The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963) is a novel about a poet who tried to end her own life, written by a poet who unfortunately succeeded. Witty, tragic, and full of dark humour, The Bell Jar brings insider insight and awareness to subjects often left undiscussed. It is regarded as a modern classic.

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    Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar (1963)

    The Bell Jar is the only novel ever written by American author Sylvia Plath, most famous for her evocative poetry. Published in the UK under the pen name Victoria Lucas, not long before she committed suicide in 1963, it is semi-autobiographical. The novel was published again under her name in 1966 in the UK. More than a decade later, it was first published in America. It is considered a canonical novel, depicting a personal take on some still generally taboo subjects.

    A bell jar is open at the bottom and bell-shaped; often used in laboratories. It can be used to create and maintain light vacuums, to display objects or just as a dust cover. They are often made of glass.

    Plath uses this as a metaphor for the suffocating, stifling conditions that Esther exists in as well as her sense of disconnect from the world around her.

    The Bell Jar: a summary

    The storyline follows the coming of age of Esther Greenwood. She is a young woman from small-town Massachusetts in the 1950s. Esther wins a prestigious scholarship and then an internship in New York City. Her intelligence, hard work, and perseverance get her there. Still, she finds herself disconnected from the other women in her group, who were chosen to guest edit at a glamorous teenage fashion magazine. Equally, she finds herself underwhelmed by the superficiality of the magazine and disillusioned with New York.

    Her boyfriend, Buddy Willard, is seemingly perfect as a handsome, intelligent, and ambitious medical student, but he doesn't understand her need to write poetry. After he confesses to having slept with another woman, Esther begins to lose interest in him, even though he wants to marry her. Her inner conflict between the fascination with losing her virginity and current gender expectations creates another layer of tension for her. At a country club dance, she narrowly avoids being raped.

    Returning to her hometown after throwing her New York wardrobe off a rooftop, Esther begins to slide into a more complete version of the unreality she felt in New York. She becomes unable to focus on her novel about her alter ego, Elaine, and stops taking care of herself. Her mother takes her to a doctor who prescribes electroshock therapy, worsening her condition. She attempts suicide several times, ending in a hospital after a pill overdose.

    During her stays in various hospitals, Esther eventually meets psychiatrist Dr Nolan, who manages to bring her back to some form of stability. Her progress allows her to leave the hospital occasionally, and she finally loses her virginity to Irwin, a maths professor. Her friend from the hospital, Joan, tragically commits suicide. The novel ends with Esther's hospital exit interview.

    Do you think that marriage, motherhood and a successful career are still considered mutually exclusive by women or society? Can you think of women who have achieved this?

    The Bell Jar's main ideas

    What is the difference between a theme and an idea? A novel's idea is what it is about, its overt subject matter. The themes can either be directly stated or implied through the storyline. They are usually related to the message that the novel is trying to relay.

    The Bell Jar's central ideas are to do with sanity, insanity, and suicide. The idea of what is sane and what is insane is a timeless literary subject, but suicide is a reality less often handled in mainstream literature. It was also quite rare when the novel was published for an author to write about mental illness and suicide from a lived experience point of view, using a first-person narrative style.

    Literary classics from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliette (1597) to William Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury (1929) and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949) have characters who commit suicide. It is not exactly a new theme in literature or the world of authors. Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, both groundbreaking authors in their time, were lost to suicide.

    Another author who, like Plath, wrote about suicide, survived several suicide attempts and then tragically took her own life was Virginia Woolf. In her novel, Mrs Dalloway (1925), the character Septimus commits suicide.

    The Bell Jar's main themes

    There are many themes in this novel, and many are connected or overlapping. It is worth looking at a few key themes that are still as relevant today as when authors first started writing about them.

    Societal conventions and expectations

    In 1950s America, women were generally expected to get married, have children, and become housewives, even if they had attended college. Esther feels alienated in this environment as an ambitious young woman who wants to be a poet rather than be a housewife. She believes these to be mutually exclusive and that there are no role models for what she wants to achieve. Even her successful benefactors, Jay Cee and Philomena Guinea are women whose literary outputs are limited mainly to teenage fashion and love stories. The women at her college tease her for her bookishness, suddenly switching to acceptance and respect when she begins dating Buddy, an outwardly very eligible man.

