Study Guide

The Bell Jar Sex

By Sylvia Plath


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.

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