Cover to Cover with The Bell Jar

sylvia plathI always recommend The Bell Jar as summer reading – while sunshine and beaches makes a strange contrast to Plath’s dark and twisty existentialism, I think it’s also necessary. The last thing you want is to read her novel on one of those dark, dim winter days; you’ll find yourself unwilling to leave the cocoon of your comforter in the morning.

That said, The Bell Jar is one of my favourite books. The semi-autobiographical tale follows Esther Greenwood, a promising young writer and editor who moves to New York to complete an internship at a magazine. But while her peers are enamoured with the big city, the luxurious trappings of Esther’s new lifestyle ring false in her ears. She feels like a specimen trapped under a bell jar, and finds herself in a manic downward spiral that eventually lands her at a mental institution. The novel explores mental wellness from the inside, opening a crucial discussion on the pressures felt by women in the latter half of the 20th century.

The Bell Jar are hilariously polarized. Some editions, like this version of the 50th anniversary edition (which then spawned a host of side-splitting parody covers), have taken extreme criticism for making the novel look like typical chick lit:

Harper Perennial edition   Kindle edition   Swedish edition

Shoes! Dresses! Fashion!

Luckily, other covers do a better job of recognizing the seriousness, depth, and wit in Plath’s novel:

Italian edition   Mass Market Paperback   Paperback edition IV

Disembodied hands, a dead rose – that’s more like it.

And as per usual, I found my favourite editions in the work of graphic designers rethinking the cover for kicks:

Chelsea Omega Varley's cover   Harriet Stansall's edition   Sara Bicknell's edition

From right to left (and top to bottom on mobile): covers from Chelsea Omega Varley, Harriet Stansall, and Sara Bicknell. I especially love the small bell jar detail in Bicknell’s – which brings to mind the idea that Esther is not only trapped under the bell jar, but is actively trying to trap something herself. Sadness? Confusion? The New York experience? It’s beautiful work.

Finally, I can’t help but compare the 50th anniversary edition and Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, which reimagines Plath’s book as a YA novel and reflects the original accordingly in its cover design. (I’m not sure how I quite feel about a YA Bell Jar either. For now I’m intrigued but apprehensive.)

50th Anniversary EditionBelzhar

Which cover is your favourite? Feel free to link to any great cover art that I’ve missed!

Cover to Cover is a weekly project comparing and critiquing the various covers of popular novels, published every Wednesday. Find more posts in this series here.

The header image for this post is a cropped version of a shot from photographer Victor Soto, originally posted here and available for use through Creative Commons.


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