Perhaps the most pleasant surprise involved with properly reading Sylvia Plath’s novel,1 The Bell Jar, is discovering how a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1953 manages to seem contemporary even as it remains so firmly rooted in its own period.2 Undoubtedly, there are timeless aspects to story arcs that move characters from innocence to experience, just as we find that the issues women grapple with in this book (the double standard, for one) are all too familiar. But what makes The Bell Jar so relatable is its captivating protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther is witty, sensitive, occasionally angry, often funny—and not at all what a reader expects to discover in a novel renowned for its suicidal heroine.3 But as The Bell Jar often proves, our assumptions don’t always match our expectations.
“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”
The Grim and the Glamorous
From the outset, the sharply observant Esther is aware of how appearances might mislead. Plath’s narrator, an older Esther, describes the morbid thoughts she had about executions and cadavers when she spent part of her summer in New York City at age 19. But from the outside, Esther’s life seems to have all the hallmarks of an American success story: Hailing from an impoverished middle-class background, she’s a “scholarship girl” who wins a position as a summer intern at women’s magazine—an incredible opportunity for someone with writing aspirations—where she attends parties and receives gifts. As she explains, anyone would assume she was “having the time of [her] life” when she instead struggles to get “[her]self to react”. Just as Esther wryly undercuts the image of the glamorous party the interns attend by pointing out the male guests were hired for the photo shoot, Plath exposes the invisible illness haunting a smart young woman’s New York adventure. Plath’s handling here is sure: stereotypical portrayals of mental illness4 are eschewed by showing Esther as nearly indistinguishable from the other smiling interns (significantly, they’re dressed alike) in the magazine spread. In doing so, Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.
“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”
Psyche Under Pressure
Having stripped away Esther’s smiling veneer, Plath better acquaints the reader with Esther’s background and aspirations. Esther, as magazine editor Jay Cee quips, “wants to be everything”: writer, academic, editor, traveler, lover, wife and mother. And while they are the most socially acceptable choices, Esther feels most ambivalent towards marriage and motherhood. Raised by a widowed working mother, Esther sees the pitfalls of marriage (financial vulnerability, drudgery) more clearly than fellow intern, Betsy, a naïve Midwesterner who wants a traditional marriage. Doreen, in contrast, rebels against deadlines and social mores alike in her quest for adventure in New York. While Esther shares Doreen’s cynicism and humor, she finds Doreen’s seemingly violent sexual encounters repellent and untenable given her limited means. Esther is left with uncertainty, as neither model suits her.
This pattern holds true when Esther examines her options for the future, since her unconventional ambitions don’t mesh well with social expectations for women in the sexist 1950s. Evoking the image of a fig tree with diverging branches, Esther sees her choices as being mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various people attempting to influence her future path imply as much: instructors indicate family must be sacrificed for career, her mother pressures her to learn a marketable skill (dictation) instead of gambling on a writing career, society and family insists her proper role is that of wife, and chauvinist Buddy Willard, the boy she’s dating, insinuates a few kids might cure that urge to write poems.5 Coupled with her ongoing pressure to excel academically,6 Esther appears to experience herself almost as two fragments: the outwardly cheerful achiever and the angry hidden self who chafes against her limitations. Approaching her final year of school, she finds herself filled with crippling indecision and feels that her successes thus far are meaningless outside college.7 While there’s no definitive explanation as to what precipitates depression, Plath could be arguing that society is what ails Esther.
“I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.”
The Bell Jar Descends and Lifts
It is, however, apparent that an attempted rape rapidly followed by a serious academic disappointment serve as the triggering events for Esther’s mental health crisis. Although Esther’s breakdown is foreshadowed, the change it brings in her startles: she stops bathing, sleeps poorly, and, alarmingly, cannot write. Plath spends the latter half of the novel exploring misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health issues as well as critiquing how this illness is treated. Mrs. Greenwood, for example, fails to understand that Esther’s condition is not a choice and believes Esther could get better if she just tried or instead helped out others suffering greater misfortunes. As a layperson, her erroneous views are understandable, whereas Dr. Gordon (her first psychiatrist) disinterest in discussing her issues almost seems negligent, particularly after her prescribed shock therapy is administered incorrectly. Esther, desperate to avoid another traumatic shock session and convinced that her case is impossible, attempts suicide. Still alive and agitated, Esther is placed in a series of asylums. As it becomes clear to Esther once her scholarship sponsor pays for her to move to a better institution, money determines the quality of the patient’s care.
Not long after Esther settles into the new asylum, Esther meets Joan Gilling. Not only do they share the same hometown, church, and acquaintances, but they’ve both dated Buddy (neither are fans) and attempted suicide. While foils Betsy and Doreen represent extremes of sexual values, Joan serves as a near double to Esther since her journey through mental illness darkly mirrors Esther’s own until Joan succeeds in killing herself. While it’s never clear why one lives and the other does not, Joan’s death reminds readers and Esther’s alike that might also have been Esther’s fate. Esther, however, continues improving. And though some remain wary of her or wish to move on as though nothing happened (her mother in particular), Esther accepts that her illness is an important part of her history that she cannot ignore as there’s no guarantee that the bell jar wont’ descend again. It’s with this sobering, but clear-eyed acceptance that Esther moves toward whatever her future holds.
- Unlike the first time I picked it up and partially skimmed it during a busy term (I was studying abroad), which really didn’t do it justice. ↩
- And that includes the period’s casual racism and homophobia. Significantly, Esther kicks the only non-white character, a black worker at a mental institute, with little provocation. While her disturbed mindset plays a role in her aggression, she nonetheless appears to have at least some latent prejudices regarding race and sexual orientation. ↩
- While The Bell Jar is Plath’s roman à clef, I won’t be discussing making any comparisons with Plath’s life (something which has been done extensively anyway) as it tends to divert attention from discussing the book. ↩
- Plath makes this point repeatedly, particularly after Esther is institutionalized, that the mentally ill do not appear different from saner individuals. ↩
- So much is wrong with Buddy. Presented to Esther as a desirable marital prospect, he acts like the spiritual heir to the physician doctor from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” when Buddy tells Esther that her stuffed nose is psychosomatic and claims she’s neurotic. More reprehensibly, this “fine and clean” young man who focuses so much on Esther’s minimal sexual experience happens to be a hypocrite since he’s actually had a sexual affair. Although Buddy’s hypocrisy incenses Esther, it’s his paramour who is described as “some slutty waitress”, a detail suggesting Esther’s internalized misogyny. ↩
- Fearing that she will fail a chemistry course, Esther manipulates her image as a good student to escape taking this course and earns accolades for her intellectual maturity, something which she later feels crushing guilt for doing. ↩
- Esther potentially suffers from impostor syndrome: she describes an incident in which Jay Cee questions her focus and career plans as unmasking her. ↩