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Literature: The Bell Jar
First published under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas"

"To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream."

Published in 1963 and written by Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a young, beautiful, successful nineteen-year-old girl whose talents and ambitions are being stifled by societal pressures. The novel opens with Esther in New York working on an internship at a big glamorous publishing company (obviously based on Condé Nast and Mademoiselle, where Plath really interned). The interns get dresses, makeup, free theater tickets and all sort of other gifts from sponsors. In the midst of this glamorous dream come true, all she can think of is how the Rosenbergs are going to be executed. Esther feels increasingly isolated and troubled by her inability to enjoy herself in direct violation of what society expects.

Esther observes that being a successful woman and having a family are mutually exclusive in the eyes of society. If she marries, as everyone assumes without question, she will be expected to give up her "silly" notions of a career. She feels her virginity is a burden, but wants to have her first experiences on her own terms.

The internship over with, Esther returns to her mother's house. She is rejected for an advanced writing course she'd applied for, so she decides to spend the summer writing the Great American Novel, but realizes she hasn't had sufficient experience. Her condition worsens as she develops insomnia. She visits a psychiatrist, who utterly fails to help her; said failure is excruciatingly amplified by incorrect use of electroconvulsive therapy.

She begins various half-hearted suicide attempts. Finally she leaves a note saying that she's gone for a stroll, conceals herself in a space in the cellar under a breezeway, downs a bottle of sleeping pills and loses consciousness.

Esther is hospitalized and eventually meets Dr. Nolan, a woman psychiatrist. Esther undergoes ECT once more, reassured that if done properly it's "like going to sleep". She describes it as temporarily lifting the "bell jar" of her depression and letting fresh air in, while she engages in regular psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Nolan. Finally, she has someone to listen to and validate her honest thoughts.

Still at the hospital, Esther loses her virginity and confronts the reality of death. The novel ends with Esther entering a room for an evaluation which will ascertain if she is ready to be released. The novel ends with the words, "I stepped into the room".

The novel itself has been adapted once in 1979 starring Marilyn Hassett as the protagonist and another adaptation is set for 2011 starring Julia Stiles.


Provides Examples Of:

