Sylvia Plath’s most famous novel was The Bell Jar, published only months before she committed suicide, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath was an avid writer throughout her life, keeping a dedicated journal starting at the summer before college at Smith. Although her unabridged journals were extensive, I was immediately captivated by the young voice just trying to get by in a time period when women rarely went away to receive an education. Women were expected to marry early and quickly have children, and getting a college education seemed to be to grasp hold of an MRS degree if necessary.
Although the deeply engrained rules of innocence were dripping from nearly every page in the young life Plath lived, it was worth noting she didn’t feel like that lifestyle fit her well. Plath’s feminism emanated through her thoughts of the human body, the sexualization of herself and others, and also her blatant desire to attend a university and get an education and do well at that. Plath was the epitome of what American society was trying to hide from the minds of women and with each page I couldn’t help smiling even more.
Plath was not completely immune to the expectations her dorm friends had on her, and would often try her best to find a blind date to fill one of her weekend nights in order it please them. If she stayed in and studied, she knew they would judge her and potentially not be her friend anymore. So she went on many dates, and even experienced why most university women today don’t trust fraternity parties completely, being lead away by a man who wishes to do more than just “talk” no matter your opinion on the matter. I am not sure how much Plath chose to disclose in her journals, but there were many instances where missing time could only conclude missed time, and many couldn’t guess what she was doing during that time.
Sylvia Plath’s own college experiences relate swiftly to many others that I see at JMU today. Except strike the dates and call it “going out” and we have the same deal. The expectation is that in order to keep friends, you must be seen doing something every weekend, and often studying is left behind. Remove the fear of sexuality from the minds of the women today, but keep the old standards Plath was forced to live by, and things seemed to not have changed at all. Plath struggled with mental illness in college, and many could argue it was these strict expectations of women that drove her to feel so depressed. They used to call it a sickness without a name, because no one could understand why a well educated woman could be so unhappy fulfilling her womanly duties.
Plath’s college years struck me as both a window to the past, but also a mirror image staring back at me. It gave me great sadness to note how little had actually changed since her time at college, and through her writing of The Bell Jar, it is pretty clear that time if her life profoundly affected her until the very end of her life.