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					               The Bell Jar
Question / Concern                                       Explanation / Explication

What is a bell jar?                       A bell jar is a glass vessel often used in
                                          science experiments. It is open at the
                                          bottom and closed at the top; it resembles a

Why is this an appropriate                Consider two reasons:
title for Plath’s novel?
                                                        Scientists often use a bell jar
                                                         to contain contents under
                                                         great pressure—to prevent
                                                         those contents from
                                                         exploding as a result of great
                                                         pressure. Esther, in a sense,
                                                         is like those contents. The
                                                         pressure on her is immense;
                                                         she feels the pressure to
                                                         adhere to 50s society’s
                                                         expectations of women,
                                                         pressure to accomplish
                                                         academically, pressure to
                                                         “stay sane.”
                                                        The glass at the top (dome) of
                                                         a bell jar distorts the image of
                                                         what lies on the other side of
                                                         it. Consequently, it distorts
                                                         the observer’s perception,
                                                         just as mental illness distorts
                                                         its victim’s perception of the

According to Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s      She claims that her daughter’s original
mother, what was the author’s             intention was to present this novel and
original plan regarding the publication   quickly follow it with another version of
of this novel?                            the same text, a version that would present
                         the same situations, characters, and outside
                         dynamics but present them in a way that
                         would more closely resemble how a “sane”
                         protagonist would interpret them. She refers
                         to this idea that the glass of a bell jar distorts
                         reality. Here she is interpreting the “bell
                         jar” of the novel to be the mental illness
                         Esther suffers. This reading seems valid
                         when one considers the following line from
                         chapter 20:

                                         But I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t
                                 sure at all. How did I know that
                                 someday—at college, in Europe,
                                 somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar,
                                 with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t
                                 descend again?

                         This explanation that mental illness causes
                         its sufferer to misinterpret and transform the
                         good will of others is interesting in this
                         context; it would certainly diminish the
                         severity of Plath’s venomous presentation
                         of Esther’s mother. Aurelia Plath was
                         undoubtedly wounded by this horrific vision
                         of Mrs. Greenwood, as this novel is clearly
                         drawn from her daughter’s autobiography.
                         It is no wonder that she protested the
                         American publication of The Bell Jar.

Who is Victoria Lucas?   This is the pseudonym that the author used
                         for the initial publication of this novel in
                         January 1963. Although the book was
                         originally published in England, Plath still
                         feared that those people after whom she had
                         patterned many of her characters would
                         somehow find a copy and recognize
                         themselves painted in a rather unflattering
                         light. Also, she feared that the book really
                         might not have much literary merit and
                         wanted to protect herself from professional
                               It is interesting to note that this pseudonym
                               did not fool any of the English literati. They
                               knew exactly who had written this novel.
To what extent is this novel   Clearly, Plath has drawn on her own
autobiographical?              experiences in conceiving this novel. In a
                               letter to Harper and Row (the American
                               publishers of the text), Aurelia Plath claims
                               that her daughter once told her,

                                       What I’ve done is to throw together
                                       events from my own life,
                                       fictionalizing to add color—it’s a
                                       pot boiler really, but I think it will
                                       show how isolated a person feels
                                       when he is suffering a breakdown . . .
                                       I’ve tried to picture my world and
                                       the people in it as seen through the
                                       distorting lens of a bell jar.

                               Even though the roots of this novel spread
                               out into the personal life and experience of
                               its author, we SHOULD CONSIDER IT A
                               WORK OF FICTION AND REFER TO IT
                               AS A NOVEL. At the very least, we should
                               call it an autobiographical novel—but a
                               NOVEL nonetheless!

