The Bell Jar

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 870

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.

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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 “Victoria Lucas and Elly Higginbottom,” by Vance Bourjaily, offer interpretations dealing solely with The Bell Jar.

Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. As thorough a biography as one could wish.

Allen, Mary. “Sylvia Plath’s Defiance: The Bell Jar.” In The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Alvarez, Alfred. The Savage God. New York: Random House, 1971.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. In the preface, the author describes his work as “a biography of the imagination.” The index indicates several references to The Bell Jar. The chapter “A Woman Famous Among Women,” proposing Virginia Woolf’s influence on Plath, offers an interesting contrast and comparison between Clarissa Dalloway, from Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, and Esther Greenwood. A portrait of Plath and an extensive bibliography are provided.

Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath’s Incarnations: Women and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. Combines psychological and feminist criticism in a critical biography. Bundtzen traces Plath’s personal development as an artist and relates that development to the image of women in society and the world of art. The index provides topical guidance for information on The Bell Jar, and the chapter “The Bell Jar: The Past as Allegory” offers an interpretation of the novel as feminist allegory. A bibliography is included.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. The index contains many extended references to The Bell Jar. A chronology is included.

MacPherson, Pat. Reflecting on The Bell Jar. New York: Routledge, 1991. This study stresses the social context of The Bell Jar. The “Cold War Paranoia,” the repressive atmosphere of the 1950’s introduced in the novel by the execution of Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, affects the protagonist personally. Some specific social topics include life in the suburbs, hatred of one’s mother expressed in contemporary films, and homosexuality. The bibliography contains relevant sociological and political entries.

Newman, Charles, ed. The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. A collection of essays mainly discussing Plath’s poetry. Mary Ellmann, in “The Bell Jar—An American Girlhood,” sees the work as a “poet’s novel” and proceeds to discuss it in terms of images and brief moments of pain. Contains a brief annotated bibliography for The Bell Jar ending with 1966. Pen drawings by Plath are included.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. A psychoanalytical study focusing mainly on Plath’s poetry, with a detailed account of the film of The Bell Jar and the lawsuit against it.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties. Boston: Twayne, 1992. An excellent analysis of the novel in the context of its times and of the author’s life.

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1988. The select bibliography identifies two extended bibliographies, one containing all periodical publications. Offers mostly reviews of Plath’s work as it was published, including ten reviews and essays on The Bell Jar.

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