Describe in detail how the symbol of water in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath shows the protagonist's descent into insanity.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An analysis of the symbol of water in the context of Esther's belief in the positive effects of a hot bath reveals early clues into Esther's descent into madness.

The bathtub, which is a confining space, offers Esther a venue for her own acts of cleansing; in the bath, she...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

An analysis of the symbol of water in the context of Esther's belief in the positive effects of a hot bath reveals early clues into Esther's descent into madness.

The bathtub, which is a confining space, offers Esther a venue for her own acts of cleansing; in the bath, she is able to cleanse herself both literally, ridding her body of dirt and germs, and figuratively, ridding her spirit of negativity and fear. These acts of cleansing seem positive in a superficial sense, but eventually, Esther must leave the confinement of the bath and re-enter the world that presents her with so much difficulty and potential for impurity. The confining nature of the full bathtub parallels the confining nature of the title's bell jar, an instrument that locks the contents of the jar away, isolating the contents. Isolation is a key feature of Esther's mental problems; therefore, her experience of confinement in the bathtub may actually be more sinister that its cleansing properties suggest.

As well, the bathtub and the water contained in the bathtub represent Esther's own head and the difficult, crazy-making thoughts contained in her head. While Esther's thoughts and feelings swirl around in her mind, they are contained, much like Esther herself and her notions of purity while she is bathing. Once Esther emerges from the water, she must face the outside world, just as she must cope with her thoughts and feelings that always threaten to overwhelm her.

Water can overwhelm and drown just as often as it can soothe and refresh, which is why it is such an effective symbol for Esther's mental state. At times, Esther appears in control, but eventually her madness washes over her like a wave that dominates everything caught in its wake.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Esther Greenwood experiences events which will change her life significantly. However, rather than giving Esther insight, the events eventually lead her towards a state of madness. Womanhood and all the expectations and conventions associated with it, prevent Esther from progressing and, despite surviving a suicide attempt and being "retreaded and approved for the road," she seems interminably trapped in her own version of a bell jar, "stewing in my own sour air."  

Esther is confused about what wholesomeness really is and constantly seeks to purify herself- even viewing vodka - which, of course, looks clear like water, in the mistaken belief that it will cleanse her spiritually. Soaking in a hot bath also has Esther hoping for a spiritual cleansing,as she feels herself "growing pure again." Therefore water contributes to the reader's understanding of Esther's confusion and her search for concrete ways to satisfy her abstract misconceptions. Water becomes as much an oppressive symbol for Esther as everything else. She even considers not washing in an attempt to separate herself from her reality- rejecting her physical body which she sees as being capable of plotting against her. She fights her body with "whatever sense I had left, or it would trap me in its stupid cage.” When trying to drown herself, her body fights back and reveals her subconscious feelings and her desire to live, although she will keep fighting it, increasing her paranoia. 

Esther increasingly becomes less and less trustful, even comparing words themselves to " sea-polished pebbles," and her suggestion is that they can change in an instant into something they are not. Water, for Esther, holds mysteries and contradictions that only serve to add to her confusion. Sometimes it gives her closure, such as when it rains at her father's grave and she cries - "howled"- over her loss but then it also adds to her pain.   

Esther has been contemplating the best ways to kill herself, slashing her leg as a test. Concerned that it might not work, she has also tried hanging herself unsuccessfully, and even sits on the beach and wonders about drowning, rationalizing about how best to merge everything that is terrible and everything that could be good about her life. In the water, she is unable to drown herself and later makes her attempt to kill herself by taking her mother's pills, which event is the path to her recovery. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team