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Themes

Told through Esther's perspective, The Bell Jar gives a vivid account of one individual's experience with suicidal depression. But Esther's acute social observations and her acid wit have to make you wonder whether much of her "madness" is actually just a reaction against the pressures of social convention, a form of protest, if you will. The novel is also an indictment of the sometimes inhumane practices of the psychiatric profession at the time. In the novel, treatments such as electroconvulsive shock therapy and insulin shock therapy (a practice where patients are pumped full of insulin until they experience a brief coma) render patients into vacuous robots. The novel is critical of a psychiatric practice that seems to have no other purpose than to turn its female patients into Stepford Wives.

Questions About Madness

  1. Take a look at the way Esther's psychological state changes through the course of the novel. What actions or thoughts reveal her state of mind? Why does Esther seek out "extreme" situations, such as in the ski accident episode?
  2. How does Esther's state of mind affect the way that she views the world? What are some passages where the imagery is particularly distorted or bizarre?
  3. How does Esther's state of mind affect her relationships with other people – her mother and Buddy Willard, for example? Conversely, how do these relationships contribute to her decline?
  4. Consider the similarities and differences between Dr. Gordon and Dr. Nolan. While both doctors employ electroshock therapy, they clearly have different results. Why does Dr. Nolan succeed where Dr. Gordon fails?
  5. Here's a sticky one: how do we distinguish between Esther's "mad" thoughts and her "sane" ones? Does her mental illness mean that everything that she says is unreasonable?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

In The Bell Jar, Esther's mental illness is partly brought on by the pressure she feels to conform to social norms, particularly with regard to women.

In The Bell Jar, Esther seeks out crisis situations where her life is on the line as a way to get in touch with her true identity and to develop a clearer perspective from which to view her life and the world around her.

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