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Lauren F. Winner

Still Under the Bell Jar

What has really changed for women since the Fifties

A copy of The Bell Jar has gathered dust on my bookshelf for at least a decade—that old Bantam paperback, with a black-gloved, feminine hand and a dark, dying rose melodramatically unfurling on the cover. The review quoted on the back is from The New York Times Book Review: "The Bell Jar is a novel about the events of Sylvia Plath's twentieth year: about how she tried to die, and how they stuck her together with glue." This Bantam edition was released in 1972, nine years after it had been pseudonymously published in England, and nine years after Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven and killed herself.

This edition of the novel concludes with a biographical sketch of Plath by Lois Ames. Ames tells us bluntly what, exactly, that distorting, suffocating bell jar was: "As she became increasingly conscious of herself as a woman," writes Ames, "the conflict between the life-style of a poet/intellectual and that of a wife and mother became an increasingly central preoccupation." One does not actually have to read The Bell Jar to know that Sylvia Plath (and her fictional alter ego, Esther Greenwood) cast a long shadow over subsequent discussions about how women should go about shaping their lives.

Sylvia Plath was not the only storied woman suicide of the era. A less ballyhooed death was that of Anne Parsons, gifted psychoanalytic thinker and daughter of Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, perhaps the most influential social scientist of his generation. Anne Parsons, whose essays were posthumously published under the title Belief, Magic, and Anomie, has never gained anything like the cult following of Plath (or fellow poet-suicide Anne Sexton), and indeed is almost entirely forgotten except by those who knew her, but her 1964 suicide has nevertheless been elevated to metaphor by feminist sociologist Wini Breines.

Breines's Young, White, and Miserable investigates the origins of feminism: how did a generation of middle-class girls, raised in the 1950s to be Harriet Hausfrau, ...

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