Told from Esther's point-of-view, The Bell Jar is saturated with her cynicism toward the hypocrisy, sexism, and conventionalism of American society. Since the novel is written from Esther's perspective long after the actual events described in the novel, the cynicism is sometimes focused on Esther's own naiveté, as an older Esther views her youthful self's misconceptions about men and sex with self-deprecating humor. Underneath this often brittle, sarcastic shell, however, you can still feel young Esther's pain and agony, particularly as she wrestles with her suicidal depression.
The Bell Jar falls squarely in the category of coming-of-age fiction. It traces the path of Esther Greenwood, the main character and narrator, as she undergoes a critical period in her life where she transitions from a naïve adolescent to an experienced young woman. While at the beginning of the novel, Esther agonizes over losing her virginity, her literary hopes, and her mind, by the end of the novel, Esther has gained some sexual experience, feels more confident in her literary aspirations, and has emerged from the "bell jar" of her crippling depression. Plath's novel has often been compared to J. D. Salinger's 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye because both works use adolescent angst as an occasion for criticizing social norms.
If you zoned out in class when your physics teacher brought out the bell jar, that's OK. In fact, it might be useful just to imagine what a bell jar is. Perhaps a jar shaped like a bell? Shaped like the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, maybe? Certainly an unusual shape for a jar. What would they keep in a jar like that? Something equally unusual?
Well, you're not far wrong. A bell jar is – surprise! – shaped like an upside-down bell and creates a vacuum effect that comes in handy when you're trying to preserve plants or perform physics experiments in the classroom (like this "phunny" guy). The peculiar feature of the bell jar is that it keeps everything inside hermetically sealed from the outside world. Whatever's inside remains preserved, static, unchanging.
In The Bell Jar, the main character uses the bell jar as the primary metaphor for feelings of confinement and entrapment. She feels that she's stuck in her own head, spinning around the same thoughts of self-doubt and dejection, over and over again, with no hope of escape. But she also uses the bell jar as a metaphor for society at large, for the way that people can be trapped inside stale social conventions and expectations.
The Bell Jar closes just as Esther enters her exit interview at the psychiatric institution where she has spent the past few months recovering. Since the novel stops there, we can't know for sure what happened in the interview, whether the doctors decided that Esther was ready to go back to college, or whether they decided that she needed more therapy.
But we do know that the novel is being narrated at some point in the future by Esther. Let's just call her "Future Esther" for convenience. The only hint that we get about Future Esther's life is that for a "long time afterward," she couldn't bear to look at the free stuff she got at her summer internship, but when she was "all right again" she brought the stuff back out, used the free lipstick still (not sure how long lipsticks lasted in the 1950s), and "last week" gave one of the freebies to her baby to play with (1.13). Future Esther has managed to have a child and write this narrative, two things that weren't supposed to be possible together, according to many of the other characters in the novel.
But it isn't clear under what conditions she was able to do both, to have her cake and eat it too, if you will. It's not clear whether she's married, whether she was finally able to find true love, or whether she had the child out of wedlock. And it's certainly not clear whether she will sink into a suicidal depression again. In some ways, this early passage is the real ending to the novel, although it leaves just as many questions unanswered.
Of course, the temptation is to read Plath's life back into the novel. But just because Plath ended her own life does not mean that Esther Greenwood, a fictional creation, also committed suicide or was intended to commit suicide by the author. That would be missing the whole point of writing fiction, made-up stories.
The main action of the story takes place in the summer of 1953. After an internship at a magazine in New York City, Esther ends up in her hometown outside Boston, where she attempts to commit suicide. She then spends much of her time in a psychiatric institution, also outside Boston, before her release in January, 1954.
Esther lives in an America that's emerged flush from victory in World War II as one of the pre-eminent world superpowers. In this post-war period, the American economy is booming, and the middle class enjoys unprecedented prosperity and access to a wide array of consumer goods. We're in the world of Mad Men, where American consumer culture finds its expression in the kind of glossy women's magazines that Esther interns at. (Esther's experience is partly based on Plath's own as a college intern at Mademoiselle.) This period of prosperity also ushers in the baby boom, and to this day, when we refer to "baby-boomers" we're referring to people who were born around this time. (You can read more about this time period on Shmoop History.)
The flip side of this heady period is a deep paranoia toward outsiders as a consequence of the Cold War. After World War II ended in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union became rivals for nuclear supremacy, and suspected communists were rounded up in the United States on the suspicion that they were spying for the Soviets. The Rosenbergs mentioned in the first paragraph of the novel were casualties of this period, also called the McCarthy era. While recent scholarship has emerged showing that the Rosenbergs were involved in espionage with the Soviet Union, at the time their electrocution was viewed by many as another example of the excesses of the McCarthy era (source). In a time when the memory of German atrocities during World War II was still fresh in the American psyche, Esther's German ancestry contributes to her feeling of isolation from mainstream American society and her identification with the Rosenbergs' fate.
