poems, by Kate Moses is published by Sceptre