Study Guide

The Bell Jar Family

By Sylvia Plath


My mother spoke German during her childhood in America and was stoned for it during the First World War by the children at school. My German-speaking father, dead since I was nine, came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia [...] each time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam. (3.57)

Esther's parents' German background contributes to her feeling like an outsider in mainstream American society. German was the language of the enemy in World War I and II.

I wish I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I'd know what to do.

My own mother wasn't much help [...] She was always on to me to learn shorthand after college, so I'd have a practical skill as well as a college degree. (4.10)

Esther embraces Jay Cee as a possible mother figure because, unlike her own mother, Jay Cee is a successful professional who has made a life out of writing. Instead of trying to get Esther to learn shorthand, as Mrs. Greenwood does, Jay Cee tries to prepare Esther for a career in journalism by encouraging her to learn new languages.

Of course, our mothers were good friends. They had gone to school together and then both married their professors and settled down in the same town [...] (5.64)

For Esther, Mrs. Willard, her boyfriend's mother, is the mirror image of her own mother. Both mothers followed the conventional path of sacrificing their own careers for their husbands. By marrying Mrs. Willard's son Buddy, Esther would expect a similar fate.

"You oughtn't to see this," Will muttered in my ear. "You'll never want to have a baby if you do. They oughtn't to let women watch. It'll be the end of the human race." (6.19)

At the medical school Buddy attends, Esther witnesses a baby being born. Will, Buddy's fellow medical student who's in charge of delivering the baby, actually seems more freaked out by the experience than Esther is. The gross business of delivering a baby seems to be the dark secret that society is trying to cover up by promoting images of sweet domesticity, like Esther's neighbor Dodo Conway and her six children.

I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent [...] she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again. (6.25)

Esther sees something insidious about the fact that women are knocked out before giving birth. By losing consciousness, women are denied knowledge of one of the most critical experiences in their lives. Anesthesia seems to be part of a larger social trend to get women to literally lose their minds. (You might want to compare this experience with Esther's own experience with insulin shock therapy [16.62]).

[M]aybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state. (7.79)

If Buddy is trying to get Esther to marry him, he's not doing a very good job. The quote above is Esther's response to Buddy's suggestion that she won't feel like writing once she has a baby. Making your potential wife feel like a "slave in some private, totalitarian state" (and to the American public at the time, that would mean Stalin's Soviet Union) isn't too suave.

"I knew you'd decide to be all right again." (12.58)

In contrast to Dr. Nolan, Esther's mother doesn't seem to understand that Esther's mental illness is just that – an illness, not a moral failing. Depression isn't something that Esther can "decide" away. It's no wonder that Esther only gets worse in her mother's care: on top of depression, Esther has to deal with her mother's implication that Esther is somehow guilty of being depressed.

I had a great yearning, lately, to pay my father back for all the years of neglect, and start tending his grave. I had always been my father's favorite, and it seemed fitting I should take on a mourning my mother had never bothered with. (13.123)

The place of Esther's father in her life isn't really explored in the novel because he died when she was so young. But it's interesting that she decides to mourn his death right before she attempts suicide. Is it because she wishes she had a strong male figure in her life, an intellectual mentor, even a protector? Does she think her life would have been any better if he had been alive?

I was surprised to see a woman. I didn't think they had woman psychiatrists. This woman was a cross between Myrna Loy and my mother. (15.17)

For Esther, Dr. Nolan becomes a replacement for her mother – the cool mom she never had (Myrna Loy was a popular film actress at the time). Dr. Nolan listens to Esther and understands what she's going through. In contrast, Esther's mother seems to think that Esther's depression can be cured by work, even if it's not particularly fulfilling work like learning shorthand or volunteering at the local hospital.

"I hate her," I said, and waited for the blow to fall.

But Doctor Nolan only smiled at me as if something had pleased her very, very much and said, "I suppose you do." (16.93)

Dr. Nolan here lets Esther express her feelings about her mother honestly. Just getting the chance to express her feelings has therapeutic value for Esther. In the past, she's been so worried about what others think of her that she hasn't really had the chance to be honest with herself.

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