  • American Dream: Subverted: Esther started out in a single-parent household (after her father died) then went to a prestigious university on a scholarship and earned a summer internship for a New York magazine that's supposed to be Mademoiselle. She achieved all of this by hard work, but realizes she's never made concrete career plans. Dodo Conway, the perpetually pregnant Stepford Wife neighbor, caricatures the American Dream of the 1950s.
  • Arc Words: "I am, I am, I am".
  • Adult Fear: Esther's fear that life is passing her by when she realises that she has no concrete career plans will hit close to home for many teenagers and twenty-somethings.
  • Attempted Rape: Marco with Esther. She considers going along with it so as to be rid of her unwanted virginity but instead fights back.
  • Author Avatar: Esther Greenwood is Sylvia Plath.
    • And an in-universe example: the heroine of Esther's attempted novel is named Elaine. Esther explicitly chooses the name because it begins with an E and has the same number of letters as her own.
  • Bad Dreams: Metaphorically used to describe what the world is like to the person inside the bell jar.
  • Biography: The events of the novel are so heavily inspired/influenced by Plath's own life that it's particularly difficult to not read The Bell Jar as Plath's autobiography.
  • Bury Your Gays: You could see Joan's suicide coming a mile away. Plath uses great sympathy with the Lesbian characters, while portraying Esther, who is straight, as being faintly repelled by what she's seen. Esther then asks Dr. Nolan what a woman would want with another woman, and Dr. Nolan replies "Tenderness." Plath herself was not gay, but she had a substantial Lesbian following.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: An atypical and significantly darker one because Esther learns from her madness.
  • Country Mouse: Esther grew up in a small town. In New York she wasn't in control of anything, even herself, and she just went through the motions.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Doreen, a worldly blonde from the South who befriends Esther during her time at Ladies' Day.
    • Esther herself becomes one when she is admitted to the psych ward.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Terrified of the thought of being in the kitchen for the rest of her life, absolutely no idea what to do now that she's out of college because all she was ever good at was winning scholarships, intense insomnia that has lasted for three weeks, traumatized by the ECT, and feeling completely trapped inside a bell jar because of her depression, Esther begins suicide attempts.
  • Double Standard: Society's expectations on virginity for men and women is a major point of contention for Esther. Buddy Willard expects Esther to be "pure" for him, but openly admits to sleeping with a waitress.
  • Driven to Suicide: Several attempts by Esther: also Joan commits suicide.
  • Fashion Magazine: Esther won a one-month internship at a fashion magazine called Ladies' Day (based on Mademoiselle). She finds it more sterile and depressing than glamorous, however.
  • The Fifties: The novel is set in this decade, and takes an extremely scathing and critical look at the decade's opinions on women.
  • The Food Poisoning Incident: Esther and the other interns get food poisoning from a fancy lunch that included tainted crab.
  • Food Porn: Plath sure knew how to make one's mouth water. Chapter 3 begins with the lavish Ladies' Day banquet luncheon, with all types of delicious food being described.
  • From Bad to Worse: Esther's mental and emotional state deteriorate until she is suicidal.
  • Gainax Ending: The novel ends with Esther entering the room for her medical review. It's pretty clear that she'll be released from the hospital.
    • In an earlier section of the book, Esther mentions picking a plastic starfish to give to "the baby to play with." This implies she has a child at some point after being released from the hospital.
  • Grave Clouds: It's cloudy at the graveyard before the rain kicks in.
  • Gravemarking Scene: Esther visits her father's grave shortly before her breakdown.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: When Esther visits her father's grave, it begins to rain. She realizes that she didn't cry when her father died and then she "laid [her] face to the smooth face of the marble and howled [her] loss into the cold salt rain."
  • Heroic Spirit: "I am, I am, I am" is the sound of Esther's heartbeat; she hears it when she tries to drown herself. In spite of herself, Esther's body wants to keep living.
  • Her First Time: Esther thought that losing her virginity would bring about this incredible change, like visiting Europe for the first time. She sleeps with an experienced man. Boy, was she wrong.
  • Lobotomy: Valerie gets one of these. Valerie is a friend of Esther’s in the private mental hospital and she is friendly and relaxed.
  • Meaningful Name: Esther Greenwood. The name Sylvia comes from "sylvan" which is associated with woods and what color do you typically think of when you think of woods?
  • My Beloved Smother: Esther sees her mother this way.
  • Name's the Same: Mrs Tomolillo, one of the disorderly patients in the psych ward, shares a same last name with several characters in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a collection of short stories by Plath.
  • Nature Abhors a Virgin: This is one of Esther's chief concerns. To Esther, her virginity is a burden; she's doomed to be a virgin until she marries a man or be deemed a slut for having premarital sex. She loses her virginity near the end, doing so just to be able to get rid of it.
  • Nerds Are Sexy: Irwin, the mathematics professor who deflowers Esther boasts that he has a way with women, and in fact, sends away another professor's wife when Esther is visiting him.
  • Parental Abandonment: Esther's father is dead.
  • People Jars: Used metaphorically to describe how depression can come back to haunt you and blurs everything around you.
  • The Pollyanna: Betsy is described as a country version of this trope.
  • Rage Against the Reflection: Esther when she wakes up in hospital after her suicide attempt.
  • Really Gets Around: Doreen, the tough-talking Southern society girl Esther befriends in New York. Esther is both intrigued and repelled by Doreen's casual attitude towards sex.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Buddy Willard as a gender subversion. You don't learn a whole lot about him other than wanting to be a doctor and sleeping with a waitress.
  • Seemingly Wholesome '50s Girl: Esther. Most of the girls she meets in New York qualify as well, including Joan (at least in outward appearance) and Betsy aka "Pollyanna Cowgirl" (who really is).
  • Shout-Out:
    • In chapter 10, while at home, Esther attempts to read Finnegan's Wake. It doesn't work out.
    • Part of the novel is a sort of Homage/Shout-Out to Mary Jane Ward's autobiographical novel The Snake Pit. Some of the scenes in the hospital are nearly identical to Smith's. Plath had read the book in college and had planned to write something about "mental health stuff" after seeing that there was a market for it.
  • Snow Means Death: It snows the day of Joan's funeral.
  • Society Is to Blame: Most of Esther's problems at the start can be traced back to society's expectations of young women. Esther is expected to be cheerful no matter how she feels inside; and she's expected to keep herself "pure" when that's the last thing she wants.
  • Stock Shout-Outs: Got a moody female character or a girl that's feeling down? Show her reading The Bell Jar. Can be seen in The Simpsons, Family Guy, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Gilmore Girls, and 10 Things I Hate About You. Other sources merely reference the novel.
  • The Shrink: Doctor Gordon and Doctor Nolan.
  • Title Drop: See the opening quotation for the page and Harsher in Hindsight.
  • Truth in Television: This is the epitome of why The Bell Jar is still read today. If you've ever felt depressed or suicidal, then this novel perfectly describes how you felt and does it better than you ever could. The descriptions of being ashamed of still being a virgin in your early twenties are exquisite. Plath has beautifully cutting descriptions of society's Double Standard and Sexism, a reality which hasn't changed much fifty years later (see any book by Susan Faludi).
  • Unable to Cry: When visiting her father's grave as an adult, Esther realizes that she didn't cry when her father died.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Esther is very opinionated and makes many damning judgements of people before she even describes them fully.
    Buddy Willard was a hypocrite.
  • Virginity Makes You Stupid: Very much Esther's attitude, who unlike the idealized fifties young woman, sees her lack of experience as an embarrassment. She makes a number of attempts to get rid of her virginity and finally succeeds with a math professor she met randomly.
  • X Meets Y: When Robert Taubman of the New Statesman reviewed The Bell Jar he described it as "the first feminine novel in a Salinger mood."
    • The book has been essentially said to be a 'female version' of Catcher in the Rye.
  • Writer's Block: Esther tries to start a novel after returning home from New York but is unable to write more than a couple of sentences.

A VoidLiterature of the 1960sBen Snow
Beau GesteLit FicBless the Beasts and Children

alternative title(s): The Bell Jar
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