    Apart from her professional goals versus marriage and children conflict, she struggles with the traditional expectation of female sexual purity and an always-cheerful disposition. Esther feels like her interest in pre-marital sex, dark humour and often gloomy outlook make her a failure in terms of society's female ideal. In this novel, the disconnect between what she is told she should be and think and what she does are connected to her sense of unreality and eventual mental break. Although she temporarily loses her sense of reality, she always highlights the irrationality of her world. Also linked to this broader theme are sub-themes of class and gender roles.

    The Bell Jar, a 1950s advertisement for tupperware that showcases a housewife stacking tupperware boxes with her husband and children behind her, StudySmarterFig. 1 - An advertisement showcasing 1950s gender roles.

    If advertising reflects a society's aspirations, what does this 1950s Tupperware advert tell you about the norms of the time? How are these different to today's norms?


    The novel deals with themes of death, birth, and rebirth. These can easily be seen as metaphors for transformation. These metaphors are often in contrast to what one would expect. Esther climbing into a small basement nook to overdose on pills is almost like a return to the womb but to die. Ironically, her near-death experience begins a rebirth or transformation that eventually allows her to leave the hospital. With characteristic wit, she says:

    There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice patched, retreaded, and approved for the road.' - Chapter 20

    Babies and birth are handled with almost the same frequency and attention as suicide and death. In the first chapter, Plath writes that Esther has a baby, which means that she does leave the hospital and may have written the narrative. At least, as the narrator, she is depicted as having found an alternative to the imposed silence that she often mentions during the novel.

    After following Esther's transformation from what is generally regarded as sanity to her mental illness and suicide attempts, we then see her journey back. Esther also relays her subsequent transformation into a mother, and we know that she is the narrator too. We never know how she achieved this, if she ever married or if she, too, like Plath, finally ends her own life at a later stage.

    The Bell Jar's key quotes

    Wherever I sat, on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok, I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.' - Chapter 15

    This quote references the metaphor of a bell jar for Esther's sense of insanity or unreality and her disconnect from the outside world.

    That morning I had tried to hang myself.' - Chapter 13

    Unusually, this simple statement of fact directly and unemotionally addresses a taboo subject. It also depicts the emotional disconnect that Esther felt from herself and the world at that time.

    I knew you'd decide to be all right again.' - Chapter 12

    Esther's mother speaks this quote; this quote sums up the lack of understanding of her mental illness demonstrated by many professionals and family in the novel.

    How could l write about life when I'd never had a love affair or a baby or even seen any- body die?' - Chapter 10

    Despite her ambition, Esther, like Plath, had doubts about her literary credentials but her life experience covered this and some other subjects.

    The Bell Jar - Key takeaways

    • The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel written by the poet Sylvia Plath. It is her only novel.

    • The novel focuses on traditionally taboo subjects such as insanity and suicide.

    • Plath published The Bell Jar a month before her suicide in 1963. Themes such as society's conventions, transformation, gender roles, sex, and class are timeless literary themes. The novel was published twice in the UK.

    • Initially, The Bell Jar was published in the UK under a pen name in 1963. It was later published again under Sylvia Plath's name in 1966.

    • Regarded as a literary classic, The Bell Jar is witty, tragic, and written from a personal experience perspective unusual for the subject matter.

    Frequently Asked Questions about The Bell Jar

    What are the main ideas of the novel The Bell Jar?

    The Bell Jar's main ideas are sanity and insanity, as well as suicide.

    What is the meaning of The Bell Jar?

    The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel about socially acceptable identities and the effects of these norms on those who sit outside them.

    Is The Bell Jar based on Sylvia Plath's life?

    Yes, The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical.

    What is short summary of The Bell Jar?

    The Bell Jar is the story of an ambitious, talented female poet who struggles with mental health, suicide attempts and her disconnect with society's expectations of her.

    The novel handles themes including transformation and irrational societal norms.

    What does the bell jar symbolize in The Bell Jar?

    The bell jar symbolises both the confinement that society places on Esther, as well as her sense of disconnect with the world around her.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who is the Doctor who manages to help Esther back out of her suicidal mindset and to stabilise her mental illness?

    What are some of the conflicts that Esther faces in The Bell Jar?

    What theme is represented by the subjects of death, birth, and rebirth?


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