Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar has had a controversial makeover to mark its 50th anniversary. Critics say it has made the dark novel look like chick-lit. However, major Plath fan Kirsty Grocott, defends the new cover and rubbishes those claims.
Sylvia Plath, pictured next to the 50th anniversary edition of her bestselling novel: The Bell Jar.
By Kirsty Grocott
11:41AM GMT 07 Feb 2013
What do you think of thenew cover of Sylvia Plath's book, The Bell Jar? Considering the furore that has gripped both newspapers and the blogosphere this week, I believe I am in the minority. I like it. In fact, I don't just like it, I love it. The clashing colours, the typeface and the carefully constructed photograph. I think it is clever, considered and doing exactly what it is meant to do.
For those who have not seen/studied the cover (see above), it features a photograph of a young woman, powdering her face and looking into a mirrored make up compact. She does not look at the camera; we see her face in profile and reflected back at us by the mirror.
Critics argue that this rather stylised 1950s imagery somehowtrivialises the content of the book. However, I think it captures the essence of the protagonist's predicament perfectly. At the beginning of the book, The Bell Jar’s protagonist Esther Greenwood is working as a writer on a New York magazine; she and the other girls are given numerous freebies which include make up and lipsticks; they are living and working in an environment concerned with glamour and fashion. So, on a simplistic level the cover art is relevant to the book's content.
But those who have read the book know that it isn't really about that. Of course, Plath's narrative is about something altogether different and the cover works with these themes in mind too. The entire book deals with appearance and reality; Esther's outward appearance belies what is happening within.
Sylvia Plath typing
At the beginning of the book she seems to be a young woman who is coping with the demands placed upon her; knowing that she has to look and behave in a certain way. The woman on the cover epitomises this; the powder and the lipstick are a mask, an image that is projected to others irrespective of what lies beneath. Later in the novel, Esther's appearance starts to disintegrate, notably after her assault by Marco when he wipes “his finger under his bloody nose and with two strokes” stains her cheeks. Esther then describes herself as looking “like a sick Indian”. Her carefully applied cosmetics have gone.
Beauty was an expectation of women when Plath was writing
The cover also makes reference to societal pressures of the time. In the 50s and early 60s women's behaviour was governed by certain social mores and they were valued mainly with regard to looks rather than ability. The photograph on the cover captures this too. Nowhere do we see the tools of the writer; perhaps a pen or a notebook. The woman featured is firmly underneath the patriarchal thumb, toeing the line and looking just the way society says she should.
In choosing this particular photograph, the publishers Faber and Faber have encapsulated society's expectations of women at the time, an idea which Plath explores at length throughout the text. I agree with Hannah Griffiths of F&F when she states that the cover “picks up on the beginning of the story, where the narrator is...encountering the conflict between new freedom and old assumptions about women's aspirations”.
Deconstructing the image further still, perhaps the disjointed appearance of the woman's face, we cannot see her as a whole, is symbolic of Esther's later mental breakdown. Both as reader and viewer we see only fragments of the woman before us. Perhaps this was Faber and Faber's intention?
In terms of colour and typeface, the new cover works too. I like the contrast between the mossy green of the woman's dress and the red background; the delicacy of the lime green title, the fragility of the letters which spell out Plath's name. The typeface contrasts with the subject matter of the photograph, the woman’s face almost wears a sneer; she sneers at herself and is reflected right back at us.
Plath could never be considered chick-lit. Get real
What has angered people most is the difference between the original cover and the 2013 50th anniversary one. Plath's fans guard her legacy fiercely and many believe that this new cover turns her book into 'chick-lit'. I disagree with this assumption.
Surely, no one would want to categorize The Bell Jar as chick-lit, especially not the publisher? Faber and Faber are fully aware of the importance of Plath's work, so why would they want to try and turn it into a book specifically aimed at women and market it under false pretences? Of course they want to attract “a reader for this novel who could enjoy its brilliance without knowing anything about the poetry, or the broader context of Plath's work”, as they say in the press release for the new book. But at the expense of their credibility? I think not.
The most offensive aspect of the whole argument is the idea that women, beguiled by the cover, will stumble unwittingly between the book's pages, only to damage themselves by their exposure to The Bell Jar.
The Beauty Myth author Naomi Wolf muses that “some young women seeking a lightweight beach read might get unexpectedly very depressed”. The implication being that we are unable to differentiate between chick-lit and more 'worthy' literature and are incapable of elucidating any meaning from the words written on the back of the book cover.
I am not sure that the 2013 edition even looks like chick-lit. Diane Shipley writes in her blog that “books aimed at women are becoming increasingly homogenised, girly and bland-looking”. In my opinion, this cover has none of those traits.
It is beautifully simple but reveals nothing of the content. The image is arresting but very much ‘of its time’, so perhaps may not have attracted new readers. A picture of Plath herself may have worked, but as the novel was first published under a pseudonym, this may not have been what Plath wanted. Looking back at some of the book's previous incarnations, I can see why Faber and Faber wanted to honour the anniversary with an entirely new look.
The crux of the issue is that as readers we all interpret books differently. Our experiences, background and gender all influence the way we 'see' a book and that is what is so wonderful about reading.
Don't judge a book by its cover
Another book that affected me hugely isNever Let Me Goby Kazuo Ishiguro. This is a novel that shares the same haunting permanence of The Bell Jar. Its cover features a blurred image of a dancing woman, but that neither made me purchase the book or influenced my understanding of it. As we internalise a text we invent characters and places that are unique to us. If the writing is good, and thankfully there is no debate about that, the cover becomes inconsequential. The appearance of the book is all about attracting a reader and more prosaically, a buyer.
The saddest element of all this debate is that the quarrels about the new cover, something specifically designed to pay homage to Plath's work, have somewhat eclipsed the celebratory aspects of the 50th anniversary. What is certain though is that The Bell Jar has enjoyed huge exposure and I hope that this translates into a new wave of readers discovering what a wonderful book it is.
Kirsty Grocott is a freelance writer based in Shropshire