New York City
The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel, meaning that it is a novel based off of the author’s real-life situation, but is covered with fictional names of people and places. The novel is based off of Sylvia Plath’s journey through her struggle with depression and the expectations of women in society. The main character, Esther Greenwood, is a 19-year old girl, entering a one-month paid internship at Ladies Day magazine in New York City. Esther aspires to be a poet, but her on-and-off boyfriend, Buddy Willard minimizes those aspects of her life and her mother wants her to have another career to fall back on. Esther soon learns that to make it as a New York Editor, she will need to spends hours upon hours reading manuscripts and boring work that she doesn’t truly enjoy. She begins to feel more and more disjointed and cannot find happiness in her time in New York. She feels hopeless as she learns what it is like to be a woman in the world, with set expectations and men assaulting her. She feels lost in her career and her place in society, and is sent on a downward spiral through depression and suicidal thoughts. After seeking help from two different doctors, she slowly begins to regroup and find better friends, such as Joan, who she initially bonds with because they both had dated Buddy Willard in the past. After living with what felt like endless unhappiness, Esther finally enters an interview that will determine if she can leave the hospital and return to school.
I would highly recommend this novel because it not only takes the reader on an emotional journey through Esther’s life, but also gives the reader a closer glimpse at what Sylvia Plath truly felt through her life. It gave me insight on what people who are depressed or have suicidal thoughts live through, which was a very interesting viewpoint to look through. As a woman, I was able to resonate with what Esther lived through with her expectations to stay a virgin until marriage and be pure, as well as men assaulting her. I would mainly recommend this novel to women because they would have a better understanding of some of what Esther lives through, but I also think men should read this novel to get a different viewpoint on a lot of occurrences that happen often to many women in this society. A lot of people may be able to relate to Esther’s struggle with depression, which would make them enjoy the book and feel like they are not alone.
Significance of the Title
The significance of the title The Bell Jar is that it symbolizes the feelings of confinement and entrapment that Esther experiences. A bell jar is shaped like an upside-down bell that creates a vacuum effect that keeps everything that it covers sealed from any outside forces. Whatever that is in the bell jar remains unchanged and completely preserved. Esther feels like she is trapped in her own thoughts of depression with self-doubt and disappointment. The bell jar also symbolizes how everyone in society tends to stay trapped in one social idea that is deemed right and how society has set expectations for women that tend to remain unchanged throughout many years. Esther tends to feel trapped when she contemplates how “if Mrs. Guinea had given [her] a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to [her], because wherever [she] sat ... [she] would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in [her] own sour air” (Plath 185). Esther feels trapped in her bell jar and feels isolated to the rest of the world, as she finds herself having a harder and harder time doing everyday tasks and feels herself crawling into a deeper hole of depression and dark emotions.
The setting of this novel is in the 1950s in multiple cities such as New York City, Boston, and surrounding suburbs. This setting is important because Esther is living in post-World War II America, where the economy was booming, and the middle-class Americans enjoyed what felt like endless prosperity and access to many different goods that were not readily available before. Many American consumers became indulged in women’s magazines, such as the magazine that Esther interns for in New York City. After World War II, the United States and Soviet Union became brutal rivals, and suspected communists were rounded up in the US for suspicion that they were Soviet spies. This situation is introduced in the very first paragraph of the novel where Esther describes a family, the Rosenbergs, being electrocuted, and Esther wondering what it felt like. Plath’s use of the setting of post-World War II helps to introduce the idea of death into the reader’s mind from Esther’s curiosity of this method of catching spies in the United States, as well as introduce the problems with society and the media’s fascination with publishing these type of events on headlines in newspapers, as Esther describes. This period after World War II also brought the period of the baby boom, where people were very eager to start families and have babies, making Esther feel lost, as she does not want to get married or start a family yet. She feels lost in this new society of the 1950s, making the setting very significant in her timeline of events.