Why might this novel be        In the biographical note at the end of the
compared to J. D. Salinger’s   text, we learn that, “In the New Statesman,
Catcher in the Rye?            Robert Taubman called The Bell Jar ‘the
                               First feminine novel in a Salinger mood.’”
                               This description is fitting, and in the years
                               since its initial publication, this novel has
                               not ever escaped this comparison.
                               Salinger’s novel traces the movements and
                               thoughts of a young man named Holden
                               Caufield. Holden is disenchanted with his
                               world and most of its inhabitants as
                               “phony.” The entire tale reaches the reader
                               as Holden’s first-hand account to a nurse in
                               a mental institution where he is confined.
                               Critics have spoken of this novel as a Zen
                               Buddhist text—revealing that it is possible
                               to gain valuable insight and a sense of peace
                               only if one is willing to relinquish all that he
                                / she “has” already. In other words, growth
                                requires intense sacrifice.

                                The similarities are rife: Esther recounts her
                                experiences in the first person, finds the
                                society in which she lives to be “phony” and
                                unsympathetic, battles mental illness, loses
                                everything before she can gain stability, and
                                searches for her identity. Also, both novels
                                are bildungsromans—novels of initiation
                                and maturation; coming-of-age novels.

                                The differences, however, are equally
                                interesting to ponder; Salinger presents an
                                adolescent male’s point of view, whereas
                                Plath chooses a college-age woman as her
                                protagonist. The social commentary in the
                                latter novel is clearly more pointed, less
                                general. Plath is concerned with the plight
                                of women as they try to live up to 1950s
                                American’s unrealistic and extremely
                                stifling expectations—for example,
                                premarital virginity, ultimate marriage to a
                                “good” candidate, and the raising of
                                children. Holden’s angst is far less specific.

From what particular mental     As Frances McCullogh notes in her
illness does Esther Greenwood   foreword to the novel, Esther’s illness
seem to be suffering?           has never been diagnosed, but many
                                knowledgeable critics have determined that
                                Plath is presenting an incredibly accurate
                                picture of schizophrenia. Consider the
                                following symptoms of the family of
                                disorders we have come to refer to as

                                              paranoid delusions (two
                                            a.) delusions of grandeur—The
                                                sufferer might fancy himself
                                                or herself to be Jesus Christ,
                                                Napoleon, the Virgin Mary,
                                                etc. Clearly this does not
                                                appear to be present in
                                                Esther’s case.
                                                                       b.) delusions of persecution—
                                                                           The sufferer might suspect
                                                                           that others are plotting
                                                                           against or planning to hurt
                                                                           him / her in some way. This
                                                                           does enter into this particular
                                                                           case; review these particular
                                                                                 page 187 (first three
                                                                                 page 190 (lines 17-18)
                                                                                 page 2412 (lines 18-19)
                                                                         hallucinations
                                                                         illusions—The fact that
                                                                          Esther cannot read because
                                                                          the letters on the page start to
                                                                          jump and stretch and move is
                                                                          interesting. Psychologists
                                                                          would term this an illusion.3
                                                                          Another example would be
                                                                          hallways that suddenly
                                                                          become narrow tunnels or
                                                                          confining corridors.
                                                                         ideas of reference—This is
                                                                          the case when the patient
                                                                          perceives that innocuous
                                                                          situations, gestures,
                                                                          phenomena, etc. have direct
                                                                          reference to him / herself.
                                                                          Review page 133 (line 27) to
                                                                          page 134 (line 10).
                                                                         Insomnia
                                                                         degradation in hygiene
                                                                          (refusal to bathe)
                                                                         loose associations (two
                                                                             a.) cognitive—Cognition
                                                                                 refers to thought
  All page numbers refer to the first Perennial Classics edition of The Bell Jar (published by Harper-Collins
in 1999).
  Esther’s initial suspicion may be well-founded in her experience or in the practices of the institution, but
the suspicion itself is worth noting. Is it reasonable to suspect that operators listen to private telephone
  They would not call this a delusion because the letters actually do exist on the page. When a patient’s
perception of an actual item (one that actually exists and is present) becomes distorted, this is an illusion on
his / her part. When they see something that is not actually present, their perception of that item is a
delusion (not based in reality). You should think of an illusion as a perceptual distortion.
                                                                          processes. Loose
                                                                          associations affecting
                                                                          cognition concern the
                                                                          random and often
                                                                          illogical flow of
                                                                          thoughts running
                                                                          through the mind of the
                                                                          patient. This confusing
                                                                          procession of thoughts
                                                                          and random
                                                                          connections make it
                                                                          impossible to follow the
                                                                          patient’s conversation.
                                                                      b.) affective—This is a
                                                                          similar type of conflict
                                                                          between subject and
                                                                          object, but the focus is
                                                                          not on cognition
                                                                          (thought) but instead on

