Home                             Suicide among Women Writers                       The Bell Jar  by Sylvia Plath


Women writers are more often than not tormented by their lifestyle choices. No matter the time period in which they wrote, including nowadays, they live with the constant struggle of being acknowledged for their work. Another raison d’ętre for women writers’ inner-conflict is as simple as the fact that they are women, living in a patriarchal society. These persistent elements led some of these women to the edge of sanity, and even pushed them as far as committing suicide.

One of the writers that represent well the impact all this stress can have on a woman’s life is Virginia Woolf. Even though she had a busy social life, her health frequently excluded her from social gatherings to the private sphere. Suffering bi-polar disorder, Woolf was treated with the ‘rest cure’, an infamous cure that was mainly used on women who were thought to have become mad. The cure basically consisted of isolating the person and supply only fatty foods for them to eat, in order to treat hysteria, anxiety and most importantly creativity. The theme of suicide can be found in parts of Virginia Woolf’s works, where it is pictured as an act of sin and cowardice. On March 28, 1941, Woolf committed the irreparable act of taking her own life. Rest cure could not remove all creativity from her mind as she still managed to leave this world in an imaginative way: she put on her coat, filled its pockets with rocks, walked towards the River Ouse located close to her home in Sussex and drowned herself. It took the authorities nearly a month to recover her body. She had left a letter for her husband Leonard Woolf, in order to explain her actions. “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate.” This passage from the letter explains how much pain Woolf was going through before her death.

About twenty years later, on the morning of February 11, 1963, the American poet Sylvia Plath also committed suicide. She was only 31 years old when she decided her life was not worth living anymore. Plath was somewhat more traditional than Woolf in her way to go: after securely sealing the door of the room where her two infant children were asleep with wet towels, she put her head in the oven and gazed herself. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Due to a depression she was struggling with, Plath had a nurse coming every day to help her take car of her children. When she came in the morning at around nine, she was not able to enter Plath’s apartment. Women writers had lost another one of its talents. Sylvia Plath was a prodigy and created many texts and poems before her death, some of which was published posthumous.


A recent event in the writers’ community took one of Quebec’s most promising talents as a rising writer. Nelly Arcan, born Isabelle Fortier, was found dead in her Montreal apartment on September 24, 2009. She had hung herself. Just like Plath, she was also very young, only 36 years old. All of Arcan’s pieces contain bits of her constant battle with life and death, her image as a woman in a hyper sexualized society and as a writer.  Her work is very critical of society and the pressure exerted on us as individuals who must perform. Arcan started noticing her struggle with life during her teenage years and claims it never came to a stop. Her first published novel, Whore (Putain), was a text she wrote for her psychoanalyst.

It would be wrong for our society to describe the phenomenon of suicide among women writers as part of our past. Women all over the globe still fight to take the place that belongs to them in this difficult industry. New eras convey new struggles and challenges in a world that is, still, ruled by men.




Works Cited

The Literature Network. “Virginia Woolf.” 2007.


Beckman, Anja. “Wecome to my Sylvia Plath Page.” 2007.


“Nelly Arcan.” 2009.


The Bell Jar by Camille Bourdeau 


The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath relates the journey of Esther Greenwood, a young girl who has a great opportunity to travel to New York from June to January to work on a magazine, as well as twelve other women. The novel follows her crack-up as she was a brilliant, beautiful and enormously talented. Although she was successful, she was increasingly vulnerable and disturbed so she slowly went through a breakdown. Esther introduces her mother, her college boyfriend Buddy, her fellow student editors, college and hometown acquaintance and fellow patients. The readers learn about these strained relationships, her thoughts, and society’s hypocritical convention all throughout this novel. The main character is quite defenceless against the psychological wounds these relationships left on her just like the world itself and her experiences have wounded her. Esther realizes that her aspirations are the opposite of the oppressive expectations of others and it is why she is defenceless against the airless bell jar of depression which is descending over her. When in New York, Esther finds out the night life and social obligation is more than what she desires. She struggles to fit in with everyone else, with men and work, but ultimately, she wishes to be anywhere else. Esther fights to get out of marriage and she struggles with mental illness which also included a devastating depression and an attempt of suicide. Even if she knows something is wrong with her, she fights hard to hold on to reality and make others think nothing is wrong with her. She even tries to cure herself from this depression by going to a mental hospital and facing bungled electroshock treatments.


The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath was published in January 1963 under the name of Victoria Lucas, just a few weeks before the author’s suicide. At that time, suicide was perceived as a loser’s option but since then, the adolescent suicide rate has quadrupled just like depression, which became almost epidemic in America. Plath’s novel noted a fine evocation of what madness is really like and it brought an understanding of the experience that made openness possible. The possibility of madness descending like a tornado in a typical bright young woman’s life out of nowhere was made real in this novel. Plath wrote her novel right after the war and during the conservatism. Enjoying one’s own body was then something risky and not everyone could feel good in this situation. Plath used unerring description of schizophrenic perception to make the readers believe she was also in a depressing phase. Readers said there were deep penetrations into the dark ad harrowing corners of the psyche which is very rare in novels of this time. Her own experience during the summer of 1953, when she went through a breakdown, has provided the basis for The Bell Jar as it is a large autobiographical work. The novel ends with the hope and almost clear promise of recovery, although Plath’s own life ended tragically unlike the book. The book is not a perfect autobiographical work because when Esther possibly survives her mental illness, Sylvia ultimately commits suicide and succeeds in her attempt to die.



Works Cited



©Martine Pelletier