Social Concerns / Themes

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Like Plath's poetry, The Bell Jar has been for many readers less a work of art than a guileless exercise in personal confession. But Esther Greenwood, the novel's protagonist, is a formal creation whom Plath manipulates along certain thematic lines and whose world view is not necessarily interchangeable with the author's. One way to look at The Bell Jar is to see it as an initiation story in which Esther, after a series of harrowing trials, is guided, at least temporarily, into a state of being which allows her to live in a world she understands all too well.

Esther, nineteen, is invited to New York as one of twelve "guest" editors of a glossy woman's magazine. She trails behind her "fifteen years of straight A's," but her past triumphs as a compulsively diligent student have ill prepared her for those aspects of life she discovers in Manhattan.

Indeed Esther, as her surname suggests, is in many ways an utter naif. She is naive about social customs: She mistakes finger bowl water for soup, and drinks it; she fails to tip a bellboy; she eats pounds of black caviar at a sitting; she orders straight vodka with no ice. More important, however, Esther is naive sexually ("I always had a terribly hard time trying to imagine people in bed together"), to the point that concerns with her proper sexual role come to dominate her thoughts.

In other ways as well, Esther is searching after models on which to pattern her life, roles that will permit some successful accommodation with her world. She is drawn first to Doreen, a savvy, man-hungry firebrand from the Deep South. Accompanied by Esther, Doreen allows herself to be picked up and pawed by a boorish disc jockey; Esther, blind drunk, staggers back to her hotel alone. Esther then attaches herself to Betsy, a squeaky-clean Kansan with a "bouncing blonde ponytail and Sweetheart-of-Sigma-Chi smile." But this identification is equally fruitless: Both girls get ptomaine poisoning at a lavish luncheon put on by the magazine. As novelist Vance Bourjailly points out, both the relationships with Doreen and with Betsy end in bouts of vomiting, signaling the fact that Esther has failed again in her search for her authentic self. Esther ends her stay in New York by throwing her summer wardrobe off a hotel roof, divesting herself thereby of the city's (and her own) artificiality.

But back home in suburban Boston, Esther fares no better; the process of disillusion and disintegration, begun in New York, continues apace. Alienated alike from her harping, sententious mother and from Buddy Willard, a tubercular medical student to whom she is informally engaged, Esther plummets into a deep depression. Encounters with Dr. Gordon, a wildly incompetent psychiatrist, and a botched electroshock therapy session take Esther even closer to the brink. She swallows handfuls of sedative capsules, seals herself up in a hidden basement niche, and awaits death.

Discovered and rescued by a near miraculous series of events, Esther is gradually coaxed back into the reality of the outside world. Dr. Nolan, an empathetic female psychiatrist, places Esther in a pastoral mental hospital, oversees successful electroshock and insulin therapy, and, most importantly, confirms her patient's experience, specifically her hatred for her mother. Ultimately, Esther is able to reject Joan Gilling, a sexless neurotic with whom she might have identified, and to emerge, at least for a time, from beneath "the bell jar, with its stifling distortions."

In its depiction of the trappings of the "American Dream" as banal, brutal, and factitious, The Bell Jar is a critique of modern culture. Viewed in another...

(This entire section contains 638 words.)

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way, it is a feminist indictment of a male-dominated society. More centrally, however,The Bell Jar is concerned with the struggles of one young woman to come to terms with her world and with her own emerging self.


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Culture Clash
Unlike most of the women who attended Smith College in 1950s, Esther Greenwood of The Bell Jar did not come from a wealthy family. That her family gets by on her mother's earnings as a typing teacher and on Esther's full-time scholarship explains why she does not normally have access to such luxuries as expensive clothes, travel, and summer homes. Hence, Esther is outside of the mainstream social circle at college and will never really fit in unless she marries into it. Aware of this, Esther makes many attempts to connect socially—she dates Buddy Willard mostly because he attends Yale; she babysits on Cape Cod to be in close proximity to wealthy people; she shops at expensive clothing stores for items on sale.

To complicate matters further, Esther comes to resent her own financial dependence on her mentor, the wealthy writer Philomena Guinea. Since Esther ultimately needs her patronage for continuing psychological care as well as for education, Esther becomes even more frustrated with her own financial dependence, although she seldom expresses this anger directly.

Yet in other ways, Esther is fairly typical of other Smith students: white, educated, attractive, and studious. That she is socially cut off from women with whom she has so much in common is one of the ironies of The Bell Jar.

Sex Roles
Although The Bell Jar is partly about the impact of economics on a brilliant student with limited financial reserves, it also concerns sex roles in the 1950s. In that decade, women, generally speaking, did not attend college to ultimately support themselves; they were expected to marry eventually. In the novel, there are three women who have created real identities for themselves separate from the men in their life. The unglamorous editor Jay Cee has succeeded in that, but she has also sacrificed a certain amount of femininity to get there; the writer Philomena Guinea has thrived creatively on her own terms; Esther's psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, emerges as a caring, competent professional. However, they are exceptions in Esther's frame of reference, as well as in the male-dominated 1950s American society. More typical are wisecracking Doreen who depends on men for sex if not necessarily for marriage; traditional Betsy who patiently waits for domesticity; Dodo Conway whom Esther perceives as kind of a baby machine; and Joan Gilling whose combination of ambition and lesbianism have not made her into a happy, functional person. Even widowed Mrs. Greenwood, who earns her own money as a typing teacher, does not encourage her smart daughter to flourish: she prefers that Esther learn shorthand and eventually marry well.

