Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Esther Greenwood, a bright college student who aspires to be a writer. At the age of nineteen, brown-eyed and brown-haired, Esther feels somewhat out of place in the world of high fashion and money to which she is introduced as a result of winning a fashion magazine contest. She enters her prestigious college on a scholarship. Esther is not one to sit in the corner feeling insecure; instead, she meets the world with a lively touch of sarcasm that colors her description of New York City, her friends, and herself. After her month in the city working as an intern on the magazine, however, her sense of daring becomes coupled with a feeling of disappointment over life. She attempts suicide and has a nervous breakdown, which is followed by recuperation in a series of hospitals and sanatoriums.
Buddy Willard, a medical student whom Esther has dated. He is an only child, and his parents encourage his relationship with Esther. Buddy has a fairly realistic view of life. Although he prides himself on his health, as a first-year medical student he contracts tuberculosis and must spend time in a sanatorium. When Esther visits him, he proposes to her, but by this time she has lost interest. Later, he visits her in the sanatorium, but by now there is nothing but curiosity about their relationship and a lurking fear that he may have contributed to her emotional condition.
(The entire section is 598 words.)
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Aurelia Plath's comments on The Bell Jar's use of "caricatures" are well founded: The minor characters in the novel tend to be stock, one-sided, static, and nearly all of them are cast in a most unflattering light. Nonetheless, one of the great virtues of the book lies in Plath's ability to limn her characters in a few well-chosen and immediate words, an accomplishment one critic has likened to "a series of snapshots taken at high noon." When the unimaginative and deadly dull Buddy Willard exhibits himself in front of Esther, prompting in her only thoughts of "turkey neck and turkey gizzards," an enduring portrait has been etched in the reader's mind. Similarly, Mrs. Willard's domination by her husband is made real when she is shown laboriously braiding a doormat for the kitchen floor. The Bell Jar is made up of some eighty-odd distinct "scenes" of this sort, in most of which a minor character is tellingly caught in the lens of Esther's razor-sharp eye.
A more troublesome issue is the depiction of Esther herself: For many readers, her initial ingenuousness and her later derangement undercut her credentials as a reliable narrator. Nevertheless, a British reviewer of the novel's first edition noted that there "are criticisms of America that the neurotic can make as well as anyone, perhaps better . . . " Esther has not misread fundamentally the world around her, nor does she lack the intelligence and humor which are commonly supposed to ward...
(The entire section is 368 words.)
A former rival for Buddy Willard's affections, Joan Gilling is eventually admitted to the same posh mental hospital where Esther is making her recovery. Although one of the novel's major characters, she materializes only toward its conclusion. Joan and Esther represent the two most complex characters in The Bell Jar and share many similarities. Both attend a prestigious women's college; both are intelligent, accomplished women; both come from the same hometown and went to the same church; both have suicidal tendencies. Further, both come to despise Buddy Willard for similar reasons. What distinguishes Joan and Esther most obviously is money; Joan comes from a wealthy family, whereas Esther's background is modestly middle class. Hence, Joan takes for granted many things—horseback riding, fancy clothes, private lessons—that Esther must struggle to obtain.
Although on the surface, Joan seems to represent the typical upper-class "Seven Sisters" college girl, she is really not. First, she is a physics major in college—a rather unusual choice for a woman in the 1950s. Second, she is even more nakedly ambitious than Esther and does not feign femininity in situations to please men. For example, on bike trips with Buddy Willard, she does not ask for his help ascending high hills. Third, she is not physically attractive (much to Esther's relief), and some critics have written that Joan's attraction to lesbianism can be interpreted as her realization...
(The entire section is 350 words.)
The protagonist of The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood is a young, highly intelligent college student who has a breakdown. A woman from a modestly middle-class background, but surrounded by many relatively affluent people, Esther represents on the most obvious level an individual unsure of what she wants. The central conflict concerns marriage and motherhood versus literary ambitions. Given her limited financial reserves, her choice is extremely important.
Her attitude toward the other major female characters in the novel is usually ambivalence. At various points in the novel, she sees Doreen, Betsy, Jay Cee, Joan Gilling, and many others as role models, but they all fail her expectations in different ways. Her feelings toward women shift quite abruptly. For example, soon after she wishes she "had a mother like Jay Cee," the ruthless editor has hurt her by criticizing her lack of ambition. Sexy, uninhibited Doreen seems like a nice contrast to the bland guest editors at Ladies' Day, but Esther ultimately tires of her promiscuity. Betsy's niceness and virginity strikes Esther as alternatively a blessing and a curse; Joan's lesbian advances apall Esther, but Esther turns to her in a moment of a medical emergency.
The one female character that Esther is unambivalent toward is her mother, Mrs. Greenwood. "I hate her" sums up her feelings very well. Two reasons explain Esther's loathing. First, her mother discouraged Esther from mourning...
(The entire section is 513 words.)
Buddy Willard is Esther's boyfriend and a medical student. Originally, Esther enjoyed what she perceived as Buddy's lack of sexual experience ("... he made me feel I was much more sexy ..."); when she learns he was having an affair with a waitress while he was seeing her, she feels disillusioned. For Esther, it is not so much the double standard (i.e, it is okay for a man to have a fling but scandalous for a woman to do so) that upsets her; she now feels inferior to Buddy because she is a virgin and he is not.
Esther is competitive with Buddy in other ways. That he, as a doctor, can give pregnant women a drug to minimize their pain during childbirth upsets Esther. To her, the doctors—all male—are depriving the expectant women of both the trauma and beauty of the birth experience simply to achieve the ends. Hence, she imagines Buddy robbing herself of all bodily forms of pleasure.
Esther's fears aside, Buddy is a rather odious character. He seems far more interested in instructing her on such matters as medicine, science, and skiing than in learning anything from her. Joan Gilling's off-hand comment about Buddy ("He thought he knew everything. He thought he knew everything about women.") captures his feelings of superiority very well. When Esther learns Buddy has contracted tuberculosis and will need to spend a year in a sanatorium, her reaction is mostly relief that he will be gone a long time. After learning that Esther has been in a...
(The entire section is 296 words.)
One of the guest interns at Ladies' Day, Betsy represents the ultimate "nice girl": an All-American girl from Kansas who will wait patiently for a husband, a big farm, and plenty of children—without losing her virginity before marriage. In The Bell Jar, Betsy attempts to keep Esther away from Doreen's vampish influence, and for a while Esther seems receptive. Ultimately, however, Esther cannot accept the simple naivete of Betsy, whom she comes to see as the "Pollyanna Cowgirl."
Esther's date at the beach. Like many of the men in the novel. Cal attempts to teach Esther something, in his case, the methods of suicide.
A translator at the United Nations. Originally, Esther attempts to get him to seduce her. Unfortunately, when they actually go to bed, he simply falls asleep beside her. In the novel, he is treated as one more member of the patriarchy that ultimately disappoints Esther.
To Esther, the model of fertility: a pregnant mother who already has six children. Although it is implied that Dodo is less than an ideal mother, she is greatly admired in Esther's neighborhood simply for having so many children.
A patient at the mental asylum where Esther is staying. One of the few females in the novel to demonstrate creativity, she composes a tune on the piano, about which "everybody kept saying she ought...
(The entire section is 1023 words.)