The new Bell Jar cover: is it all that bad?

“What a man wants is an arrow into the future and what a woman wants is the place the arrow shoots off from.”

Faber’s re-issue of Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel The Bell Jar, complete with a suspiciously chick lit makeover, has provoked a mixture of outrage, parody novel covers, and a raft of people still wondering who Sylvia Plath is.

Somewhere in between, there are a number of reasoned responses. Some expressing indifference, others a proto-feminist tirade. It’s surprisingly difficult to pitch a response to this new cover that is not motivated purely by ill-judged and daft polemic.

The main problem people have with this re-edition is that an image of a dainty face padding-on make up, whilst staring nonchalantly into a compact mirror, is somewhat of an affront to Sylvia Plath’s legacy and body of work as a whole. And admittedly, this kind of stereotypical image of feminine vanity does seem a little at odds with the general content and direction of the novel itself.

Faber's new cover for The Bell Jar

Faber’s new cover for The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar documents its protagonist Esther’s descent into a mental breakdown at the hands of a world which enforces rigid and unforgivable notions of femininity and self-expression. Esther survives the ordeal but the novel is never really able to recover or provide an answer to her self-destruction and confusion.

However, we should not get carried away in assuming that this re-edition is an insult to her memory and that Plath would have hated it. If we go down this road we’re likely forget how anachronistic it is to imply that Plath was a 21st Century feminist.

Plath committed suicide before second wave-feminism had gathered any kind of traction, she was a married housewife with children and her husband Ted Hughes was an adulterer. That is not to criticize her, she was merely a product of her environment. But with that in mind, perhaps it is slightly fitting that a shattering account of the post-war female condition is wrapped in such a garish cover?

There is something inherent in her work which locates her as sandwiched between two big slabs of mid-century patriarchy and institutionalized misogyny. Like many female authors she was always going to leave a lasting impression of having succumbed to a phallocentric society.

It should not be seen as a reduction of her work and influence as a writer, but perhaps more of a crass marketing ploy, essentially conceived to get a few more people to read a book which, even despite Plath’s posthumous iconic status, they would have never otherwise picked up. Is it really that surprising that this new, slightly vacuous post-feminist sheen was considered more appealing?

We live in the age of popular fiction, and everything has to be, or at least appear, digestible to the masses. While for some it is a reduction of Plath’s work for to re-brand it in this way, we should recognise that it would be an oversimplification and unfair to her own struggles as a woman and as a woman writer, to label her as simply a feminist.

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