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Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is a thinly-veiled autobiography of her juvenilia. From the beginning, Plath characterizes her narrator Esther with lyrical imagery related to sickness and death:
"I'm stupid about executions..."
"The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick..."
"...pretty soon I felt as though I were carrying that cadaver's head around with me on a string, like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar"
"I feel gawky and morbid as somebody in a sideshow"
"[I am]...the negative of a person."
A bit later, Esther and girls will become ill at the luncheon in New York, which symbolizes the sickness of the paternal culture for women in the 1950s. Plath's imagery here foreshadows Esther's mental illness later in the novel. Later, Ether will feel trapped by the culture like a specimen in a bell jar.
Plath also characterizes Esther using many foils and alter-egos. Foils in The Bell Jar serve to stifle Esther's decision-making by presenting two competing lifestyles which she cannot reconcile, thus compounding her flaws and making her more sick. As in her poetry, Plath uses mirror motifs in her characterization, paralleling Esther and Esther's alter ego, Elly Higginbottom, and pitting her feminist heroines against their paternal reflections. To Esther, these two gender roles are mutually exclusive, for males in the pre-sexual revolution have the freedom to choose from both sides of the fig tree, but women must choose one or the other. Esther wants to choose feminism, but she's been raised to choose the paternal path, so she chooses neither, retreating instead toward isolation and bitterness toward materialism, conformity, and the sexist social structure.
The Bell Jar is replete with foils and alter egos. Plath herself first published the novel under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Then there's her alias, Esther Greenwood, and her alias, Elly Higginbottom, a worldly girl who downs Vodka straight. Esther even envisions her future pen name as "Ee Gee," a copy of her mentor Jay Cee. As in her poetry, Plath's distinctions between author and persona are playful reflections of one another, as if the mirror image, or persona, is how Plath wants society to see her. For every side of Esther, there is a foil to reflect it, as if she wants the reader first to examine the shards of her broken identity and then take a step back to observe the pointillism portrait of an emerging feminist who cannot quite be put back together.
One critic has said that reading The Bell Jar is like ride at funhouse with dizzying mirrors that make you both sick and exhilarated. To be sure, Plath's use of lyricism, morbid imagery, foils, and alter-egos serve to distort and sicken her characters and the reader.
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