The Bell Jar
The Bell Jar Theme of Identity
It's either a double life or no life at all in The Bell Jar's gloomy vision of post-WWII American society. Because individuals feel compelled to conform to social convention, particularly when it comes to gender roles, individuals either lead double lives, trying to keep up appearances, or they become casualties of an unsympathetic society, such as Esther. As Esther's depression escalates, the novel emphasizes her growing sense that she has no self and no identity. But Esther is surrounded by people who have also lost their sense of who they are. Many characters serve as Esther's double or twin because they, too, have suffered as she has, particularly at the psychiatric institution.
Questions About Identity
- How does Esther feel about herself as an individual? Is she comfortable presenting herself in social situations? Why or why not?
- Consider all of the scenes where Esther looks into a mirror or a picture of herself. What do these scenes tell us about the way Esther feels about herself?
- Take a look at all of the instances where Esther takes on an alias or makes up stories about herself. Why does she lie? Can these fictions tell us anything about the true Esther?
- In the beginning of the novel, Esther constantly talks about feeling like a big zero. Does this attitude change at the end of the novel? What does she say or do in the last chapter to suggest that she either still feels that way, or has a more confident sense of who she is?
Chew on This
Esther's inability to recognize her own features and her constant lying about her true identity indicate how she has lost all sense of who she is.
Paradoxically, Esther lies about herself in her relationships with men in order to experience greater sexual freedom.