Study Guide

The Bell Jar Family

By Sylvia Plath


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.

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