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
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.)
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.
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.