The Bell Jar

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, a nineteen-year-old girl from a small eastern town, was an excellent student who won many awards including a college scholarship. As a contest winner, she received a one-month appointment as a college representative to the editorial board of a well-known New York fashion magazine. Her month in New York provided many maturing experiences, but emotionally, she still felt very insecure. Esther did not believe that she had the skills necessary to fulfill a traditional woman’s role. She was bothered by society’s double standard and different social expectations for men and women. She was drawn to the life of change and excitement enjoyed by men, the life she associated with a writing career. She felt, however, pressure to settle down, marry, and have children. Her self-doubt coupled with the awareness of differing role expectations laid the foundation for an internal conflict that resulted in depression. Because she could not eat or sleep, she was referred to a psychiatrist, who suggested shock treatments. These treatments did not relieve her condition, and she began to contemplate and later attempt suicide. With the help of a benefactor, Esther was treated at a private asylum with insulin and electric shock treatments. As her condition improved, Esther moved to less restrictive environments and was accorded more privileges. She described her relief as the “bell jar lifted.” Upon her release, she returned to college.


Plath originally published The Bell Jar under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas.” Until Plath’s suicide, the book received only minor attention. In the first reviews, critics were struck by her imagery and ruthless, pessimistic style. They described her writing as intelligent, precise, and passionate. A work dealing with mental illness posed some tricky problems for the reviewers. The book was more than just literature; it was the author’s life, her experience. They found it difficult to critique the types of internal conflict that could lead to suicide. However, Plath’s own mental illness did not diminish the truth of her story. Reviewers were impressed with her brilliance and the depth of her personal pain.

Plath lived and wrote at the beginning of a period of great social change in the United States. The 1960’s ushered in the growth of the Civil Rights movement and the emergence of the women’s movement. People began to question traditional values, resulting in considerable experimentation in forms of family life, religion, sexual mores, and drug usage. The Bell Jar and Plath’s life highlight a number of these issues. For example, Esther felt that marriage was a form of brainwashing in which women were conditioned to believe that they should serve men. Plath questioned the personal value of religion, which she saw as cold and stressing sin. She was for most of her life a Unitarian, although she thought about becoming a Catholic to counter her suicidal thoughts and inclinations. Through Esther’s struggles, The Bell Jar also addresses Plath’s attempt to come to terms with her sexuality. Plath did marry,...

(The entire section is 1299 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New York City

*New York City. Approximately the first third of The Bell Jar is set in the urbane, cosmopolitan environs of Manhattan, where Esther Greenwood—a young, ambitious college junior from a sheltered Boston suburb—is a summer intern for Mademoiselle magazine after winning a writing contest. Filled with aspirations of entering a magazine publishing career after college, Esther welcomes the opportunity to get her feet wet in a major New York publishing house a full year before her graduation from college. However, shortly after she settles in New York, a host of disillusioning events tarnishes her view of the city and her romantic dreams of seeking fame and fortune there. Although painfully aware that she is “supposed to be having the time of [her] life” in Manhattan, Esther cannot cope with the intensely competitive, highly chauvinistic atmosphere of New York publishing in the 1950’s. She suffers an emotional and physical collapse that ends in her return to her mother’s home in suburban Boston weeks before the scheduled end of her internship. Esther likens her untimely breakdown and forced retreat from the city of her dreams to “watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction.”

*Boston suburbs

*Boston suburbs. Esther’s family home, to which she returns from New York. Rather than providing her with the peace and quiet she needs to regain her bearings...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Bell Jar traces college student Esther Greenwood’s trip to New York City, awarded to her for her literary skills, and her subsequent breakdown. Esther narrates how, unsuccessful both professionally and socially in New York, she falls into a depression that leads to an obsession with suicide and finally to a serious suicide attempt. She feels, she says, like a person in a bell jar, breathing her own sour air and looking out at a world distorted by the curved glass. The tale reflects in its form Esther’s psychological deterioration, as the chapters become shorter and the transitions blur as she moves toward her major breakdown. The narrative then becomes coherent again as Esther, through hospitalization and the concern of a sympathetic female psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, gradually works her way back toward mental health.

The story begins in New York, where Esther is one of a group of young women who have been awarded guest editorships at a fashion magazine in New York. Esther has always been a top student and a scholarship winner, but she finds herself unprepared for the challenges of the city. She cannot bond with her fellow award winners, not the wild Doreen nor the innocent Betsy nor any of the others. Moreover, she finds herself unable to accomplish anything. Her editor is critical of her work, and she does not succeed in losing her virginity, one of her goals. Flashbacks describe her relationship with her former boyfriend, Buddy Willard,...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

From the first page of The Bell Jar, with Esther Greenwood describing a day in New York City during the summer of 1952, when she is a guest-editor of Mademoiselle magazine, author Sylvia Plath vividly re-creates the perspective of a depressed, highly intelligent, sensitive young woman who feels herself losing contact with reality. This oppressively introspective atmosphere is relieved, however, by Esther’s sardonic and incisive insights into life’s unfairness and the often-amusing accounts of her own gauche experiences.

Esther has spent her adult life up to this summer between her junior and senior years of college in intellectual study and competition at a prestigious university. Although the round of parties, plays, and professional writing opportunities working for the magazine seems to mark another success in her life, instead she is experiencing a feeling of frustration and failure as she faces the choices of life beyond college.

Torn between her personal needs and society’s expectations, Esther is assessing her past life, especially the value of studying for academic awards, her present desire for personal fulfillment as a woman, and her need to choose a professional career for the future that will both support her financially and fulfill her aesthetically. Her inability to find solutions that will include all of her needs is driving her into a reclusive mental state. Before she leaves New York City at the end of the month, she goes to...

(The entire section is 610 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Bell Jar was first published in England in 1963 under the name of Victoria Lucas; it was published in the United States eight years later. It is one of the early novels to handle self-consciously three of the major concerns in the women’s movement: a woman’s place in society, the development of her creative ability, and the place of femininity in the life of an artist. The fact that the novel was published after the author’s suicide heightened the implicit message: There are few role models in society for the creative woman.

Sidonie Smith, in A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Realization (1987), emphasizes the choice women writers have to make between...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Absence of Feminism in the 1940s and 1950s
It is impossible to fully understand The Bell Jar without a realization of the...

(The entire section is 648 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

An accomplished student and teacher of fiction, Sylvia Plath had at her disposal the full arsenal of literary techniques, and she employs...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1950s and 1960s: As recently as 1950, men received approximately 76 percent of all degrees conferred in the United States. At the...

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Explore some of the current career opportunities for females that did not exist in the 1950s.

What are some of the circumstances...

(The entire section is 114 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Viewed as a sensitive youth's initiation into the ills of the world, The Bell Jar stands squarely in a tradition that looks back to...

(The entire section is 178 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Several of Plath's short stories and essays are collected in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and Other Prose Writings (1977)....

(The entire section is 184 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Bell Jar was adapted into a well-intentioned but forgettable 1979 film (directed by Larry Peerce for Avco Embassy; screenplay by...

(The entire section is 97 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Paula Bennett, My Life a Loaded Gun, Beacon, 1986.

Lynda K. Bundtzen, "Women in The Bell Jar...

(The entire section is 333 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 586 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The movie The Bell Jar, based on Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel of the same name, was directed by Larry Peerce and starred...

(The entire section is 62 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Linda Wagner-Martin's Sylvia Plath: A Biography, published in 1987, provides a balanced portrait of the writer, examining both her...

(The entire section is 153 words.)