Book Cover Controversy Over Plath’s The Bell Jar

The new cover for The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which chronicles a young woman’s mental decline and based on Plath’s own emotional breakdown when she was young, has reached its 50th anniversary. As a birthday present, its publisher Faber has assigned a new cover, which has received mixed reviews and a lot of controversy.

The new cover, which is featured here, is red, with a fashionable woman with red lipstick staring into a mirror and powdering her nose.

What do you think about this new cover?

The controversy lies in the fact that this new cover is ridiculously facile, reducing a dark and powerful story to a representation of chicklit. Anyone not familiar with Plath or with her work, would pick up this book and then die of depression.

Here is the first edition cover of The Bell Jar, published in 1963:

I am completely against it because the cover is misleading; it fails to reflect the true and stark nature of the book, and many fans of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey and other mass-consumed works that are easy to read will pick this book up thinking it’s also a beach read. It’s far from it. It’s brilliant and raw, and it annoys me that publishing companies are giving the book a superficial twist, just to make money off it.

Jezebel writer Tracie Egan Morrissey has this to say about it: “For a book all about a woman’s clinical depression that’s exacerbated by the suffocating gender stereotypes of which she’s expected to adhere and the limited life choices she has as a woman, it’s pretty … stupid to feature a low-rent retro wannabe pinup applying makeup.”

There are some books that need to be treated with respect to the writer’s intentions, true to the story’s seriousness. Men’s books would never receive this kind of treatment; it’s sexist and it perpetuates female stereotypes that Plath was struggling with in her own time. Just because Plath is a woman writer, her book is about a young woman, and her readers are mainly women, this does not mean that women’s literature should be reduced to fluff for money.

This is apparently becoming a common practice for HarperCollins is fashioning a new cover for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights reminiscent to the Twilight Series. Here’s what we’re looking at:

In the end, these writers are dead, so they cannot speak for themselves or how they would want their work to be represented to the public. Although publishers making these decisions argue that they get more readers, even if the titles are misleading, my main issue with this is that the covers appeal to stereotypes about women. I cannot see them doing something like this with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Their work is considered serious literature; why aren’t their publishers modernizing and commercializing their book covers to gain a larger and more modern audience? Why? Because even in publishing there is the double standard. Even for money, men’s book covers will not be trivialized the way women’s work continues to be; men’s work is respected in ways that women’s work is not.

What’s your take on all this?

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About Marinagraphy

Marina is a writer who focuses her work on the need for female empowerment. She writes articles, books, and blogs centered on female experiences related to motherhood, female agency, feminism, and building positive images for young girls and women. She currently teaches Literature, Writing, and Women's Studies on the College level.

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