The Literary Insights of Sylvia Plath’s College Thesis

How the author’s undergraduate writings on doppelgängers shaped her most famous work, The Bell Jar, sometimes in troubling ways

A photo of Sylvia Plath sitting in a tree, taken while she was a student at Smith College
Sylvia Plath in April 1954, while she was a student at Smith College (Judy Snow Denison)

In June 1953, Sylvia Plath was a 20-year-old summer intern at Mademoiselle, living in New York between her junior and senior years of college. She had won the magazine’s annual contest and was offered a guest editorship, along with 19 other young women. The summer was disillusioning for Plath. On one hand, she faced the expectations for professional excellence typically associated with the New York publishing world, as highlighted in works like The Devil Wears Prada and Younger. But she also navigated the complicated codes of 1950s America, the demand for a Betty Draper–esque perfection articulated in Mad Men and The Feminine Mystique. It was in New York that Plath strengthened her tendency to hide emotions other than servile happiness. Two months later, in August, an exhausted Plath attempted suicide for the first time, taking sleeping pills and crawling underneath her family’s house. These are the events upon which The Bell Jar, her only published novel, is based.

Fifty-five years after its publication, The Bell Jar continues to have a cultural hold. A second film adaptation of the story, this one directed by Kirsten Dunst and starring Dakota Fanning, is currently in preproduction. A new book of letters is coming out this fall, capturing the years when Plath wrote her novel. Early drafts of The Bell Jar were also recently on display at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C., as part of an exhibit titled “One Life: Sylvia Plath.” Along with photos of Plath and covers of The Bell Jar, “One Life” included drafts of her poetry and prose, letters she wrote to her family and editors, and a lively collection of self-portraits. The exhibit offered a candid look at Plath in her rich and, at times, contradictory complexity. It also, through artifacts like her childhood ponytail and a letter from her therapist, satisfied the voyeurism that Plath often inspires.

Amid such buzz, it can be tempting to get lost in the intensity of her short life, and to lapse into autobiographical analyses of The Bell Jar without also considering the literary traditions Plath sought to engage in her work. Fortunately, Plath’s undergraduate thesis, a draft of which was on display in “One Life,” provides a clear outline of these influences on her novel—and helps to illuminate how the author used cultural anxieties surrounding race and sexuality to convey her protagonist’s deeply fractured sense of self.

As a senior at Smith College, in 1955, Plath submitted her thesis on the doppelgänger—the concept of finding a mirror image, or a look-alike, in another human. The notion carries sinister connotations: In a 2014 piece on doppelgängers for The Atlantic, Alissa Wilkinson noted that “encountering your match has long been considered a harbinger of death.” Novels that participate in the doppelgänger tradition tend to illustrate the deadly struggle between protagonist and double. Just think of the creature who becomes a threat to Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s novel, or the fluctuation between Robert Louis Stevenson’s refined Dr. Jekyll and the violent Mr. Hyde.

On a trip to Plath’s archives at Smith, I was able to read her thesis, in which Plath described the double as being made up of “the evil or repressed characteristics of its master.” As the double grows, it comes to endanger the novel’s protagonist. Plath focused her paper on two of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s works in particular: The Double and The Brothers Karamazov. In her thesis, Plath explored Dostoyevsky’s illustration of characters’ internal states through the landscapes they inhabit, a strategy she takes up in her novel.

Writing of The Double’s protagonist, Golyadkin, Plath quoted Dostoyevsky, arguing that Golyadkin’s later mental split is foreshadowed in the first scene of the novel, as he wakes up and is unable to separate the “real and actual” from his “confused dreams.” The backdrop of the scene indicates the character’s inner turmoil: Golyadkin’s bedroom is “dirty,” “smoke-stained,” and “dust-covered.” In Plath’s view, Golyadkin’s outer setting points to his muddled psyche.

Plath’s thesis begins its influence on The Bell Jar’s first page, an opening that revises Dostoyevsky’s. Esther Greenwood, the novel’s protagonist, recalls New York City in the morning. By nine o’clock, the dew “evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream.” Remembering the “mirage-grey” streets that “wavered in the sun,” Esther describes “the dry, cindery dust” that clouded her senses. Like Dostoyevsky, Plath recalls the act of dreaming, presenting her protagonist’s surroundings as a hallucination. The Bell Jar’s inaugural scene, like The Double’s, questions its own veracity, reflecting the hazy state of both character and landscape. For the two authors, this uncertainty prefaces their protagonists’ mental breakdowns.

