Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598
Esther Greenwood, a bright college student who aspires to be a writer. At the age of nineteen, brown-eyed and brown-haired, Esther feels somewhat out of place in the world of high fashion and money to which she is introduced as a result of winning a fashion magazine contest. She enters her prestigious college on a scholarship. Esther is not one to sit in the corner feeling insecure; instead, she meets the world with a lively touch of sarcasm that colors her description of New York City, her friends, and herself. After her month in the city working as an intern on the magazine, however, her sense of daring becomes coupled with a feeling of disappointment over life. She attempts suicide and has a nervous breakdown, which is followed by recuperation in a series of hospitals and sanatoriums.
Buddy Willard, a medical student whom Esther has dated. He is an only child, and his parents encourage his relationship with Esther. Buddy has a fairly realistic view of life. Although he prides himself on his health, as a first-year medical student he contracts tuberculosis and must spend time in a sanatorium. When Esther visits him, he proposes to her, but by this time she has lost interest. Later, he visits her in the sanatorium, but by now there is nothing but curiosity about their relationship and a lurking fear that he may have contributed to her emotional condition.
Mrs. Greenwood, Esther Greenwood’s widowed mother. She tries to let Esther alone and not pressure her too much. After the death of Esther’s father ten years earlier, she reared Esther alone and supported the two of them by teaching business courses at a city college in Boston. She refuses at first to recognize Esther’s mental illness.
Doreen, another winner in the competition that Esther won. Doreen comes from a finishing-type school in the South. She is a striking young woman, with white hair and deep blue eyes. She is much more sophisticated and daring than Esther, who is quite taken with her. Doreen does not feel any need to follow the schedule set for the girls or to worry about doing the work assignments. She takes Esther to places where, alone, she would never have thought to go; her behavior and outlook suggest to Esther a new and different approach to the world.
Jay Cee, the famous editor under whom Esther was assigned to work during her special one-month internship. She tries to help Esther learn the work and consider her future and her opportunities, but at this point in her life, Esther has another agenda.
Philomena Guinea, a novelist and alumna of the college that Esther attends. She provided the scholarship that made it possible for Esther to attend the private women’s college in Massachusetts. She continues to assist Esther after her breakdown by financing a move from a public mental institution to a more exclusive, and more expensive, private one.
Dr. Nolan, a female psychiatrist who treats Esther at the hospital where she is recuperating. She administers shock treatments, but they are not as grueling to Esther as the shock treatments administered by Dr. Gordon earlier.
Joan Gilling, an acquaintance of Esther. She becomes more important in Esther’s life when they find themselves at the same mental institution and have a gentle rivalry regarding privileges, freedom, and ultimately release. She is a former girlfriend of Buddy Willard. She seems to recover more quickly than Esther, but eventually she hangs herself.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 368
Aurelia Plath's comments on The Bell Jar's use of "caricatures" are well founded: The minor characters in the novel tend to be stock, one-sided, static, and nearly all of them are cast in a most unflattering light. Nonetheless, one of the great virtues of the book lies in Plath's ability to limn her characters in a few well-chosen and immediate words, an accomplishment one critic has likened to "a series of snapshots taken at high noon." When the unimaginative and deadly dull Buddy Willard exhibits himself in front of Esther, prompting in her only thoughts of "turkey neck and turkey gizzards," an enduring portrait has been etched in the reader's mind. Similarly, Mrs. Willard's domination by her husband is made real when she is shown laboriously braiding a doormat for the kitchen floor. The Bell Jar is made up of some eighty-odd distinct "scenes" of this sort, in most of which a minor character is tellingly caught in the lens of Esther's razor-sharp eye.
A more troublesome issue is the depiction of Esther herself: For many readers, her initial ingenuousness and her later derangement undercut her credentials as a reliable narrator. Nevertheless, a British reviewer of the novel's first edition noted that there "are criticisms of America that the neurotic can make as well as anyone, perhaps better . . . " Esther has not misread fundamentally the world around her, nor does she lack the intelligence and humor which are commonly supposed to ward off despair. Indeed, Esther's problem is that she sees the world so clearly that no intellectually honest accommodation can be made with it any longer; madness and suicide become, paradoxically, the only remaining "healthy" ways to respond to this life. Her emotional distance from less clear-eyed peers, the sham at the heart of New York's glittering canyons, the subjugation of ambitious and competent women, the gothic horrors of modern history, the difficulties of authentic relationships — all these insights and more collide with Esther's real love of life and beauty, causing her to assume the role of madwoman, if only to assert a polar opposition to a reality she finds clinically insane. "To the person in the bell jar," Esther testifies, " . . . the world itself is the bad dream."