The Bell Jar is very readable and often very funny. Some might, however, balk at the dark subject matter – a young woman's attempted suicide and subsequent recovery.
The Bell Jar reads like an e-mail from your coolest friend – clever without being pretentious, funny without trying too hard, sarcastic but not mean. There are some quotable lines in the book that are dropped dead-pan in the middle of some serious material. For example, after a wicked bout of food poisoning described in all its gross, nauseating detail, Esther remarks, "There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends" (4.40). Funny, because it's true.
But it's worth taking a closer look at the way the style is engineered, because the book does such a good job taking us straight into Esther's disturbed mind that the effect seems natural, seamless. That seamlessness is created by abrupt shifts in time and surprising imagery. Often, inanimate objects will act with hallucinatory vividness, as when Esther's memory of a cadaver head follows her around like "some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar" (1.4). And we don't get the story in chronological order, making it sometimes hard to situate the order of events. For example, after reading a conversation between Esther and Joan, we get a section break, then the line, "'It hurts,' I said, 'Is it supposed to hurt?'" (19.18). Suddenly, we're smack dab in the middle of Esther's disastrous sexual encounter with Irwin. It's only after this line that we get the back-story: how Esther met Irwin, how she decided to sleep with him, the events leading up to the sexual encounter, and so forth. These kinds of distortions help us see the world through the funhouse lens of Esther's "bell jar."
It's pretty obvious from the title that the bell jar is a huge symbol in the book. So huge that it deserves its own section. So we're listing the bell jar under "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" just to let you know that you should take a look at our "What's Up with the Title?" for more on this important symbol.
In Chapter 5, Esther flips open an anthology of short stories, and instantly connects with a story about a Jewish man and a Catholic nun who meet under a fig tree. (The story is a twist on the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, where a tree is also the scene of a frisk between the sexes.) The short story resonates with Esther because it speaks to her own experience with Buddy. Even though she and Buddy go to the same church, they may as well be from different religions because of their vastly different outlooks – on the roles of men and women, for example. Later, Esther returns to the fig tree again in Chapter 7, this time as an image of all of the things she could be but won't because she's paralyzed with indecision.
The novel stresses Esther's personal crisis by repeatedly showing how she doesn't recognize herself in the mirror and in photographs of herself: she's lost all sense of who she is. When Esther finally sees herself in the mirror after her attempted suicide, all she sees is a spooky grin, and she drops her mirror in horror. The flip side of this is that it's easy for Esther to make up stories about herself and take on aliases, as when she takes on her Elly Higginbottom persona. This splitting up of Esther's personality into multiple personalities also means that she tends to see herself in other characters, as when she recognizes Joan as a double for herself.
The novel opens with Esther's obsession with a gruesome electrocution, which signals ahead to Esther's experiences with electroshock therapy, and also to her memory of being electrocuted by her father's lamp. The most immediate thought that comes to mind whenever you do see electrocution in the novel is probably just, well, the irony. The scenes where electroshock therapy are described are shocking in and of themselves, and a lot of the novel's material is shocking – Esther's "rehearsals" leading up to her suicide, her violent encounters with Marco and Irwin, just to name a couple of the more gruesome bits. Given all that, it seems pretty ironic that society's cure for someone deemed "shocking" like Esther is … shock. Like, they're going to use the same method they use to execute enemies of the state (the Rosenbergs) on the mentally ill? Whoa. That also brings up the question of the function of the novel's shocking material on the reader. Is the novel supposed to be therapeutic for us in some way?
Now the link up with her father – that's a bit more elusive. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Esther feels abandoned by her father, as if her father was somehow punishing her by dying. Or perhaps a broken lamp is just a broken lamp.
Every once in a while, a headline from one of Esther's tabloids is splashed across the page, interrupting the regular flow of the material. And you might notice that these headlines look a lot like what we get off of US Weekly or People today. Few of us can look away from these headlines when we're languishing in a supermarket checkout line, and the novel pokes fun at our lurid fascination with sensational events and celebrity gossip. Like Esther with her highfalutin literary studies, most of us do have a voice in our heads telling us that we should be spending more time reading about serious issues rather than the seedy details of this rich-and-beautiful-something's break-up with that rich-and-beautiful-something.