Later in her thesis, Plath moved to The Brothers Karamazov. She noted that, “In physical appearance, there is no outward resemblance between” Ivan, the protagonist, and his double, Smerdyakov. “Where Ivan is attractive to the ladies,” Plath observed, Smerdyakov is, in Dostoyevsky’s words, “yellow” and “strangely emasculate.” As if lifting from The Brothers Karamazov, in the opening chapter of The Bell Jar, Plath describes Esther as gender-fluid and having yellow skin. First, Plath affirms Esther’s disorientation, much like Golyadkin’s: “I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” Esther says. “I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me all over America.” Then comes a passage that suggests Esther’s happiness is a veneer:

And when my picture came out in the magazine the 12 of us were working on—drinking martinis in a skimpy, imitation silver-lamé bodice stuck on to a big, fat cloud of white tulle, on some Starlight Roof, in the company of several anonymous young men with all-American bone structures hired or loaned for the occasion—everybody would think I must be having a real whirl.

Plath’s imagery—of the men that she describes as if they are extras on a movie set, of Esther’s snow-colored costume—constructs a whitewashed and artificial mask of American sophistication, one that heightens the novel’s sense of imminent doom. It is, after all, already clear that Esther is not having a “whirl.” Here, Plath implies that Esther’s façade, like her bodice, is faltering, and The Bell Jar promises to reveal what’s underneath.

A few paragraphs down, Plath appears to apply her older insights on Smerdyakov to Esther. It is as if, in her altered complexion and gender-nonconforming figure, Esther sees herself as one of Dostoyevsky’s doubles. Contrasting the white tulle and feminine bodice of the earlier scene, Esther now wears a “black shantung sheath,” one “cut so queerly [she] couldn’t wear any sort of bra under it,” but that doesn’t matter, because she’s “skinny as a boy.” Then Plath alludes to the Chinese origins of the fabric of Esther’s dress: “The city had faded my tan,” Esther recalls. “I looked yellow as a Chinaman.”

Plath’s use of gender queerness and race to construct the double is extremely disturbing, and overt racism pervades The Bell Jar. The boyish frame and yellow skin of Esther’s double work to highlight Esther’s own femininity and whiteness. Earlier, Stevenson and Shelley emphasized the whiteness of their protagonists by using nonwhite doubles: Stevenson’s Hyde has dark skin and hair, whereas Shelley’s nameless creature has yellow skin, black hair, and black lips. Plath likewise uses the double to snap Esther’s race into sharp clarity. Indeed, authors who mobilize the doppelgänger typically construct it with traits that are culturally undesirable or threatening to the status quo.

For that reason, illustrations of the double, like the description of Esther’s complexion and physical frame, are telling insofar as they show what qualities Plath sees as necessary to hide away in mid-20th century America. That Esther sees herself as embodying these characteristics suggests a private recognition or connection that needs to stay contained. On that same night, Esther is mischievous—she drinks and flirts and lies—and her return home is filled with allusions to hell: The telephone “sat, dumb as a death’s head,” and when she discovers smoke in her room, she thought it “had materialized … as a sort of judgment.” The devilish behavior Plath attributes to Esther’s double—her less-white, queerer self—is a lucid demonstration of The Bell Jar’s reactionary, mid-century orientation toward gender and race.

And as the novel continues, the sought-after image of white female perfection so often associated with 1950s culture rips at the seams, much like Esther’s ersatz bodice. Her ability to project cheerful deference—to hide her anger, confusion, and desire—falls apart. Esther is unable to maintain her mask of docile femininity, and she views the electroshock therapy she eventually receives as a punishment for this failure. Plath aligns Esther’s electroshock with the execution of the convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg by electric chair in June 1953, in part to illustrate Esther’s fear of her own duplicitous identity being unveiled.

When considering the expectations that Esther encountered in New York, and the inevitable toll of these demands that Plath sought to expose in The Bell Jar, it pains me to read the novel’s rejection letters, which I also found while at Smith. One, in particular, stands out. On December 28, 1962, less than two months before her death, the author was living in England when she received a missive from Judith Jones, an editor at Knopf who oversaw the U.S. publication of The Colossus and Other Poems, Plath’s first book of poetry. Jones wrote to her: “Up to the point of her breakdown the attitude of the young girl had seemed a perfectly normal combination of brashness and disgust with the world, but I was not at all prepared as a reader to accept the extent of her illness and the suicide attempt.” For Jones, the problem of the novel is not its beginning, when Esther is a beautiful, brilliant intern with a supposedly normal amount of angst. The problem comes when Plath reveals the truth of what goes on under that surface, and what it takes to uphold the façade.

These very issues—the masks often worn to maintain stifling American codes, the sense of self-betrayal they can foster in their wearer, the condemnation that ensues when the mask falls away—are in part why The Bell Jar garnered such critical and popular attention. Perhaps less understood, although “One Life” helped bring this to the fore, is how Plath’s fascination with doubles figured into her work. Her novel, crucially, drew from an artistic tradition that historically relied on fraught language about race and gender. But Plath also departed from the doppelgänger myth in at least one meaningful way: She refused to give her double a different name, or a different body. It’s a decision that not only accepts, but also embraces Esther’s depth, even her bleak and troubling emotions. At the novel’s end, Esther recognizes that her experiences—both painful and joyous—will always live inside her. “They were part of me,” she explains. “They were my landscape.”