                                                                    search for simplicity,
                                                                     cleanliness, and relief
                                                                     (available through death)
                                                                    the stifling expectations of
                                                                     1950s society (particularly
                                                                     for women)
                                                                    rebirth through suffering
                                                                    the unrelenting search for
                                                                     paradoxically with a
                                                                     diminished view of male
                                                                     benevolence and goodness
                                                                    strength and power of
                                                                     women when they are faced
                                                                     with adversity
                                                                    ALIENATION!!!!!! This is
                                                                     probably the most
                                                                     pervasive theme here.

    I will expand on these as they become evident in the text.
                                                                         whiteness5—Review the
                                                                          following passages (127
                                                                          separate references):

                                                                          page 8 (lines 15 & 18)
                                                                          page 16 (line 2)
                                                                          page 19 (line 4)
                                                                          page 21 (line 28)
                                                                          page 25 (line 18)
                                                                          page 30 (line 13)
                                                                          page 44 (lines 17 & 28)
                                                                          page 45 (lines 3)
                                                                          page 46 (line 24-25)
                                                                          page 47 (lines 11 & 15)
                                                                          page 48 (line 9)
                                                                          page 51 (line 9)
                                                                          page 55 (line 26)
                                                                          page 56 (twice in line 8)
                                                                          page 57 (line 8)
                                                                          page 60 (line 12)
                                                                          page 63 (lines 4 & 11)
                                                                          page 64 (lines 17 & 21)
                                                                          page 67 (line 25)
                                                                          page 75 (lines 2 & 24)
                                                                          page 82 (line 5)
                                                                          page 83 (line 5)
                                                                          page 86 (line 2)
                                                                          page 89 (lines 10 & 25)
                                                                          page 90 (lines 10 & 24)
                                                                          page 94 (line 29)
                                                                          page 95 (line 18)
                                                                          page 96 (line 24)
                                                                          page 97 (lines 1 & 20 & 31)
                                                                          page 98 (lines 5 & 14 & 17)
                                                                          page 99 (line 7)
                                                                          page 105 (lines 9 & 12)
                                                                          page 107 (line 10)
                                                                          page 109 (line 25)
                                                                          page 111 (line 19)
                                                                          page 112 (lines 8 & 10 & 15)
                                                                          page 113 (line 12)
                                                                          page 114 (lines 13 & 22)

