Study Guide

The Bell Jar Writing Style

By Sylvia Plath

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Writing Style

Personal, Disorienting

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."

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