The Bell Jar challenges the prevailing notion in the 1950s that women were inferior to, and dependent upon, men. Regardless of their individual talents and desires, women were expected to become wives and mothers, and, failing that, secretaries. Bright young women such as Esther were expected to sacrifice their own dreams to the needs of their husbands. The novel mocks the assumption that women are inferior to men by showing the hypocrisy and moral weakness of the male characters. But it also takes an axe to the myth of maternity as the epitome of womanhood through its grotesque images of pregnancy and birth.
The Bell Jar challenges the view that women must sacrifice their individual dreams to become wives and mothers.
The Bell Jar shows that the consequence of a sexual double standard for men and women is the impossibility of friendship and intimacy between the sexes.
The Bell Jar explores the impact that family has on an individual's identity in the context of 1950s American society. Esther's depression is partly brought on by the fact that neither her father nor her mother provide her with a stable emotional foundation: she lost her father at a young age, and her mother is unsympathetic to Esther's personal crises. Moreover, Esther's German background contributes to her feelings of isolation from mainstream American society, with Germany still viewed as the enemy from two World Wars. Without a parent to look to as a model or a source of comfort, Esther seeks alternative parental figures in more sympathetic, female mentors.
In The Bell Jar, family is viewed as just another arrangement that subjugates women to the authority of a dominant male figure, the husband and/or father.
In The Bell Jar, alternative mother figures play a critical role in Esther's recovery because they show Esther that women can have fulfilling emotional and professional lives, free from the male domination.
The Bell Jar takes a long, hard look at the place of sexuality in 1950s American society, and, ladies and gentleman, it's not pretty. For women, sexuality is divorced from any expression of love or passion. While it's considered natural for men to have sexual desires and to indulge these desires outside marriage, women are expected to remain chaste until they marry, and when they do marry, sex is all about having babies – it has nothing to do with romance or intimacy. The darker side of this sexual double standard is that sex is often associated with violence in the novel in ways that blur the line between consensual sex and rape: the sexual act is portrayed as another way for men to assert their dominance over women. The intimacy between Joan and DeeDee offers an interesting contrast to the violence associated with heterosexual sex.
The Bell Jar examines the way that chastity and virginity are terms used to restrict women's sexual independence.
The Bell Jar shows how violence is almost an inevitable consequence of sexual relationships between men and women in a society where women are considered inferior to men.
Plath's novel offers a cynical take on the complacency of middle-class American society in the 1950s. All the markers of American prosperity – consumerism, the baby boom, global supremacy – are viewed as suffocating and stifling (for more on the historical context, check out "Setting"). The enormous pressure to conform to social standards – of femininity, for example – results in the suppression of individuality. Characters who do conform are often portrayed as unfeeling, "numb" automatons, and the similarities between the mentally ill and "normal" people are often remarked. Esther's feeling of being confined under a bell jar not only describes her depression, but also serves as a general metaphor for a society muffled into uniformity by its own norms and conventions.
The Bell Jar tackles the superficial values of 1950s American society through the perspective of a relative outsider, Esther Greenwood.
Esther Greenwood's experience shows the darker side of 1950s American society by revealing the gender inequalities and social conformity under the surface of American prosperity.
Told through Esther's perspective, The Bell Jar gives a vivid account of one individual's experience with suicidal depression. But Esther's acute social observations and her acid wit have to make you wonder whether much of her "madness" is actually just a reaction against the pressures of social convention, a form of protest, if you will. The novel is also an indictment of the sometimes inhumane practices of the psychiatric profession at the time. In the novel, treatments such as electroconvulsive shock therapy and insulin shock therapy (a practice where patients are pumped full of insulin until they experience a brief coma) render patients into vacuous robots. The novel is critical of a psychiatric practice that seems to have no other purpose than to turn its female patients into Stepford Wives.
In The Bell Jar, Esther's mental illness is partly brought on by the pressure she feels to conform to social norms, particularly with regard to women.
In The Bell Jar, Esther seeks out crisis situations where her life is on the line as a way to get in touch with her true identity and to develop a clearer perspective from which to view her life and the world around her.
It's either a double life or no life at all in The Bell Jar's gloomy vision of post-WWII American society. Because individuals feel compelled to conform to social convention, particularly when it comes to gender roles, individuals either lead double lives, trying to keep up appearances, or they become casualties of an unsympathetic society, such as Esther. As Esther's depression escalates, the novel emphasizes her growing sense that she has no self and no identity. But Esther is surrounded by people who have also lost their sense of who they are. Many characters serve as Esther's double or twin because they, too, have suffered as she has, particularly at the psychiatric institution.
Esther's inability to recognize her own features and her constant lying about her true identity indicate how she has lost all sense of who she is.
Paradoxically, Esther lies about herself in her relationships with men in order to experience greater sexual freedom.
It's easy to read The Bell Jar and think that it's just about suicide and death. The funny thing is, for a novel about death, The Bell Jar spends a lot of time obsessing about…birth. Death and birth are ways of thinking about the most radical transformation of the self: the death of everything you hate about yourself so that you can be reborn into something entirely new and different, purged of all the hypocrisy and the self-doubt and the fear of modern life. Esther's attempted suicide is just the most extreme of the extreme situations she seeks out in order to manufacture such a transformation. You could say the novel is about her attempt to "die" – lose her old self – without actually, physically, dying. But whether she succeeds or not is a question the novel leaves up in the air.
In The Bell Jar, Esther's attempted suicide, while terrifyingly real, is also a metaphor for her attempt at a radical self-transformation, a rebirth into a more authentic self.
The Bell Jar uses the experience of birth as a metaphor for Esther's recovery from a debilitating depression.
The Bell Jar is a pretty juicy read, all things considered, particularly as every once in a while a headline from one of Esther's scandal sheets will pop out on the page, interrupting the flow of regular prose. These random headlines are part of a larger concern in the novel with the way the mass media actually creates values and enforces social norms through its coverage of everything from celebrity deaths to women's issues. In The Bell Jar, references to mass media pop up everywhere as a foil to Esther's own literary studies and attempts at writing fiction in order to question the place of literature and writing in modern society.
The Bell Jar chronicles a young woman's attempt to find her literary voice in a society which expects women to marry and have children, and if they do write, to write romance novels.
Through its frank exploration of a woman's struggle with depression, The Bell Jar sets itself in opposition to the way themes of depression and suicide are treated sensationally and superficially in popular culture.