 What follows here is a concordance; that is, I have given you a list of all references to whiteness, palor,
moon, sea, etc. Some of those references may seen inconsequential (for example, Plath’s reference to a
“White Russian named Attila”), but I have included all so that your concordance will be complete.
page 115 (lines 16 & 27)
page 117 (line 15)
page 120 (line 11)
page 121 (line 27)
page 122 (line 7)
page 126 (line 10)
page 127 (line 12)
page 128 (lines 8 & 12)
page 133 (line 8)
page 134 (line 22)
page 137 (lines 16 & 29)
page 141 (line 3)
page 142 (line 11)
page 144 (line 29)
page 146 (line 8)
page 147 (line 24)
page 150 (line 3)
page 151 (lines 7 & 12)
page 153 (lines 9 & 13)
page 154 (line 4)
page 158 (line 22)
page 160 (line 15)
page 161 (line 15)
page 162 (line 16)
page 165 (line 7)
page 167 (line 26)
page 172 (line 26)
page 173 (line 7)
page 175 (line 4)
page 176 (line 31)
page 178 (lines 8 & 22 & 29)
page 179 (line 8)
page 180 (lines 5 & 16)
page 181 (line 1)
page 186 (lines 23 & 29)
page 187 (lines 4 & 16 & 21)
page 189 (line 29)
page 195 (line 2)
page 198 (lines 14 & 19 & 25)
page 199 (lines 12 & 25)
page 201 (line 12)
page 204 (line 3)
page 207 (line 24)
page 209 (lines 12 & 22)
page 210 (line 16)
page 212 (lines 18 & 29)
                                                                          page 213 (line 14)
                                                                          page 214 (line 2)
                                                                          page 215 (line 7)
                                                                          page 220 (line 31)
                                                                          page 227 (lines 10 & 15)
                                                                          page 229 (line 32)
                                                                          page 233 (line 6)
                                                                          page 234 (line 7)
                                                                          page 237 (twice in line 27)
                                                                          page 240 (line 29)
                                                                          page 244 (line 13)

                                                                         palor—Review the following

                                                                          page 45 (line 29)
                                                                          page 58 (line 8)
                                                                          page 141 (line 12)
                                                                          page 163 (line 5)
                                                                          page 172 (line 17)
                                                                          page 174 (line 27)
                                                                          page 187 (line 28)
                                                                          page 192 (line 9)
                                                                          page 193 (line 16)
                                                                          page 209 (line 12)
                                                                          page 210 (line 18)
                                                                          page 213 (line 7)
                                                                          page 217 (lines 5 & 9)
                                                                          page 218 (line 29)
                                                                          page 228 (line 13)
                                                                          page 230 (line 24-25)6
                                                                          page 232 (line 5)
                                                                          page 233 (line 3)
                                                                          page 237 (line 3)

                                                                         clarity, transparency, and
                                                                          nothingness—Clearly, this is
                                                                          connected to the motifs of
                                                                          whiteness and palor—pardon
                                                                          the pun!!) Review the
                                                                          following passages:

                                                                          page 10 (line 25)
                                                                          page 11 (line 3)
 Plath does not actually use the word palor or any adjectival form of it (pale or pallid), but the idea she
expresses here is exactly the same: “. . . feeling the blood drain from my face in one spectacular flush.”
    page 12 (line 12-13)
    page 18 (line 28)—silence
    page 19 (line 5)—silence
    page 20 (line 23)
    page 45 (lines 17-19)
    page 47 (line 8)
    page 59 (line 20-21)
    page 97 (line 1)—silence
    page 97 (line 22)
    page 100 (line 11)—silence
    page 112 (line 16)—ghosted
    page 122 (lines 6 & 8)
    page 123 (line 14)
    page 143 (line 23)—silence
    page 147 (lines 6-11)--shadow
    page 156 (line 8)
    page 169 (line 18)—shadow
    page 170 (line 6)—silence
    page 193 (line 17)—silence
    page 214 (lines 12-13)
    page 236 (line 4)
    page 238 (line 9)
    page 242 (line 22)
    page 243 (twice in line 5)—

   snow—Critics have often
    discussed Plath’s use of
    winter and snow as powerful
    metaphors suggesting death
    and stillness. Review the
    following passages:

    page 45 (line 4)
    page 55 (line 15)
    page 87 (lines 3 & 11)
    page 94 (line 18)-98—skiing
    page 225 (line 27)
    page 230 (line 15)
    page 234 (line 7)
    page 236 (line 1)
    page 236 (line 9)—winter
    page 237 (lines 21 & 25)
    page 238 (line 15)
    page 239 (line 7)
    page 240 (lines 16 & 18 & 23
           & 27)
    page 241 (lines 8 & 12)
    page 242 (line 21)
    page 243 (line 2)

   death (grave images, cadaver
    images, submersion images—
    into water, into the ground,
    beneath bed covers, etc.)

