The Bell Jar

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Esther Greenwood sees society as artificial and hypocritical but, at the same time, wants to belong to it. Her story is one of several popular examinations of insanity from the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Esther, a college student with literary aspirations, is repelled by the conventional, boring lives American women were expected to lead in the 1950’s. Her mother leads such a life. Esther feels suffocated by her mother and has not felt happy since her father died when she was nine.

Esther is confused about and afraid of sex. She wants to lose the burden of her virginity but distrusts men, who always let her down. Smug Buddy Willard wants to marry her but is a phony. He tries to teach her how to ski without knowing how himself and has been having an affair with a waitress. Esther is upset by the double standard of sexual conduct.

She would like to emulate other women but always sees their weaknesses. No one is complete. No one is what he wants to be or thinks he is.

After a suicide attempt, Esther is exposed to the horrors of modern psychiatry. Mental institutions are not places for making people well but for forcing them to be what society considers to be normal. Esther becomes friends with another patient, Joan, who is her psychological double.

As Esther’s mental condition improves, Joan’s worsens.

This autobiographical novel, originally published under a pseudonym, romanticizes insanity but is an insightful exploration of the superficial, materialistic values of middle-class America and is a haunting portrayal of the individual’s quest for a distinctive identity. It has also helped pave the way for the feminist fiction of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Suggested Readings

Aird, Eileen. Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Works. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Alexander, Paul, ed. Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. The essays in this volume concentrate on Plath as a craftsman. The two essays “Esther Came Back Like a Retreaded Tire,” by Robert Scholes, and...

(The entire section is 870 words.)