Study Guide

The Bell Jar Literature and Writing

By Sylvia Plath

Literature and Writing

The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there is to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner, and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. (1.1)

This passage, which is set smack dab in the middle of the first paragraph of the novel, sets the novel apart from mass media (such as newspapers and popular magazines). Unlike the sensational way that the mass media often covers suicide and adolescent angst, the novel is going to try to take a serious and personally candid look at the matter.

People were made of nothing so much as dust, and I couldn't see that doctoring all that dust was a bit better than writing poems people could remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick and couldn't sleep. (5.60)

Here, Esther imagines her response to Buddy, who looks down on her writing aspirations as a useless hobby. The passage suggests a social function for writing, as a way of comforting people, possibly even as a form of therapy.

I had read one of Mrs. Guinea's books in the town library – the college library didn't stock them for some reason – and it was crammed from beginning to end with long, suspenseful questions: "Would Evelyn discern that Gladys knew Roger in her past? wondered Hector feverishly" and "How could Donald marry her when he learned of the child Elsie, hidden away with Mrs. Rollmop on the secluded country farm? Griselda demanded of her bleak moonlit pillow." (4.16)

Philomena Guinea, popular novelist, is also a part of the mass media culture that Esther seeks some distance from. With her soap operatic fictions, Philomena Guinea fills the need for romance of her mainly female audience.

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. (7.79)

Buddy, in a not so smooth move, once again disparages Esther's literary talent, this time suggesting that women are really only good for having children.

A feeling of tenderness filled my heart. My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. (10.99)

This is what literary critics would call a "self-reflexive" move on the part of the novel. The heroine of Esther's imaginary novel is herself, "only in disguise" – uh, like The Bell Jar is about Sylvia Plath, "only in disguise"? Kind of puts a new spin on all of those times that Esther takes on different names, hm?

I needed experience.

How could I write about a life when I'd never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? (10.109-110)

Interestingly, all three of these things happen in Esther's life. We hear about how she lost her virginity, we know that she's had a baby by the time she's written this story, and while she hasn't actually "seen" anyone dying, she did attempt suicide and her friend Joan passed away.

Words, dimly familiar but twisted all awry, like faces in a funhouse mirror, fled past, leaving no impression on the glassy surface of my brain. (10.138)

Esther describes her attempt to read what many consider to be the greatest novel of all time, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. And yes, those are actual quotes from the book. If those quotes seem to be "dimly familiar but twisted all awry" to you, you are not alone. You are so not alone that you are in the majority. But Joyce appears in The Bell Jar to signal Esther's own hope to write great literature.

It was what my mother called a scandal sheet, full of the local murders and suicides and beatings and robbings [...] At home, all I ever saw was the Christian Science Monitor, which appeared on the doorstep at five o'clock every day but Sunday and treated suicides and sex crimes and airplane crashes as if they didn't happen. (11.127-8)

Esther here describes why she loves to read "scandal sheets," which would be roughly similar to the New York Post today, though a step above The National Enquirer. Unlike the Christian Science Monitor, which maintains an aura of social respectability, the scandal sheets get into the real dirt and grime of human experience.

The only reason I remembered this play was because it had a mad person in it, and everything I had ever read about mad people stuck in my mind, while everything else flew out. (13.13)

Although Henrik Ibsen isn't specifically mentioned, this play sounds an awful lot like his Ghosts, where a man gone mad with syphilis he inherited in the womb is (possibly) killed by his mother in a mercy killing. Ibsen was both celebrated and pilloried for his look at the dark side of human nature, and he continues to be considered one of the greatest modern playwrights.


In an ironic or not-so-ironic twist, Esther ends up fodder for the scandal sheets that her mother deplores. The headline is kind of funny because it sums up a good portion of The Bell Jar in five words.

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