One in seventeen Americans suffers from a severe mental illness (The Numbers Count). For something so prevalent, however, psychiatric disease is engulfed in the shadows of society. The Bell Jar changes that: it is the account of a young woman’s descent into madness—as well as how she ultimately puts herself back together. It also offers a critique of the expectations placed upon women in 1950s America.
The Bell Jar cannot be discussed without mentioning the author, Sylvia Plath. The book was largely based on her personal experiences. Some of the plot includes fiction for dramatic effect, but as one critic remarked, “the novel is… far closer to its author’s life than many so-called autobiographies” (Jordinson). Plath published it under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas to hide the writing from her mother, who is not portrayed kindly (Wagner-Martin, "Plath, Sylvia").
The protagonist of the novel is Esther Greenwood, a young woman on a scholarship to a woman’s college. The book begins in New York City at a month-long guest-editor program for a women’s magazine. Esther feels she should be having the time of her life; she is living with a dozen other girls in the lap of luxury, showered with gifts from the program’s sponsors. However, she rarely seems happy. She says that she “just bumped from [her] hotel to work and to parties and from parties to [her] hotel and back to work like numb trolleybus… [she] felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel” (Plath 3). She goes on a few dates, preoccupied with “finding a man.” Shortly after one of her dates tries to rape her, she returns home, shaken, to live with her mother.
This narrative is interspersed with flashbacks of her troubled relationship with a medical student named Buddy, who she dated on and off for years. To Esther, he at first appeared charming, but his flaws were slowly revealed over the course of their relationship. He is sexist, fulfilling all the negative stereotypes of a conventional 1950s man, and admitted to a long-term affair with a waitress. Esther, who had vowed never to marry, turns down his marriage proposal.
This half of the book is largely focused on the experience of being an educated woman coming-of-age in the ’50s. Esther, along with many other women of the time, feels like marriage would smother her, since a married woman’s job was to take care of her husband instead of having a career of her own. Marriage seems, to her, like “a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s” (Plath 84). She wants to be her own boss; she “hated the idea of serving men in any way” (Plath 76). Esther, exactly like Plath, struggles with how to decide between her own desires and the pressures placed upon her by society. Somewhat contradictorily, at the same time Esther is obsessed with losing her virginity. “I saw the world divided into people who had slept with someone and people who hadn’t,” she says, “and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another” (Plath 82).
The second half of the story has a very different plot: it details Esther’s descent into and escape from madness. In the first half of the novel, there is a vague sense that something is not quite right in Esther’s head, but this becomes the focal point of the story in the second half. After she returns from New York, she finds out that she’s been rejected from a summer writing class. Soon, she falls apart completely: she cannot sleep, write, or even read. Her mother brings her to an unsympathetic psychiatrist who prescribes a traumatic round of electric shock therapy. Esther becomes more unstable than ever. In desperation she tries to kill herself by taking a full bottle of sleeping pills. She awakes in a hospital and is transferred to a top-of-the-line private mental hospital after her condition does not improve. Finally, she starts to recover. The book ends on a hopeful note, with Esther preparing to be discharged and to return to college.
Part of the importance of the book’s plot is describing mental illness in an empathetic and somewhat rational way—it was discussed so infrequently in the 1950s and usually with little more than stereotypes and fear. The Bell Jar also provides a cautionary tale about the problems in mental healthcare: Esther experiences terrible treatment at the hands of her first psychiatrist. She is lucky enough to be able to eventually go to a private hospital, but many do not have that privilege. In addition, the book has a subtext of questioning whether Esther is actually crazy at all or whether she is just responding to society’s twisted expectations of women at the time.
Many scholars describe The Bell Jar as a bildungsroman. Professor Linda Wagner-Martin, a famous Plath scholar, says that the book is “in structure and intent a highly traditional bildungsroman” (Wagner-Martin, “The Bell Jar as a Female Bildungsroman,” 55). She writes that, characteristic of bildungsromane, the story centers around Esther Greenwood’s maturation, with each character and scene added solely to contribute to Esther’s development. Moreover, the book discusses themes like identity and sexuality, which are prevalent in the bildungsroman genre (Wagner-Martin, “The Bell Jar as a Female Bildungsroman,” 55).
In contrast, however, Janet McCann says that “the book is really an ‘unbildungsroman,’ tracing Esther’s change from apparent knowledge and self-confidence to ignorance and uncertainty as the apparently open horizon shrinks to a point” (9). The Bell Jar is not a traditional bildungsroman, where the chrysalis turns into a beautiful butterfly. Instead, it is a story of a butterfly falling apart.
The book uses the metaphor of the bell jar to portray the experience of mental illness. In the throes of her crisis, Esther says that a bell jar, a glass dome used in scientific experiments, traps her. She is “stewing in [her] own sour air” (Plath 185), unable to perceive the outside world clearly or let others interact with her. Slowly, as she recovers, the jar lifts. At the end of the book, however, Esther asks, “how did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (Plath 241). Unfortunately, for Sylvia Plath the bell jar returned; she committed suicide in 1963, a month after The Bell Jar’s publication (poets.org).
Jordison, Sam. "Art and Autobiography in The Bell Jar." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 Sept. 2013. Web. 08 Apr. 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jan/09/reading-group-autobiography-bell-jar>.
McCann, Janet. The Bell Jar. Pasadena, CA: Salem, 2012. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.
"The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America." National Institute of Mental Health. NIH, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2013. <http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america/index.shtml>.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. "Plath, Sylvia." American National Biography Online. Oxford UP, Feb. 2000. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. "Plath's The Bell Jar as Female Bildungsroman." Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12.1 (1986): 55-68. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.