The Bell Jar has multiple different key themes that Plath develops throughout her novel. These themes include growth through suffering and rebirth, and the toxicity of conventional expectations of society. The theme of growth through suffering and rebirth is developed throughout the novel through Esther’s journey through her time in New York, as she loses meaning in living. After her suicide attempt, she grows and aspires to basically just survive. She begins to find strength in herself as she “took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of [her] heart. I am, I am, I am” (Plath 158). She begins to find a clear understanding of her mentality and feels reborn, as she finds an increased confidence in herself and emerges from her depression. She finds her strength through her rejection of typical societal expectations of womanhood, which is another developing theme throughout the novel. As Esther enters womanhood, she realizes that society has a very fixed opinion on what a girl should do, or how she should act. Esther doesn’t feel like she fits into this mold of what a girl should be, as she feels as though at her internship, she “should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but [she] couldn’t get [herself] to react” (Plath 3). She finds herself continuously feeling as though her actions and emotions are wrong, or that she is alone in this scary world and begins to lose her sense of reality. Society says that a woman should focus to please a man, that she should be pure, and that she should focus on starting a family, but Esther doesn’t feel as though she fits this mold. The harsh conventional expectations of women had a very heavy effect on Esther, as it causes her to feel unaccepted and like the world is full of toxicity.
Sylvia Plath utilizes multiple different types of diction throughout the novel to portray different moods. Towards the beginning of the novel, Plath uses a lighter tone by using typical vocabulary that a naive young girl would use. Plath uses a playful and happy voice to show what Esther’s normal and untroubled state would be. When talking about what a girl says, Plath uses “isn’t he such a card?” (Plath 15) to set a light and playful atmosphere among young girls in that time period of the 1950s. However, as the story progresses, Plath uses more a negative tone to set a more depressing mood. Plath begins to use the word “safe” a lot when Esther is describing how her being in a room with no widows makes her feel safer, or how using a fake name makes her feel safer. Esther begins to seem anxious, as she progressively becomes obsessed with her safety, portraying Esther’s characterization and her development of her mental illness. Towards the resolution of the book, Plath begins to use more mature and positive word choices to show Esther’s development through her recovery and her maturation through the novel. Plath utilizes different types of diction to portray a certain mood at a point in the novel, as well as to emphasize the characterization and development of Esther.
Plath utilizes metaphors throughout the novel to highlight Esther’s loss of identity. When Esther first gets her internship at the girl’s magazine company, she realizes that she “should have been excited the way most of the girls were, but [she] couldn’t get [herself] to react. [She] felt very still and very empty the way the eye of a tornado must feel moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (Plath 3). Being in a big city such as New York, with a great opportunity of this internship, she has a desire to be happy and excited, yet she finds herself sad and melancholy. She loses her identity and feels like she is in a whirl of emptiness and dullness. Plath uses mirrors as symbolism in the novel to emphasize Esther’s loss of her own identity. When Esther looks into her reflection, she sees a different person that she begins to stop believing is her because the person looks so foreign to her. When Esther is given a mirror at her mental hospital, she believes that “it wasn’t a mirror at all, but a picture” until she, “smiled. The mouth in the mirror cracked a grin” (Plath 203). When Esther sees herself, she refers to her smile as a mouth, rather than her own mouth, showing how she cannot even recognize herself. Her mind and body seem to be completely different things and disconnected altogether, causing Esther to have a continuous loss of identity. Plath utilizes similes to emphasize Esther’s true emotions. When she was in a room of dancing people, she “felt [herself] shrinking to a small black dot against all those red and white rugs and that pine paneling. [She] felt like a hole in the ground” (Plath 16). She loses her sense of her surroundings, further highlighting her loss of her identity and her loss of control of herself. As her mind and body begin to feel more and more separated, she begins to feel as if she does not exist and as if she is shrinking into a wall.
The Bell Jar ends with Esther stepping into a room at the hospital that she stays at, where she is going to be interviewed to determine if she can leave the hospital and go back to college. The novel ends quite openly with the possibility of Esther staying or leaving, and the reader never finding out the answer. I liked the ending because it leaves a bit of mystery at the end of the novel and leaves room for the reader to interpret their own ending. After reading through Esther’s entire journey, the reader is able to interpret whether they believe she is ready to leave or not. However, I disliked the ending because after reading through Esther’s entire journey, I would have liked to know how Esther’s journey and recovery ends. I wanted a true resolution to the novel. The ending was quite effective and consistent with the rest of the book because through the whole novel, the reader is always unsure of Esther’s recovery and whether she will ever truly get better or not. Leading up to the ending, Esther seems to be getting a lot better, but then her good friend, Joan, kills herself. Esther had just lost one of her good friends, which could result in a deeper level of depression, leaving the reader curious about whether Esther is truly recovered now and ready to go out into the world. I would not have ended the novel differently because this method of ending the novel leaves a sense of unknowingness of how Esther’s recovery will go, which further shows Esther’s anxiety of not knowing her place in society and where her life is taking her. The ending is perfect with the rest of the novel and doesn’t result with a perfectly happy ending, which I appreciate.