Discuss the motifs and symbols that depict the protagonist's descent into insanity in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Use specific examples from the text.

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The Bell Jar reveals the conflicts that haunt Sylvia Plath in her own life as her protagonist, Esther, struggles with her own fears and anxiety, unable to motivate herself even though she knows that,

"I should have been excited, the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty…moving dully along."

Esther sees life in extremes where there is rarely a middle ground. As a woman, she may be either a virgin or a whore but, whichever she is, she must serve men's purposes, not her own. Esther recognizes her own isolation, and exists along a "white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue." She even compares life to living under a bell jar where "the world itself is the bad dream." Even if Esther is aware of her unstable position and that she is "stewing in my own sour air," she seems unable to prevent what becomes inevitable - madness.    

She feels trapped and unable to make sound decisions as, either way, she can never be fulfilled but only satisfy men's needs. This understanding contributes to Esther's insanity because, psychologically, she suffers constant disappointment and distress. Despite the various role-models and female characters which Esther could emulate, she always finds herself lacking. 

Esther almost watches her life unfold through the mirror images that she, sometimes, does not even recognize as herself. This contributes to her descent into insanity as she cannot understand nor explain herself. When Esther talks about the fig tree and the potential for "a wonderful future,' she imagines herself "sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death." By making choices, she must exclude other choices and thus cannot make satisfactory decisions:"The figs...one by one, (they) plopped to the ground at my feet."

All Esther's experiences are painful; never joyful. Hence the blood motif is particularly strong. Esther must suffer at the hands of Marco; she considers killing herself by slashing her leg and wondering if she could actually kill herself and not fail; she needs medical attention when she loses her virginity; all of these events have the potential to be teach Esther something but, for Esther they simply increase her fear of life and, consequently of death. She cannot see herself the way others see her and does not even recognize her own attempts to save herself, rather picturing her body as something to fight against. 

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