The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath
The first page of The Bell Jar is an abrupt introduction to Esther Greenwood's wry, morbid voice. Esther is obsessed with the sensational coverage of the Rosenbergs, the couple executed for being Communist spies, and she remarks,
It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world. (1.1-2)
With a narrator obsessed with the "worst" things in this world, you know you're not getting a lighthearted comedy here. And if her morbid humor doesn't immediately resonate with you, it might be easy to be put off by Esther's character. After all, what do the Rosenbergs have to do with a middle-class, well-educated young woman in the 1950s? Why shouldn't we just close the book after the first page and read something that's about historically significant personalities instead? For some people, Esther's attempt at suicide would only underscore her basic selfishness, and her general insignificance to the world at large.
But let's propose here that you should keep listening to Esther Greenwood. Why? Well, first off, we have a brutally honest, self-critical narrator who is harder on herself that we the readers ever could be. Few pages go by without Esther commenting on her own weaknesses, her inaction, her naiveté, her hypocrisy, even her homophobia when she discusses Joan and DeeDee's relationship with Dr. Nolan.
And it is Esther's self-critical attitude that contrasts so starkly with the most of the other characters in The Bell Jar, who seem complacent, even smug in comparison. None of the other characters talk politics; they seem eager to sweep the worst things in the world under the rug. They're self-absorbed in their own way, preoccupied with sexual conquest or material comfort. None of the other characters really seem to question the world around them or their place in it, with the exception of Buddy and Joan at the very end of the novel.
Of course, the tragic side of Esther's self-critical attitude is that it can be so ruthless as to be self-destructive – to the point where Esther feels split in two, where she feels that she's a stranger to herself. When Esther looks in a mirror, she doesn't see herself: she sees a disembodied face. These cracks in Esther's personality come through when she literally takes on another personality, particularly when she meets men – think of her Elly Higginbottom persona, for example.
But it is perhaps because Esther is so intimate with the experience of being a stranger herself that she can identify with people on the margins of American society – people who are considered outsiders or strangers or criminals or mentally ill just because they don't fit into the mainstream definition of what an American should be. This may have something to do with Esther's self-consciousness about her German background (Nazi atrocities were still vivid in the American imagination at the time), her growing up in a non-traditional family (without a father), or her coming from relatively modest means (unlike many of the privileged girls at her college). If the character Betsy is the poster child for mainstream American culture, Esther stands for everybody who doesn't have Betsy's "Pollyanna Cowgirl" polish.
That's what makes Esther both a very modern and a very traditional American writer at the same time. Modern in her exposure of sexism in contemporary American society, her attempt to give a voice to women's desires, her criticism of the sometimes inhumane practices of the psychiatric profession, and her attention to American pop culture. But also very traditional in the sense that her quest for self-discovery would resonate with a long line of American writers from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau on, who insisted that self-discovery, and not material or political power, is the defining characteristic of American identity.