Study Guide

The Bell Jar Society and Class

By Sylvia Plath

Society and Class

It was a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. (1.1)

By identifying with the Rosenbergs, a couple executed as Soviet spies, Esther situates herself outside and in some ways opposed to American society.

I knew something was wrong with me that summer ...all the little successes I'd totted up so happily at college fizzled to nothing outside the slick marble and plate-glass fronts along Madison Avenue.

I was supposed to be having the time of my life. (1.5-6)

Madison Avenue has and still is associated with the American advertising industry (think of the recent A&E series Mad Men). Esther just can't seem to go along with the rush of advertising that celebrated American consumer culture at the time.

[I]f you do something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty. (3.17)

We invite you to test this out at a dining hall or a restaurant or maybe your second cousin's wedding. Just go for it.

I started adding up all the things I couldn't do [...] I felt dreadfully inadequate [...] The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end. (7.9-18)

Up until the summer before her senior year, Esther has done a good job of being a student of literature. But the thought of entering the real world terrifies her. The world she lives in seems to be about making money or spending money; it seems to have no place for the literary ideals that she cherishes.

I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three ... nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn't see a single pole beyond the nineteenth. (10.125)

In this passage, Esther considers all of the conventionally acceptable options for a well-educated young woman like herself, but they all bore her – literally to death, as she can't imagine her life extending past her nineteenth year.

The gray, padded roof closed over my head like the roof of a prison van, and the white, shining, identical clapboard houses with their interstices of well-groomed green proceeded past, one bar after another in a large but escape-proof cage. (10.34)

While for many the American suburb represented American affluence, Esther feels imprisoned, particularly after the hustle and bustle of New York City.

I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying "Ah!" in an encouraging way [...] how could this Doctor Gordon help me anyway, with a beautiful wife and beautiful children and a beautiful dog haloing him like the angels on a Christmas card? (11.29)

Dr. Gordon is the psychiatrist who mucks up Esther's electroshock therapy in a terrible way. As the patriarch of the ideal American family, Dr. Gordon seems to represent American society, punishing Esther for going against social expectations and rejecting marriage and family.

For the rest of the evening, I listened to DeeDee thump out some of her own songs on the grand piano, while the other women sat around playing bridge and chatting, just the way they would do in a college dormitory, only most of them were ten years over college age. (17.23)

This passage is one of many where Esther remarks on the similarities between the asylum patients and "normal" women.

The fat bright faces of babies beamed up at me, page after page – bald babies, chocolate-colored babies, Eisenhower-faced babies [...] babies doing all the little tricky things it takes to grow up, step by step, into an anxious and unsettling world [...]

The parenting magazine Esther flips through gives us a good idea of what it was like living during the post-WWII baby boom.

What was there about us, in Belsize, so different from the girls playing bridge and studying in the college to which I would return? Those girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort. (20.18)

Like Quote #8, this quote points out the similarities between the asylum patients and "normal" women. All women live under a bell jar in the sense that social convention requires them to suppress their individual needs and desires to support men.

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