Study Guide

The Bell Jar Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Sylvia Plath

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The 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.

The Fig Tree

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.

Reflections, Photographs, Doubles

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.

Electricity or Shock

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.

Stop the Presses

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.

Places of Confinement

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."