Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 574
Any analysis of The Bell Jar is complicated by the fact that its story is a thinly disguised version of Sylvia Plath’s own breakdown and suicide attempt, which took place when she was twenty. The novel has a positive ending: Freed from her obsessions and her virginity as well, Esther Greenwood is ready to return to the world, play an adult’s part, marry, and bear the responsibilities of parenthood. Plath, however, committed suicide not long after the novel was first published in England. It is therefore tempting to graft Plath’s later story onto Esther’s, to see Esther Greenwood as someone who does not really understand the roots of her illness and is deluded as to the success of her healing. Plath saw her novel as the story of a survivor and intended to write a sequel that would show “that same world as seen through the eyes of health.”
The arguable issue of the novel’s outcome set aside, The Bell Jar leaves plenty to discuss. At least part of Esther’s discomfort comes from the limitations of her society, which had only a few areas women could comfortably enter, nearly all of which required submissiveness to men. Everywhere Esther looks, she sees women in supporting roles, never as lead players. She sees Buddy Willard’s mother, college educated, spending her life cleaning. She sees Dodo Conway, who seems ecstatic about bringing child after child into the world. She sees her own widowed mother, eking out a living by teaching service courses at a college and wanting her daughter to marry well. Even Esther’s recognized literary talent has allowed her to write only for a fashion magazine. The conformity and self-righteousness of the 1950’s—the opening paragraph locates the time as 1953, “the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs”—were especially confining when applied to women. None of the roles Esther sees as satisfying for other women feels comfortable to her. Her inability to accept the goals of her generation contributes to her breakdown.
The novel’s portrayal of the sexual double standard provides another interesting sidelight on the era. Esther is bothered by the fact that women are supposed to be “pure” (that is, virginal), while different standards are expected of men. Esther’s mother sends her clippings about chastity, while Buddy’s mother apparently knows about her son’s affair with a waitress and is untroubled by it. Esther is occupied with Buddy’s treachery and with the double standard itself to the point of obsession. When she succeeds in losing her virginity, she feels freed from the double standard, although the reader may think otherwise.
An element of The Bell Jar that sometimes goes by unremarked is its humor. Plath’s sharp eye catches the comic elements of coming-of-age in the early 1950’s—the extremes of style, the oddities of dating behavior, the naïveté of the conversation among Esther’s friends. There is a self-deprecating irony in Esther’s descriptions of herself during the period of mental illness. The first attempts to commit suicide are narrated humorously—at one point, for example, she has decided to hang herself with the belt of her mother’s bathrobe and tells of “a discouraging time of walking about with the silk cord dangling from my neck like a yellow cat’s tail and finding no place to fasten it.” Describing her despair with humor, however, does not lessen its intensity.