Study Guide

The Bell Jar

by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar Themes

Social Concerns / Themes

Like Plath's poetry, The Bell Jar has been for many readers less a work of art than a guileless exercise in personal confession. But Esther Greenwood, the novel's protagonist, is a formal creation whom Plath manipulates along certain thematic lines and whose world view is not necessarily interchangeable with the author's. One way to look at The Bell Jar is to see it as an initiation story in which Esther, after a series of harrowing trials, is guided, at least temporarily, into a state of being which allows her to live in a world she understands all too well.

Esther, nineteen, is invited to New York as one of twelve "guest" editors of a glossy woman's magazine. She trails behind her "fifteen years of straight A's," but her past triumphs as a compulsively diligent student have ill prepared her for those aspects of life she discovers in Manhattan.

Indeed Esther, as her surname suggests, is in many ways an utter naif. She is naive about social customs: She mistakes finger bowl water for soup, and drinks it; she fails to tip a bellboy; she eats pounds of black caviar at a sitting; she orders straight vodka with no ice. More important, however, Esther is naive sexually ("I always had a terribly hard time trying to imagine people in bed together"), to the point that concerns with her proper sexual role come to dominate her thoughts.

In other ways as well, Esther is searching after models on which to pattern her life, roles that will permit some successful accommodation with her world. She is drawn first to Doreen, a...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

The Bell Jar Themes

Culture Clash
Unlike most of the women who attended Smith College in 1950s, Esther Greenwood of The Bell Jar did not come from a wealthy family. That her family gets by on her mother's earnings as a typing teacher and on Esther's full-time scholarship explains why she does not normally have access to such luxuries as expensive clothes, travel, and summer homes. Hence, Esther is outside of the mainstream social circle at college and will never really fit in unless she marries into it. Aware of this, Esther makes many attempts to connect socially—she dates Buddy Willard mostly because he attends Yale; she babysits on Cape Cod to be in close proximity to wealthy people; she shops at expensive clothing stores for items on sale.

To complicate matters further, Esther comes to resent her own financial dependence on her mentor, the wealthy writer Philomena Guinea. Since Esther ultimately needs her patronage for continuing psychological care as well as for education, Esther becomes even more frustrated with her own financial dependence, although she seldom expresses this anger directly.

Yet in other ways, Esther is fairly typical of other Smith students: white, educated, attractive, and studious. That she is socially cut off from women with whom she has so much in common is one of the ironies of The Bell Jar.

Sex Roles
Although The Bell Jar is partly about the impact of economics on a brilliant student with limited financial reserves, it also concerns sex roles in the 1950s. In that decade, women, generally speaking, did not attend college to ultimately support themselves; they were expected to marry eventually. In the novel, there are three women who have created real identities for themselves separate from the men in their life. The unglamorous editor Jay Cee has succeeded in that, but she has also sacrificed a certain amount of femininity to get there; the writer Philomena Guinea has thrived creatively on her own terms; Esther's psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, emerges as a caring, competent professional. However, they are exceptions in Esther's frame of reference, as well as in the male-dominated 1950s American society. More typical are wisecracking Doreen who depends on men for sex if not necessarily for marriage; traditional Betsy who patiently waits for domesticity; Dodo Conway whom Esther perceives as kind of a baby machine; and Joan Gilling whose combination of ambition and lesbianism have not made her into a happy, functional person. Even widowed Mrs. Greenwood, who earns her own money as a typing teacher, does not encourage her smart daughter to flourish: she prefers that Esther learn shorthand and eventually marry well.

Given these feminine influences, Esther channels much of her energy into men as potential husbands or as a means of losing her virginity. Nearly all of the men fall short, often because Esther resents their attempts to informally teach her something without really listening to her. Even men who are not potential lovers fancy themselves as instructors, for example, the old doctor at the sanatorium who foolishly imparts great knowledge about pilgrims. As The Bell Jar progresses, Esther loses most of her interest in marriage, but not in losing her virginity.

Esther also reserves much of her affection for her late father, who died when she was only nine, an event from which she has never psychologically recovered. As Lindsay Wagner-Martin wrote in The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties, "... while it is—as she has consistently been taught—unseemly for her to be angry with her dead father, there is little stigma attached to her being angry with her living mother."

Search for Self
In The Bell Jar, Esther searches consistently for some kind of identity but finds her options limited as a young woman with little money of her own. After a disappointing summer as a guest editor in New York City, she fails to be accepted into a...

(The entire section is 1632 words.)