The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath
Esther acknowledges that Joan Giling, her high school friend, is in many ways her double. Like Esther, Joan dated Buddy. Like Esther, Joan attempted suicide and ended up at the same private institution as Esther. But unlike Esther, Joan successfully commits suicide. And given this important difference, we have to ask: why? Of two such similar women, what pushes one young woman over the edge?
Well, you're probably flipping back through the book trying to think through the differences, right? Joan is athletic; Esther can't ski and gets into a ski accident. That doesn't quite explain why Joan commits suicide …
What about the fact that Joan is a lesbian and Esther is not? Here, some promising avenues open up. Esther herself admits being repulsed, even disgusted by Joan's lesbianism, but gets over it when Dr. Nolan explains that some women seek "tenderness" from other women. And given all the violence Esther encounters with men, she can understand at least this aspect of lesbian sexuality.
But why suicide? After all, Esther gives many examples of lesbian couples in her acquaintance – professors at her college, students in her dorm. While 1950s America seems far less tolerant than American society today, it appears from the novel that women could still maintain sexual relationships with each other, even publicly. The novel seems to indicate that Joan had a crush on Esther. And she does commit suicide shortly after she helps Esther to the emergency room after Esther's disastrous encounter with Irwin.
But what exactly is it that drives Joan over the edge – the realization that Esther will never return her affections, the traumatic experience of seeing someone she loves seriously injured, or the sheer grossness of all that blood? Or perhaps the answer lies in Joan's desire to be like Esther – in her being inspired to attempt suicide by stories of Esther's suicide. And since she can never actually be Esther, did Joan want to die? These questions are left unanswered in the novel's surprisingly haunting portrayal of a relatively minor character.