Study Guide

The Bell Jar Identity

By Sylvia Plath


I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullaballoo. (1.9)

In this early passage, Esther feels that she is distanced from the "hullaballoo" of New York City. Her feelings of emptiness suggest that she's lost her sense of who she is.

Doreen had intuition. Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones. (1.42)

Esther uses the term "intuition" to describe characters with whom she instantly connects. They are usually unconventional characters, such as Doreen.

I felt myself melting into the shadows like the negative of a person I'd never seen before in my life. (1.64)

This passage describes how Esther feels invisible in social situations. In the darkness of the bar, all eyes are on the beautiful Doreen in her gleaming white dress, and not on Esther.

I felt myself shrinking to a small black dot [...] I felt like a hole in the ground [...] (2.21)

The fact that Doreen and Lenny act as if Esther doesn't exist leads Esther to feel that she literally doesn't exist.

It's like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction – every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it's really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier [...] (2.23)

This passage emphasizes the way that Esther feels invisible in the eyes of society. She sees herself not through her own eyes, but from the perspective of others, in this case Paris.

"Elly, Elly, Elly," the first voice mumbled, while the other voice went on hissing, "Miss Greenwood, Miss Greenwood, Miss Greenwood," as if I had a split personality or something. (2.52)

Esther often uses aliases or pseudonyms in the novel in social situations; it gives her a certain freedom to pretend to be someone else. This feeling of having a "split personality" gets much more serious later in the novel as her depression worsens, and she loses all sense of who she really is.

"I don't really know," I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true. (3.52)

In this conversation with her boss, Jay Cee, Esther feels enormous pressure to pin down her identity to a definite career path, but she finds herself unable to. (Come to think of it, a lot of people have no idea what they want to do after college, so why is Jay Cee being so hard on Esther?)

The mouth in the mirror cracked into a grin.

A minute after the crash another nurse ran in. (14.76-77)

This passage is a great example of how Esther feels alienated from her own body. It's "the" mouth, not "my" mouth, as if a random pair of lips just happened to be dangling in front of a mirror. And notice that there's a paragraph break where a description of what Esther is thinking when she sees herself should be. The novel shows how Esther loses herself by literally erasing her from the page – just a paragraph break. Pretty cool, huh?

The first clipping showed a big, blown-up picture of a girl with black-shadowed eyes and black lips spread in a grin [...] The next clipping showed a picture of my mother and brother and me grouped together in our backyard and smiling [...] The last picture showed policemen lifting a long, limp blanket roll with a featureless cabbage head into the back of the ambulance. (16.34)

As we saw in Quote #8, Esther has a hard time recognizing images of herself, just as society doesn't seem to be able to see her either (see Quote #5 above, for example).

[Joan's] thoughts were not my thoughts, nor her feelings my feelings, but we were close enough so that her thoughts and feelings seemed a wry, black image of my own. (18.50)

Even as Esther feels herself splitting up into multiple personalities, she sees herself in others' situations, like the Rosenbergs and her friend Joan.

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