    page 1 (lines 1-8)—electrocu-
           tion of the Julius and
           Ethel Rosenberg
    page 16 (lines 22-23)—“I felt
           like a hole in the
    page 19 (line 5)—“dumb as a
           death’s head.”
    page 19 (lines 30-32)—
           submersion in water
    page 20 (line 5)—“coffin-
           shaped tubs”
    page 32 (line 12)—“in the
           same sepulchral tone”
    page 48 (line 5)—“you almost
    page 50 (line2)—“Slowly I
           swam up from the
           bottom of a black
    page 55 (lines 18-19)—“. . . go
           to sleep under that
           beautiful big green fig
    page 56 (lines 25-26)—“. . .
           cadavers you cut up . . .
           They’re dust as dust.”
    page 59 (lines 5-6)—“gleaming
           tombstone teeth”
    page 66 (lines 12-14)—“. . .
           that long, blind,
           doorless and
           windowless corridor of
           pain was waiting to
           open up and shut her in
page 67 (line 25)—“dead white”
page 75 (line 2)—“. . . with my
       father the summer before
       he died.”
page 75 (lines 19-20)—“. . . I
       wished with all my heart I
       could crawl into her . . .”
page 77 (lines 10-11)—“like the
       date on a tombstone”
page 94 (lines 21-22)—“while I
       had the chance” (suicide)
page 95 (line 15)—“dead people”
page 97 (line 7-8)—“The thought
       that I might kill myself
       formed in my mind coolly
       as a tree or a flower.”
page 99 (line 1)—reference to
       the Rosenburg execution
page 99 (line 15)—“the long,
       dead walk”
page 99 (line 16)—“marble slab”
page 100 (line 17)—“tomblike
       morning gloom”
page 107 (lines 9-10)—“Pretend
       you are drowning.”
page 111 (lines 11-13)—“At my
       feet, the city doused its
       lights in sleep, its
       buildings blackened, as if
       for a funeral.”
page 111 (line 26)—“like a loved
       one’s ashes”
page 113 (line 3)—“like the relic
       of a dead lover”
page 113 (lines 28-29)—“like
page 116 (line 18)—“a morbid
       façade of pine trees”
page 117 (lines 18-20)—
       submersion (bed sheets)
page 121 (line 17)—“or even
       seen anybody die”
pages 123-24—reference to
       Finnegan’s Wake
page 123 (lines 18-21)—“. . . and
       let the mattress fall across
       me like a tombstone . . .
       make me sleep.”
page 128 (lines 16-17)—“I
       wanted to do everything
       once and for all and be
       through with it.”
page 129 (lines 1-2)—“. . . as
       though I were being
       stuffed farther and farther
       into a black, airless sack
       with no way out.”
page 136 (lines 17-18)—“It
       tasted dead”
page 138 (lines 3-4)—hari kari
page 145 (line 7)—“like a dead
page 145 (line 19)—“dead spit of
       a hearse”
page 145 (line 32)—“awful dead
page 146 (lines 9-10)—
       “photograph of the dead
page 146 (line 13)—“dead girl’s
page 146 (line 14)—“dead,
       black, vacant expression”
page 150 (line 13)—I think this
       mention of “get[ting] into
       that prison” may qualify
       as a grave image.
       Possibly not though.
       Decide for yourselves.
page 151 (lines 24-25)—“like a
       sort of soul-compass,
       after I was dead”
page 153 (line 11)—“like
page 153 (line 14)—“a mortal
