Study Guide

The Bell Jar Transformation

By Sylvia Plath


[L]ater, when I was all right again, I brought [the gifts] out, and I still have them around the house [...] last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with. (1.13)

This passage is the only glimpse we have of Esther, the narrator, after all of the events described in the novel. It suggests that she was able to get to the point where she could have a writing life (the book) and a baby at the same time.

I liked looking on at other people in crucial situations [...] I certainly learned a lot of things I never would have learned otherwise this way, and even when they surprised me or made me sick I never let on, but pretended that's the way I knew things were all the time. (1.97-98)

This passage suggests that crisis situations, such as Esther's attempted suicide, are the most revealing of a person's true nature.

The longer I lay there in the clear hot water the purer I felt, and when I stepped out at last and wrapped myself in one of the big, soft white hotel bath towels I felt pure and sweet as a new baby. (2.49)

This passage is one of many where Esther expresses her desire to feel "pure," newborn, without all of the baggage of her life.

People and trees receded on either hand like the dark sides of a tunnel as I hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother's belly. (7.117)

Like Quote #3, the image of the baby appears here, only this time in one of Esther's extreme situations. The baby image signals a moment where Esther feels truly alive, even as she risks her life hurtling down a ski slope.

As I paddled on, my heartbeat boomed like a dull motor in my ears.

I am I am I am. (13.53)

So, yeah, Esther thinks her heart is talking to her. A pretty weird way to think about your body, true. But it is interesting that Esther's body is no longer something that she thinks of as a sexual object (see our discussion of this theme under "Sex") or as a baby-making machine (see our discussion of this theme under "Women and Femininity"). It's just her body, pure and simple, reduced to the most essential expression of the fact that she is, that she lives.

Then I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash.

I would simply have to ambush it with whatever sense I had left, or it would trap me in its stupid cage for fifty years without any sense at all. (13.62-63)

Here we have another instance where Esther has, well, an out-of-body experience in her own body, as if her body isn't really under her control but has a will of its own. Her body wants to live; she does not.

The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep. (13.)

We don't want to get all Freudian on you, but Esther's suicide scene seems very womb-ish in its set-up. She crawls into a dark tunnel? Not tough to see this as her crawling back into a metaphorical birth canal. And the rhythmic tidal imagery suggests the contractions and water breaking during labor. Too Freudian? Or just another way to stress the association between birth and death for Esther?

I lay, trying to slow the beating of my heart, as every beat pushed forth another gush of blood. (19.92)

After Esther's treatment under Dr. Nolan, we see that she's finally willing herself to live. During the hemorrhaging episode after she loses her virginity, she tries to suppress her body's natural reaction to pump blood, which is actually threatening her life.

How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again? (20.60)

Even though with Quote #1 we see that the narrator/Esther is speaking from the perspective of having survived this personal tragedy, this quote suggests that Esther isn't entirely free of the threat of the bell jar.

But I wasn't getting married. There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice – patched, retreaded, and approved for the road, I was trying to think of an appropriate one when Doctor Nolan appeared from nowhere and touched me on the shoulder. (20.96)

Here, Esther continues to reject marriage as the defining event in a young woman's road to maturity. She picks her own rite – the rite of being reborn, significantly not through suicide, as she attempted in the depths of her depression, but through the therapy she underwent at the institution.

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