Given these feminine influences, Esther channels much of her energy into men as potential husbands or as a means of losing her virginity. Nearly all of the men fall short, often because Esther resents their attempts to informally teach her something without really listening to her. Even men who are not potential lovers fancy themselves as instructors, for example, the old doctor at the sanatorium who foolishly imparts great knowledge about pilgrims. As The Bell Jar progresses, Esther loses most of her interest in marriage, but not in losing her virginity.

Esther also reserves much of her affection for her late father, who died when she was only nine, an event from which she has never psychologically recovered. As Lindsay Wagner-Martin wrote in The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties, "... while it is—as she has consistently been taught—unseemly for her to be angry with her dead father, there is little stigma attached to her being angry with her living mother."

Search for Self
In The Bell Jar, Esther searches consistently for some kind of identity but finds her options limited as a young woman with little money of her own. After a disappointing summer as a guest editor in New York City, she fails to be accepted into a prestigious writing course and gradually loses much of her sanity and ambition. She mentally explores many wild scenarios for happiness and fulfillment (e.g., apprenticing herself to a pottery maker, finding a European lover), tries to write a novel, does such bizarre things as wearing her mother's clothes and eating raw meat, and finally attempts suicide. Obviously, she is not mentally well, but to some extent society's repressions for females and the lack of creative inspiration in her life have both contributed to her collapse.

Since society does not encourage Esther to excel—her excellent grades not withstanding—she sometimes competes in bizarre ways. For example, at a banquet for the guest interns at Ladies' Day, she eats ravenously as if she must consume more than any of the other interns. She also feels inferior to Buddy Willard because he lost his virginity before she did.

Esther recovers much of her mental and emotional stability by the end of the novel, but the reasons for her improvement are not entirely clear. To some extent, Dr. Nolan has empowered Esther to understand her motivations, actions, and reactions, but some would argue Esther has at least partly responded to electroconvulsive shock. At least one critic, David Holbrook in Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence, even questions to what extent Esther has recovered, when he writes, "All that her therapy achieves is symbolised by the last chapter that blankets the asylum grounds ... Sylvia Plath's insight is not deceived. 'Treatment' merely freezes her." Linda Wagner-Martin disagrees: "... Esther has indeed entered a new phase . she enters her new birth ritual, the process of leaving the asylum for the real world, with as much confidence as an intelligent person can muster ... There is no question that Plath intended to create a thoroughly positive ending for Esther's narrative." While the extent of Esther's recovery is debatable, the search for her identity will certainly continue after she is released from the asylum.

Point of View
Told in first-person, Esther Greenwood narrates the entire novel The Bell Jar. From this perspective, the reader sees guest editor Esther in the miserable summer of 1953, her selective childhood and college memories, her romantic history, her breakdown and subsequent period of institutionalization, and her road to recovery. Despite her considerable intelligence, a careful reader will not necessarily take everything she says on faith, especially in light of her history of depression and occasionally bizarre behavior. The careful reader will also take into consideration that Esther's feelings shift quite abruptly on such subjects as role models and marriage. Though the narrative generally proceeds in a straightforward, chronological fashion, occasionally jumping back and forth in time, many questions arise. Why, for example, does Esther hate her mother so much? Why does she leave her drunken friend Doreen in the hotel hallway? Why does she reduce so many people around her to unpleasant stereotypes? Above all, why is Esther so unhappy? Part of the answer can be found in the oppressive 1950s environment, but can other factors figure into it? What factors really contributed to her recovery? After observing Esther in an assortment of situations, the reader can form his or her own impressions

Literally, most of The Bell Jar takes place in either New York City or the Boston vicinity. The time is mostly the latter half of 1953, although Esther occasionally makes reference to earlier occasions in her narration. On a figurative level, much of the novel occurs in the mind of its protagonist, Esther Greenwood.

On the simplest level, The Bell Jar, Plath's only novel, refers to the social pressure for young women to marry in the 1950s. One of the causes of Esther's depression is her worry that she would not make a good wife for all of the following reasons: She cannot cook, stands too tall, and dances poorly. Unfortunately, she thinks her positive qualities—a high degree of intelligence, ambition, a literary aptitude—are actually handicaps in the marriage market. On other occasions, Esther thinks she could never be happy in any marriage, regardless of whom she finds as a husband.

The Bell Jar overflows with other symbolism; one of the most important is birth and rebirth. In one scene, Esther witnesses a birth in the teaching hospital where Buddy Willard works: "I was so struck by the sight of the table where they were lifting the woman I didn't say a word. It looked like some awful torture table, with these metal stirrups sticking up at midair at one end and all sorts of instruments and wires and tubes...." Her continuing description of the birthing is accurate and precise, but completely lacking in any sense of joy and wonderment. As Lynda K. Bundtzen writes in Plath's Incarnations "The problem ... is that men have usurped the privilege of giving birth from women. The doctors are all male and they are entirely responsible for the emergence of a new creature into the world." So for Esther, a woman giving birth is no cause for celebration; it is symbolic of male oppression.

The subject of rebirth comes up figuratively in the conclusion of the novel. Note Esther's description of the elements: "The sun, emerged from its gray shrouds of clouds, shone with a summer brilliance on the untouched slopes ... I felt the profound thrill it gives me to see trees and grassland waist-high under flood water, as if the usual order of the world had shifted slightly, and entered a new phase."

Some critics have suggested that with the death of Joan Gilling, the character who most resembles Esther Greenwood, the latter is liberated from some of her pain. As Stan Smith notes in Critical Quarterly, "Esther is left wondering, at Joan's funeral, just what she thinks she is burying, the 'wry black image"'of her madness, or the 'beaming double of her old best self.' In a sense, the suicide of this surrogate is Esther's rebirth."