page 153 (line 15)—“from such a
page 155 (line 17)—“I buried it
       in the sand”
page 159 (line 13)—“I would be
       dead in a flash”
page 162 (lines 12-13)—“flowers
       that were dead”
page 162 (line 14)—“that were
page 162 (lines 16-17)—“felt
       cold as a tomb”
page 162 (line 18)—“hospital
page 163 (line 32)—“rubbish of
       dead flowers”
page 164 (line 3)—“Which way
       is the graveyard?”
page 164 (lines 15-16)—“killing
       yourself was an awful
       sin” (suicide)
page 165 (line 5)—“of killing
       myself” (suicide)
page 165 (line 7)—“my dead
       white face”
page 165 (lines 20 & 23)—
       “graveyard” (twice)
page 165 (line 22)—“he had
page 165 (line 23)—“even his
page 165 (line 26)—“tending his
page 166 (line 4)—“The
       graveyard disappointed
page 166 (line 8)—“old part of
       the graveyard”
page 166 (line 10)—“buried”
page 166 (line 13)—“grave was
page 166 (line 14)—“bathtub full
       of dirt” (submersion in
       water / earth)
page 167 (lines 4 & 5)—
       “gravestone” (twice)
page 167 (line 11)—“gateway of
       the graveyard”
page 167 (lines 14-15)—
       “father’s death”
page 167 (lines 17 & 19)—
page 167 (line 21)—“face of
       the marble”
page 169 (line 3)—“blocked
       the hole mouth”
page 169 (line 14)—“across the
       hole mouth”
page 182 (lines 8-9)—“I
       huddled down more
       deeply in the bed and
       pulled the sheet up over
       my head.” (submersion
       under bed sheets)
page 182 (line 19)—“I only
       burrowed down further
       in the bed.”
       (submersion under bed
page 187 (line 15)—“the
       voices of all the doctors
       die away”
page 189 (line 21)—“I’ll kill
       myself” (suicide)
page 192 (line 27)—“perpetual
       marble calm”
page 196 (line 25)—“I was
       going to kill myself”
page 197 (line 11)—“I wanted
       to kill myself” (suicide)
page 198 (line 2)—“dead and
page 199 (line 20)—“easier to
       kill myself” (suicide)
page 200 (line 9)—“as I pulled
       out of sleep”
page 202 (line 29)—“Save
       them for my funeral”
page 209 (line 11)—“frozen
page 209 (line 12)—“my white
page 213 (line 1)—“I hung on
       to Doctor Nolan’s arm
       like death”
page 213 (line 14)—
       “cadaverous woman”
page 214 (line 1)—“strike me
page 232 (line 8)—“I was
       really dying”
page 233 (line 28)—“asylum
       quiet as death”
page 234 (lines 19-20)—“with
       a grave face”
page 236 (line 10)—
       “Massachusetts would
       be sunk in a marble
page 237 (lines 11-12)—“dead
page 237 (line 15)—“I
       remembered the
page 239 (line 20)—“face was
       grave, even tentative”
page 242 (lines 11-12)—“after
       Joan’s death”
page 242 (line 15)—“invited
       me to the funeral”
page 242 (lines 19-20)—“the
       simple funeral service”
page 242 (line 20)—“I
       wondered what thought
       I was burying”
page 242 (line 24)—“a
       sepulchral incense”
page 242 (line 31)—“behind
       the coffin”
page 243 (lines 4-5)—“six-
       foot-deep gap hacked in
       the hard ground”
page 243 (line 5)—“That
       shadow would marry
       this shadow”
page 243 (line 8)—“Joan’s
page 243 (lines 25-26)—“I was
       scared to death”
page 244 (line 12)—
       “cadaverous face”

