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.