Last Updated July 21, 2023.
The Bell Jar, written by Sylvia Plath, is a semi-autobiographical novel that explores the inner turmoil of its protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Set in 1950s America, Esther's story revolves around her life as a young, ambitious woman experiencing the world of magazine publishing in New York City. However, beneath the façade of success, Esther grapples with feelings of disconnection, societal pressures, and an ever-deepening sense of despair.
It’s the summer of 1953 in New York City, the summer that accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are to be executed. Thrilled at having won a position as guest editor for a well-known magazine for young women, Esther Greenwood finds herself confused that she is not having the time of her life.
From the outside, it appears that she has everything going for her. She is good-looking, smart, and talented. She is at the top of her class, and people like her. The magazine arranges concerts, dances, celebrity interviews, fashion shows, and luncheons for her and twelve college student women who have also won positions as guest editors.
Why is she feeling depressed? One reason could be her boyfriend, Buddy, who is in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis. Esther has discovered that her feelings for him are more tepid than she feels they should be. That said, she has dates with other men, but for some reason these dates are not turning out how she imagined they would.
She lives in a hotel for women, along with the other young women who have won their chance to be guest editors. Of the other women, Esther likes Doreen, who is cynical and funny, the most.
One night, Esther and Doreen go out for drinks with a DJ named Lenny. After a few drinks, he asks them to come back to his apartment. They drink more at the apartment, and Lenny and Doreen start dancing together in a sexual manner. This repulses Esther, and she leaves Doreen and walks back to the hotel, disillusioned with Doreen and later with herself for abandoning her friend.
But Doreen is not the only reason Esther is disillusioned with New York. Instead of a glamorous, cosmopolitan lifestyle, she feels she’s only experiencing a shoddy, low-rent version of the city dream. Behind the city’s glittering facade, she finds cruelty, fake people, and tons of work that has no real meaning to the world.
One day, Esther and the other women are invited to a “ladies’ magazine” lunch. They are served a delicacy of crabmeat, but it turns out to be rotten and they all get violently ill with food poisoning. This is a perfect of example of how life in the city looks beautiful and special but ends in disappointment and illness.
Work is another challenge. Esther works hard and is a perfectionist, but no one seems to notice or care. She bursts into tears at work when asked to hold a paper rose and smile, an episode that marks her as unable to handle the pressures of work and the city.
Against her better judgment, Esther lets Doreen talk her into going out on another date. Her date is named Marco, and he’s said to be a “country-club gentleman.” In reality, he is a brute-- he rips her dress, throws her in the mud, calls her a slut, and attempts to rape her. She escapes his clutches and flees back to her hotel.
The day she completes her guest editor assignment, she throws all of her new work clothes off the roof of the hotel. The next morning she leaves for home. Her mother meets her...
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at the train station and takes her home, but Esther is not happy here either. The suburban life of her mother is suffocating, and the house feels too small. Esther plans to escape by attending a creative writing seminar at Harvard, but she is rejected.
Being rejected is the final straw, and she spirals into depression. Now she finds herself unable to concentrate on writing her honors thesis. She decides to work on a novel instead, but her dark feelings and sadness make her slow, lazy, and apathetic. Esther’s apathy worries her mother, who suggests they see a psychiatrist.
They go to see Doctor Gordon, but he is exactly the wrong type of doctor for Esther. He patronizes her and is insensitive to her real feelings. He prescribes shock treatments, which scare Esther and sends her deeper into her dark hole of apathy and depression. She begins to think about suicide while simultaneously doing normal things, such as going on dates and volunteering at a local hospital.
One rainy day, after visiting the grave of her father, she returns home, leaves a note that she is going for a walk, takes a bottle of sleeping pills and a glass of water, and goes to the basement. Hiding herself in a crawl space behind some firewood, she swallows the pills. She takes too many, causing her to vomit, which saves her life. Her mother is shocked and desperate and decides to send Esther to a state mental institution.
Philomena Guinea is Esther’s benefactress and pays for her education. She proposes that Esther be sent to a private hospital instead of the state instituition, and has offered to pay.
At the new institution, Esther finally begins to improve. She has a femal doctor, Doctor Nolan, who is able to begin to gain Esther’s trust. Esther starts to learn more about what is acceptable for her, for example, she learns that it is all right to say that she hates her mother. She also learns that her need to be sexually active is normal. Doctor Nolan prescribes birth control. Under her new doctor’s compassionate care, and shock treatments, Esther starts to improve.
Esther learns that one of her college friends Joan Gilling, tried to kill herself ans is also at the hospital. Joan also dated Esther’s ex-boyfriend, Buddy Willard, bu she confides to Esther that she prefers women to men. At first, Esther is disgusted by the mention of homosexuality, but she works through it and continues to get closer to Joan. Eventually, Esther and Joan are allowed town and overnight privileges from the hospital. On one of these outings, Esther has her first sexual experience with a professor she meets. Esther’s experience is another fiasco, like all the others so far. She begins to hemorrhage. The professor, in a panic, takes her to the apartment where Joan is staying. Joan, upset, takes Esther to an emergency ward, and a doctor repairs the damage. The doctor said it was a “one in a million” chance that she would be injured in this way.
A few days later, Joan hangs herself. Doctor Nolan, worried that Joan’s suicide will throw Esther back into despair, assures her that no one is to blame, especially not Esther. A sign of Esther’s newly gained stability is that neither her sexual disaster with the professor, nor Joan’s suicide casts her into depression.
Her ex, Buddy, then visits Esther at the sanatorium and tells her that she is no longer a suitable marriage prospect because of her mental issues. Esther is not disturbed or upset. In fact, his pompous and insensitive announcement frees her. It is another sign of her recovery that she responds in a healthy way to his announcement. Esther is finally feeling good and has the strength to face the panel of doctors who will decide if she can leave the mental institution. She knows that soon she will leave, and take control of her own life.