                      sea and seashore—Critics
                       long noted that Plath often
                       associates the sea and the
                       notion of father (particularly
                       her own). Please review the
                       following passages:

                       page 75 (line 2)
                       page 149 (lines 17-20)
                       page 151-153 (scene at
                       page 154 (line 1)-158 (line
                              13)—first half of
                              second beach scene
                       page 160 (line 12)-161 (line
                              11)—second half of
                              second beach scene
                       page 166 (line 32)
                       page 168 (line 29)
                       page 204 (line 3)
                       page 237 (line 20)

                      moon—Plath often associates
                       moon and mother (not
                       necessarily only her own).
                       Traditionally the moon is
                       associated with feminine
                       energy, whereas the sun
                       usually suggests male energy.
                       Please review the following

                       page 107 (line 30)
                       page 136 (line 21)
                       page 183 (line 10)
                       page 199 (line 1)
                       page 237 (line 4)
   babies and birth and children
    images—Please review the
    following passages:

    page 55 (lines 6-8)
    page 62 (line 5)
    page 63 (third full paragraph)
    page 64 (line 15)
    page 65 (lines 4 & 5 & 11)
    page 80 (line 28)
    page 88 (line 14)
    page 89 (lines 16-17)
    page 97 (lines 31-32)
    page 113 (line 27)
    page 115 (line 13)
    page 116 (line 6)
    page 117 (line 11)—
           “Children make me
    page 121 (line 17)
    page 137 (line 16)
    page 154 (line 3)
    page 157 (line 24)
    page 161 (line 12)
    page 162 (line 2)—“You’re
           on maternity”
    page 162 (line 10)
    page 192 (line 9)
    page 200 (line 28)
    page 203 (line 2)—“It’s your
    page 212 (lines 2-3)—“like a
    page 221 (lines 6 & 29)
    pages 222-23 (third full
           paragraph onward
           until the end of the
    page 232 (line 6)
    page 237 (lines 11-12)
    page 244 (line 4)
                             The Bell Jar
                      (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 1

Question / Concern                                 Explanation / Explication

who are the Rosenbergs             Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were a married
and why are they important         couple who were accused and found guilty
within the framework of            of spying for and selling top-secret military
this novel?                        secrets (Oppenheimer Project) to the Soviet
                                   Union. They were executed in 1953, the
                                   very year that Sylvia Plath guest edited for
                                   Mademoiselle. By using this historical
                                   signpost in this novel, Plath establishes, in a
                                   rather interesting and slightly unorthodox
                                   way, the time frame in which the action of
                                   this novel passes. She also establishes a
                                   rather serious mood for the narrative.

                                   This idea of electrocution figures heavily
                                   and significantly in the later action of the
                                   novel (Esther’s electroshock therapy), and
                                   this mention of the Rosenbergs is an
                                   opportunity to set up a thematic system
                                   involving death, accusation, punishment,
                                   and, as Robert Burns would say, “man’s
                                   inhumanity to man.”

                                   The Rosenbergs were Jewish, so
                                   another interesting connection we can make
                                   here is Plath’s characteristic tendency to
                                   identify with Jewish people, despite the fact
                                   that she was not Jewish herself; on the
                                   contrary, her bloodline is strictly Germanic
                                   Goy. An interesting pattern in her work
                                   (primarily her poetry) is this alternative
                                   identification with “Jewish victim” and then
                                   with “Gentile persecutor.” A little later
                                   (Chapter 5) we will take a look at the story
                                   about the fig tree and further discuss this
                                   interesting dichotomy.
                                                       As one theme that clearly emerges in this
                                                       novel is that of split personality, this
                                                       underlying and understated (here) theme of
                                                       Jewish persecution is an interesting
                                                       correlation to her poetry7.

What is the Amazon, and                                This is the name of the hotel where Esther
why is it important?                                   And the eleven other guest editors of
                                                       Ladies’ Day (clearly a “fictionalized”
                                                       version of Mademoiselle) live. The actual
                                                       name of the hotel where Plath stayed in the
                                                       summer of 1953 is the Barbizon. The words
                                                       Amazon and Barbizon sound similar enough,
                                                       but the choice of this particular name for
                                                       Esther’s hotel is more significant than that;
                                                       the Amazons are a mythical group of super-
                                                       human female warriors with whom the
                                                       ancient Greeks were said to have warred.
                                                       As one theme that certainly emerges in this
                                                       novel is the strength and power of women
                                                       faced with adversity, this title is
                                                       particularly appropriate and telling.

