The bell jar has long since been an object of interest: both scientifically and artistically, as this 1768 painting by Joseph Wright illustrates. Wright was concerned with painting the scientific advances of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. He departed from the convention of the time by depicting scientific subjects in the manner formerly reserved for scenes of historical or religious significance. The painting below shows us a bird in a bell jar.. whe the air is drawn out, the bird will surely suffocate (side note: I found the expressions of the onlookers fascinating, as if they depict the differing opinions such an experiment would have provoked in 1768).
Wikipedia defines a bell jar as: "a piece of laboratory equipment similar in shape to a bell. It can be manufactured out of a variety of materials, ranging from glass to different types of metals. A bell jar is placed on a base which is vented to a hose fitting, which can be connected via a hose to a vacuum pump. By pumping the air out of the bell jar, a vacuum is formed". In turn, a vacuum is described as "empty space from which all or most air or gas has been removed".
For my study, I do think there is a parallel in descriptions here. Comparatively, to suffocate is described as "kill/be killed by deprivation of oxygen or to feel uncomfortable from lack of air". My PhD is not going to hark back to the Plath criticism of the 1970s, looking for one particular answer to the study of her literary output - but I feel that suffocation has the potential to pose as a foil in which to translate her life and work. I feel there is a corresponence between a bell jar, which creates a vacuum and suffocation - which, from definition illustrates the feelings one would have being placed within a vacuum.
Bell jars are represented in a variety of different ways. There are a good deal of youtube videos documenting classroom science experiments where bells are silenced when the air is pumped out. I feel the following image illustrates the function of a bell jar very well:
In my mind, in terms of the time period in which Plath lived: in general, especially for women, I can visualise the United States enclosed in a bell jar; with different factors (e.g. McCarthyism, the Cold War, resrtictive social rules) on the opposite site, pumping the air out. I read an interesting paper by Steven Gould Axelrod on 'Robert Lowell and the Cold War' a few days ago. It documented Lowell leading a McCarthyist assault on the administrator of the Yaddo Writers' Colony in 1949 (a place where Plath found a great deal of inspiration around a decade later). The motivations behind Lowell getting so involved in this can possibly be attributed to his mania, alcoholism and unclear politics (he swung from left to right to pacifist frequently!) but I feel the sentiment of what occurred at Yaddo can be visualised in the form of the above bell jar image. Politely rigid and oppressive ideology sucking the air our of creativity. Creating an atmosphere which can only have made those in Yaddo feel like silencing themselves, stifling creativity - for fear of going against the grain and being outcast. In the grand scheme of American Literature, these themes are in my mind, inherently puritan: which I feel gives the bell jar as symbol a very important place.
In looking online at other types of use for a bell jar, I was suprised to find that people enjoy using them as decorations in their homes as well as containers to house food. I may be overthinking this, but it is possible to concede that this practical and helpful use of bell jars could represent that something positive can come from being enclosed in a vacuum? Perhaps though, the word vacuum is the wrong one to use. For any kind of creative contribution to come from a vacuum, it can no longer be thought of as "empty space". Or it is the empty space that breeds creativity?
In the case of Sylvia Plath, if we are to generally suppose that yes, she was enclosed in a bell jar and various internal/external suffocations created it so that she inhabited a vacuum state: did this factor into the work that she produced? Had it not been for the vacuum, would she have been able to write the way she had?
Again, these assumptions are quite 2D at present, but it's certainly a point that could be developed!