The Bell Jar received "warily positive reviews." The short time span between the publication of the book and Plath's suicide resulted in "few innocent readings" of the novel.
The majority of early readers focused primarily on autobiographical connections from Plath to the protagonist. In response to autobiographical criticism, critic Elizabeth Hardwick urged that readers distinguish between Plath as a writer and Plath as an "event." Robert Scholes, writing for The New York Times, praised the novel's "sharp and uncanny descriptions." Mason Harris of the West Coast Review complimented the novel as using "the 'distorted lens' of madness [to give] an authentic vision of a period which exalted the most oppressive ideal of reason and stability." Howard Moss of The New Yorker gave a mixed review, praising the "black comedy" of the novel, but added that there was "something girlish in its manner [that] betrays the hand of the amateur novelist."