Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 638 words.)