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Themes

It's easy to read The Bell Jar and think that it's just about suicide and death. The funny thing is, for a novel about death, The Bell Jar spends a lot of time obsessing about…birth. Death and birth are ways of thinking about the most radical transformation of the self: the death of everything you hate about yourself so that you can be reborn into something entirely new and different, purged of all the hypocrisy and the self-doubt and the fear of modern life. Esther's attempted suicide is just the most extreme of the extreme situations she seeks out in order to manufacture such a transformation. You could say the novel is about her attempt to "die" – lose her old self – without actually, physically, dying. But whether she succeeds or not is a question the novel leaves up in the air.

Questions About Transformation

  1. How does Esther feel about death and suicide? Why does she want to kill herself?
  2. While Esther seems very critical of the social expectation that women produces lots of babies, images of birth and babies are everywhere in the book. What is the significance of these images?
  3. Above we stated that the novel is about Esther's attempt to "die" – lose her old self – without actually, physically, dying. Do you think she succeeds in this mission? Does she experience a true transformation?
  4. How would you describe Esther's attitude toward her body? Does she feel comfortable in her own skin, or does she seem alienated from her body as well? What are some similarities and differences between different physical experiences, say, between her flight down the ski slope and her sexual encounter with Irwin?

Chew on This

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

In The Bell Jar, Esther's attempted suicide, while terrifyingly real, is also a metaphor for her attempt at a radical self-transformation, a rebirth into a more authentic self.

The Bell Jar uses the experience of birth as a metaphor for Esther's recovery from a debilitating depression.

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