Study Guide

The Bell Jar Themes

  • Women and Femininity

    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.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. According to the novel, what does society expect from women? What kind of roles are they expected to serve? Consider how women were expected to act as daughters, wives, mothers, and sexual partners.
    2. How does Esther feel about social norms and standards for women? Do you see a change in her perspective as the novel progresses? How so?
    3. Take a look at the female characters in the novel. Which ones are traditional? Which are unconventional? What distinguishes the traditional characters from the unconventional ones?
    4. Consider the male characters in the novel. How do they treat the female characters? What is their attitude toward women?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Family

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. Consider Esther's family life and background. In what ways was it a non-traditional family? How might her family background have contributed to her depression?
    2. What is Esther's relationship with her mother? What is Mrs. Greenwood's attitude toward Esther? Why does Esther have such hostility toward her mother?
    3. What are some other images of family that we get in the novel? How are they similar or different to Esther's family?
    4. What are some alternative mother figures for Esther in the novel? How are they similar to or different from her own mother?
    5. What is Esther's attitude toward family – does she want children of her own? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Sex

    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.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Consider some of the key terms in the novel's treatment of sex – chastity, purity, virginity. According to the novel, what are the different social expectations for men and women regarding sex?
    2. How do the male characters feel about sex? How about the women? What are the similarities and differences between the two? In addition to Buddy and Esther, take a look at the full spectrum of sexual views presented in the book, from Mrs. Willard to Joan to Marco.
    3. What are the different sexual relationships described in the book? How does violence factor into some of these sexual relationships? Why do so many of the sexual relationships in the book involve violence?
    4. How does Esther feel about sex? Why is she so intent on losing her virginity? How do her views on love and romance factor into her thoughts on sexuality, if at all?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Society and Class

    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.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How is 1950s American society presented in the novel? What are the differences between city life, as exemplified in New York City, and suburban life, as exemplified in Esther's hometown? (You can take a quick look at our "Setting" if you need a refresher on the time period.)
    2. What are some of the reasons why Esther feels that she doesn't fit in society? Consider the role that her background, her family circumstances, and her attitude toward wealth factor into her feelings.
    3. Esther uses the bell jar to describe her feelings of being trapped, not just by her mental illness, but also by social expectations. In what sense are the other characters trapped under bell jars of their own? Consider, for example, how both male and female characters can be trapped by gender roles.

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Madness

    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.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Take a look at the way Esther's psychological state changes through the course of the novel. What actions or thoughts reveal her state of mind? Why does Esther seek out "extreme" situations, such as in the ski accident episode?
    2. How does Esther's state of mind affect the way that she views the world? What are some passages where the imagery is particularly distorted or bizarre?
    3. How does Esther's state of mind affect her relationships with other people – her mother and Buddy Willard, for example? Conversely, how do these relationships contribute to her decline?
    4. Consider the similarities and differences between Dr. Gordon and Dr. Nolan. While both doctors employ electroshock therapy, they clearly have different results. Why does Dr. Nolan succeed where Dr. Gordon fails?
    5. Here's a sticky one: how do we distinguish between Esther's "mad" thoughts and her "sane" ones? Does her mental illness mean that everything that she says is unreasonable?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Identity

    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.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does Esther feel about herself as an individual? Is she comfortable presenting herself in social situations? Why or why not?
    2. Consider all of the scenes where Esther looks into a mirror or a picture of herself. What do these scenes tell us about the way Esther feels about herself?
    3. Take a look at all of the instances where Esther takes on an alias or makes up stories about herself. Why does she lie? Can these fictions tell us anything about the true Esther?
    4. In the beginning of the novel, Esther constantly talks about feeling like a big zero. Does this attitude change at the end of the novel? What does she say or do in the last chapter to suggest that she either still feels that way, or has a more confident sense of who she is?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Transformation

    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.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. How does Esther feel about death and suicide? Why does she want to kill herself?
    2. While Esther seems very critical of the social expectation that women produces lots of babies, images of birth and babies are everywhere in the book. What is the significance of these images?
    3. Above we stated that the novel is about Esther's attempt to "die" – lose her old self – without actually, physically, dying. Do you think she succeeds in this mission? Does she experience a true transformation?
    4. How would you describe Esther's attitude toward her body? Does she feel comfortable in her own skin, or does she seem alienated from her body as well? What are some similarities and differences between different physical experiences, say, between her flight down the ski slope and her sexual encounter with Irwin?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Literature and Writing

    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.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Consider all of the different forms of writing in the book – newspapers, scandal sheets, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the narrator's half-hearted attempt at writing a novel, just to name a few. What is the novel's attitude toward all of these forms of writing? Are some forms of writing better than others? Why?
    2. Why are media headlines in the novel? What do they tell us about society at the time?
    3. Consider the different characters' attitudes toward writing, including major characters, such as Mrs. Greenwood, and relatively minor characters, such as Philomena Guinea. How do these characters view the relationship between women and writing?

    Chew on This

    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.