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...
(The entire section is 638 words.)
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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.
Although The Bell Jar is partly about the impact of economics on a...
(The entire section is 1632 words.)