The "bell jar" of the novel's title finds its parallel in the many places of confinement in the novel. The hospitals where Esther stays, Buddy's tuberculosis sanatorium, and the Deer Island prison that Esther visits are all places where people are separated off from the rest of society because they are considered in some way dangerous – mentally ill, infectious, or criminal. But these places are also disturbingly similar to the other, "normal" places in the novel, like Esther's mother's home or even a place as innocuous as the Amazon, Esther's dorm in New York City. All of these places point to society's need to group and divide people under rigid labels – "criminal," "insane," or just "virginal young woman."
All the events in The Bell Jar are filtered through the main character, Esther Greenwood. It's as if we're parked directly inside her head, hearing all of her thoughts, seeing everything that she sees, and feeling every single thrill of fear, disgust, delight, and shock. The limitation of this narrative point of view is that it's tough to get an objective view of Esther or a fuller account of the other characters. This intensely subjective point of view is somewhat moderated by the fact that the events are narrated from the perspective of an older Esther, at some point after the events described in the novel. This narrative perspective, however, is only very briefly mentioned in the first chapter; the narrative in general hews to the young Esther's point of view.
Through extensive flashbacks, Esther reviews her life leading up to the summer of her nineteenth year. Even though on the outside she appears to be leading the perfect life, with a string of academic successes and a boyfriend who seems to be ideal husband material, on the inside she feels that everything in her life is a sham. The revelation that her boyfriend had an affair over the previous summer makes her skeptical of the prevailing sexual double standard that expects men to be sexually active and women chaste. And her academic successes feel empty because she has no idea what to do with herself after college.
Despite her cynicism, Esther is prepared to enjoy her magazine internship in New York City. She relishes the free restaurant dinners and gifts. Eager for experience, she sometimes ditches magazine events to go out on the town with her friend Doreen and on blind dates with mysterious UN translators.
Yet even though she's supposed to be having the time of her life, Esther can't help feeling despondent. Her obsession with the Rosenbergs' execution is only the first in a long list of morbid musings, and her summer internship ends with a disastrous blind date where she has to defend herself against a sexual assault.
Rejected from a summer writing program, Esther's sense of self-worth is at an all-time low. It doesn't help that she's living with her mother, who subtly suggests that Esther's literary efforts are all for nothing as Esther will probably end up as a wife and a secretary. After a few half-hearted attempts at suicide, Esther decides to go through with it and swallows a bottle of pills.
With a sympathetic psychiatrist directing her treatment, Esther feels the cloud of her depression lift. Esther emerges at the end of the novel feeling reborn, as if she's gotten a new lease on life.
As the novel opens, Esther has everything a young woman could want: a dreamy boyfriend; a string of sparkling academic successes; and a cushy job as an intern in a women's magazine, where she gets showered with free stuff and parties. While all of this makes Esther look good on paper, she's terribly unhappy. She doesn't feel personally fulfilled by what she does, and she feels as if no matter what she does or how brightly she shines, society is grooming her to become a docile housewife.
Back home, Esther feels her worst fears about herself have been confirmed. The rejection from the writing program kills her self-esteem, and she's stuck at home with her mom in the soul-crushing boredom of the suburbs for the rest of the summer.
As the summer wears on, Esther's behavior grows more erratic as her despair deepens. A visit to a psychiatrist and electroshock therapy only accelerate her decline. After a few hesitant attempts at suicide, Esther decides to end it all by crawling into a hollow underneath her house and swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. She's discovered a few days later, barely alive.
It's touch-and-go for Esther for the first few weeks after her suicide attempt. The first two psychiatric wards do nothing to help her condition. Finally, Philomena Guinea, the woman who funds Esther's college scholarship, swoops in and deposits Esther at a private institution, where Esther finally begins to emerge from her depression.
Esther's condition improves to the point where she's allowed "town privileges," that is, she's permitted to leave the institution and go into town. Esther takes this opportunity to assert her sexual freedom and loses her virginity to a Harvard professor she meets in Cambridge. She bleeds profusely, and has to seek the help of her friend and fellow psychiatric patient Joan. Esther's wounds heal, and she doesn't experience any emotional trauma after the event, but her friend Joan commits suicide a few days after.
The novel ends with Esther entering her exit interview. While the novel doesn't tell us what happens afterward, we can assume from stray comments in the novel that Esther is indeed released from the institution.
Esther experiences a series of crises in the summer before her senior year in college that lead her to contemplate suicide.
After a few half-hearted attempts at suicide, Esther attempts to kill herself by swallowing a bottleful of sleeping pills, but she fails.
Esther undergoes treatment at a psychiatric institution. The novel ends as she prepares for her exit interview at the institution.