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Literature / The Bell Jar

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

Written by Sylvia Plath and first published (under the Pen Name "Victoria Lucas") in 1963, 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".

Adapted into a 1979 film directed by Larry Peerce, starring Marilyn Hassett as Esther and Julie Harris as her mother. A second adaptation, starring Julia Stiles, was announced in 2007 but languished in Development Hell, and Stiles eventually relinquished the rights. Yet another adaptation, to be directed by Kirsten Dunst and starring Dakota Fanning, was announced for the big screen in 2017 but was subsequently aborted; two years later the project, still with Fanning attached, was reimagined as a TV series but that never came to fruition either.

Provides Examples Of:

  • The '50s: The novel is set in this decade and takes a scathingly cynical look at the decade's opinions on women.
  • Arc Words: "I am, I am, I am".
  • Ambiguous Ending: The novel ends with Esther entering the room for her medical review. But it's pretty clear that she'll be released from the hospital.
  • 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. The main events of the novel - interning for a magazine in New York, descending into depression, attempting suicide with pills, undergoing electroconvulsive therapy - all happened to 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.
  • Big Eater: Esther unabashedly loves food—the fancier, the better. One of the few things she seems to genuinely enjoy about her stay in New York City is many free meals the group is treated to...and because so many of the other interns are dieting, she gets to help herself to their caviar.
  • 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 an autobiography.
  • Bloodstained Defloration: Esther bleeds after losing her virginity. Her partner tells her that it's nothing to worry about, but the bleeding won't stop and she eventually has to go to the hospital. The doctor tells her "it's one in a million it happens to like this."
  • 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.
  • Caged Bird Metaphor: Birds are one of many Animal Motifs employed to communicate Esther's building sense of confinement and of the artificiality of the cooped-up women around her.
    • Of her friend Doreen and the man they are out with:
      He kept staring at her the way people stare at the great white macaw in the zoo, waiting for it to say something human.
    • Later, of the tenants in a high-end asylum:
      The women were all sitting up and knitting or riffling through magazines or putting their hair in pin curls and chattering like parrots in a parrot house.
  • Child Hater: Esther does not like children and doesn't understand what makes mothers happy.
  • 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 botched ECT, and feeling completely trapped inside a bell jar because of her depression, Esther begins suicide attempts.
  • Distaff Counterpart : According to at least one biography, Plath wrote Esther as a female version of Holden Caulfield. Apparently, The Bell Jar is supposed to be wry and comedic. Who knew?
    • There's plenty of wry comedy in it — Esther's witnessing of Doreen's drunken revel with DJ Lenny Shepard, her observations on Technicolor musicals and a session at the U.N. — but the book overall is clearly not meant to be funny.
  • 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 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.
    • Very early in the story, Esther states that "only last week" she gave her baby one of her Mademoiselle freebies to play with, implying that not only does she recover from the events of the story, but she eventually gets an ending that involves a husband and a family.
  • 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.
  • 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. Doreen and Esther secretly nickname her "Pollyanna Cowgirl."
  • Queer Flowers: Esther suspects that her mannish editor Jay Cee is a lesbian, paranoid at one point that she is trying to "convert" her. Jay Cee's office is full of fake plants including African violets which Esther makes special mention of, and in her first appearance she is dressed in purple with purple flowers on her hat.
  • 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 Finnegans 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 Ward's. Plath had read reviews of the book in college and had planned to write something about "mental health stuff" after seeing that there was a market for it.
      • Ward's book is based on her treatments at Rockland state hospital in New York. Plath went to McLean asylum in Massachusetts, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School with more lavish funding and research facilities.
  • The Shrink: Doctor Gordon and Doctor Nolan.
  • 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.
  • Stepford Suburbia: How Esther views the neighborhood where her mother lives. When she finds herself stuck there for the summer, the thought of spending three month among all those identical tidy houses and conservative housewives contributes to her depression.
  • 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, Heathers and 10 Things I Hate About You. Other sources merely reference the novel.
  • Suicide by Sea: Esther has been trying to commit suicide. After failing to hang/strangle herself because of her body's natural preservation instincts, she decides to swim so far out into the ocean that she won't be able to swim back. She chooses a large rock as a marker to swim to only to realize that if she reaches it, she'll simply climb on the rock. She tries to drown herself where she is but is unsuccessful.
  • Suicide by Pills: Esther tries to kill herself 3 times (by cutting, hanging, and drowning, in order) before she actually attempts to go through with it. She then takes a large amount of sleeping pills in a hole in the basement, only for her to be found, sent to the hospital, and end up in an asylum.
  • 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, or like your environment was stifling and crippling your spirit, 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.
  • Warm Milk Helps You Sleep: After a successful reaction to insulin therapy, note  Esther is offered a glass of hot milk, as much to calm her after the traumatic event as to raise her blood sugar.
  • 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.