Smith College exhibit explores Sylvia Plath’s botanical inspiration

Plants like the silverleaf geranium, seen here, were studied by Sylvia Plath during her time at Smith College.

Plants like the silverleaf geranium, seen here, were studied by Sylvia Plath during her time at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Sarah Loomis, left, the manager of education at Smith’s Lyman Conservatory, and Colin Hoag, an associate professor of anthropology, stand at the conservatory’s Church Gallery, currently hosting an exhibit of writer and Smith alumnae Sylvia Plath.

Sarah Loomis, left, the manager of education at Smith’s Lyman Conservatory, and Colin Hoag, an associate professor of anthropology, stand at the conservatory’s Church Gallery, currently hosting an exhibit of writer and Smith alumnae Sylvia Plath. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

A woman observes part of the timeline featured at the the exhibit titled “The Bell Jars: Lyman Conservatory and Sylvia Plath’s Botanical Imagination” at Smith College. 

A woman observes part of the timeline featured at the the exhibit titled “The Bell Jars: Lyman Conservatory and Sylvia Plath’s Botanical Imagination” at Smith College.  SMITH COLLEGE

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-21-2024 10:21 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A new exhibition at Smith College shows how one of the school’s most famous and acclaimed alumnae may have drawn much of her creative inspiration from a freshman botany course.

Sylvia Plath, whose 1963 novel “The Bell Jar” proved to be a watershed moment in the history of 20th century feminism and is often required reading in many high school English classes across the country, began attending Smith College in 1950. Though wanting to major in English, Plath had to take a natural sciences course to meet the requirements of the school’s liberal arts curriculum. In taking a botany course, it was there she first encountered what would become the literary metaphor for living as a woman in the 1950s — a bell jar.

“I went back into the archives and found Plath’s academic transcript; it showed that she took a yearlong botany course called general botany in her very first year at Smith,” said Colin Hoag, an associate professor of anthropology at Smith, who helped create the exhibit at the Church Gallery inside the school’s Lyman Conservatory. “That was the little kernel of an idea that spun me into this broader research project about Sylvia Plath’s work and the botanical inspirations of her ideas about feminism and about what it meant to live in effectively a world not built for her, a world of intense patriarchy.”

In Plath’s botany class, bell jars were used for experiments to measure the effects of atmospheric conditions on plant growth. By placing the plants in the bell jar, it allowed the students to control their surrounding atmosphere, able to produce desired effects to measure photosynthesis, the conversion of light into chemical food for the plant, or transpiration, the passive release of water vapor by plants through their leaves.

The Church Gallery exhibit, which opened last fall, features a bell jar and several other instruments that Plath would have used in her coursework, as well as a timeline of her life and her experiences at Smith. Inside the conservatory’s botanical garden, several plants are designated has having been studied by Plath in her course, such as the silverleaf geranium and the rubber plant. Students are invited to take pencil and paper and sketch the plants included in the exhibit, just as Plath might have.

“There are invitations to listen to her read her poetry, and we have a number of books and resources for people to just sort of really fully be involved in her writings,” said Sarah Loomis, the manager of education at the conservatory. “I love the ways that it crosses these disciplines, both for our audiences and our students but really broader visitors, saying, ‘Come into this place and think about plants and identity in these different ways.’ ”

Plath soon began to see the bell jar as a literary metaphor for use in her writing. In a journal entry made in the summer of 1952, included as part of the exhibit, Plath wrote about life needing to be full of routine and productive activity and that to remove such activity would be “like lifting a bell jar off a securely clockwork-like functioning community and seeing all the little busy people stop, gasp, blow up and float in the inrush, (or rather the outrush) of the rarified scheduled atmosphere.”

“She describes her life at Smith as being like under a bell jar, an intensely productive place where life is just really full,” Hoag said. “At Smith, she’s in this kind of productive bell jar. The conditions for her to thrive are optimized here.”

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Music in the sky: Summit House Sunset Concert Series returns to its 173-year-old home
Easthampton’s 11 Ferry St. project promises affordable five-story, 96-unit complex
Knitters’ paradise: Webs, ‘America’s Yarn Store’ and a mainstay for Valley crafters for generations, turns 50
Ashfield Lake House reopening under new ownership, management
Herrell’s Ice Cream to open pop-up shop in North Amherst this summer
Yankee Candle consolidation prompts loss of 100 jobs

But in her eponymous 1963 novel, the bell jar metaphor takes a darker and morose turn. The novel’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, experiences major depression and faces the scarce career options for women in the 1950s following college. The bell jar has become more of a glass cage, stifling and inescapable.

Plath writes in the book that “wherever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

“It becomes this kind of figure for depression and oppression,” Hoag said.

“It expresses something about her experience of having left Smith College and entered what is a really punishing world, one that’s full of patriarchy and limitations on her abilities and opportunities as a woman.”

The novel also reflects the real-life depression that Plath struggled with throughout her life. She tragically took her own life shortly after the novel’s publication.

Posthumously, however, her work had a major impact on the burgeoning feminist movement of the time, and her poetry has since become one of the most recognized of her generation.

Though it was her writing and poetry that brought Plath acclaim, the exhibit hopes to show that Plath’s interest in studying the natural world helped augment her artistic abilities.

“It’s a liberal arts project that speaks to the way that a broad education that treats both the natural sciences and the humanities can be generative of all kinds of insights into the human condition.” said Hoag.

The exhibit at the Lyman Conservatory is scheduled to run until the end of June. Admission to the exhibit, as with the botanical garden, is free to the public.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.