The Bell Jar was first published in London in January 1963 by William Heinemann Limited publishers under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, for Sylvia Plath questioned the literary value of the novel and did not believe that it was a "serious work." More importantly, the novel had numerous parallels to the life of its author. Both Sylvia Plath and her fictional counterpart, Esther Greenwood, lost their father at early ages and hail from the Boston area. Sylvia and Esther were both poets who were noted for winning prizes and scholarships; although the college which Esther attends is not stated explicitly in The Bell Jar, it is a prestigious women's college that could easily be Sylvia Plath's alma mater, Smith College.
At Smith College, Sylvia Plath received a scholarship donated by Olive Higgins Prouty, the novelist and author of Stella Dallas, who later became a friend and patron for Plath, thus paralleling the relationship between the fictional philanthropist Philomena Guinea and Esther Greenwood. Replicating the events of the first chapters of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath won an internship at Mademoiselle.
The most important events of the novel are almost strictly drawn from Sylvia Plath's biography. Sylvia underwent electroshock therapy and disappeared after a suicide attempt, after which she was hospitalized for psychotherapy.
When The Bell Jar was first published, Sylvia Plath was disconcerted by the reviews, which criticized the novel a feminist counterpart to the works of J.D. Salinger. The reviews were lukewarm, for British critics found it to be a critique of American society and deemed the title character a hopeless neurotic. Shortly after the British publication of the novel, Sylvia Plath committed suicide.
The novel did not reach American shores for another several years, despite great demand in America for it. Because the novel had been published abroad by an American citizen and had not been published in America within six months of foreign publication or copyright, The Bell Jar fell under a now nullified provision called Ad Interim, which meant that it was no longer eligible for copyright protection in the United States. By the time that the novel reached America in 1971, Sylvia Plath was a household name and confessional literature was in vogue. The feminist movement, fascination with death, and mental illness were at that time contemporary preoccupations. A definitive change occurred during this first publication. Despite some negative reviews, The Bell Jar quickly became the definitive female rite-of-passage novel, fulfilling the British critical idea that it would become a touchstone for American youth akin to The Catcher in The Rye.