Doreen and Betsy                                       This girl is beautiful, cynical, and
                                                       hypocritical. At first Esther allies herself
                                                       with this alluring girl, but after she witnesses
                                                       the drunken spectacle Doreen makes of
                                                       herself at Lenny Shepherd’s apartment, she
                                                       is no longer enchanted and decides that she
                                                       is constitutionally much more similar to the
                                                       wholesome and somewhat less exciting

How far in Esther’s past                               In addition to mentioning the impending
is the action of this novel                            execution of the Rosenberg’s, Plath overtly
set?                                                   says that this is the summer of 1953.
                                                       Considering the fact that this book was first
                                                       published in January of 1963, the reader can
                                                       assume that the distance between the
                                                       exposition and the protagonist’s “present”
                                                       can be no longer than ten years—probably
                                                       no more than nine, given routine publication
    It may be helpful to take a look at Plath’s famous poem “Daddy.”
          delays. The actual chronological distance is
          not really that important though; it is,
          however, important to know that the mental
          turmoil that she eventually experiences is a
          part of her past—not her present.

          Take another look at this passage:

                 I got such a kick out of all those free
                 gifts showering on to us [from
                 Ladies’ Day]. For a long time
                 afterward I hid them away, but later,
                 when I was all right again, I brought
                 them out, and I still have them
                 around the house. I use the lipsticks
                 now and then, and last week I cut the
                 plastic starfish off the sunglasses
                 case for the baby to play with.

          Since Esther has claimed throughout the
          novel to disdain children, the fact that she
          here admits to having one and
          accommodating that child as any other
          loving mother would do, we can greet the
          oncoming turmoil with the security of
          knowing that our protagonist does
          eventually emerge from this horrible conflict

Jay Cee   I have always seen this character as nothing
          more than a caring, considerate guide for
          Esther, a thoroughly benevolent figure.
          That’s all. Last year, however, I began to
          see her as possibly a great deal more. One
          of Mrs. Sonafelt’s brilliant students wrote a
          phenomenal paper defending Jay Cee as a
          Christ figure. What a critic this kid is!!

          Consider the following:
                        The name Jay Cee recalls
                         “Jesus Christ.”
                        Jay Cee is a loving and
                         benevolent guide for Esther.
                        Jay Cee is a teacher; Plath
                         writes, “Jay Cee wanted to
    teach me something.”
   Esther cannot imagine Jay
    Cee in any sexual situation
    with her husband.
   In Chapter 3, Esther says,
    “I had been unmasked only
    that morning by Jay Cee
    herself.” This woman
    somehow makes lying
    impossible. She elicits the
   Esther’s interaction with Jay
    Cee makes her feel remorse
    for fooling poor Mr. Manzi,
    the chemistry professor.
   In Chapter 4, Esther notices
    The “cherubs in Jay Cee’s
    French wall clock.”
   In Chapter 4, Jay Cee is
    wearing a “lilac blouse,” and
    she looks “very wise.”
    Purple is traditionally a color
    associated with royalty.
   Christ is often thought of a
    a benevolent counselor.
    What is Jay Cell after all?
   Esther, “wished [she] had a
    mother like Jay Cee.” While
    Christ is associated with
    father, Plath presents a
    female in this comparable
    role and associates her with
    mother. Given the thematic
    structure of this novel, this
    gender switching makes
    perfect sense.
   Immediately after this scene
    In Jay Cee’s office, Esther
    remembers that her own
    mother once told her, “Even
    the apostles were
    tentmakers.” Certainly, the
    mention of the word apostle
    puts one in mind of Jesus
    Christ. Furthermore, the fact
    that Esther mentions the
                              Apostles immediately after
                              relating the events of her
                              meeting with Jay Cee may
                              indicate that this association
                              exists, perhaps
                              subconsciously, in her own
                              mind as well.

Why does Esther love vodka?   It is clear, doesn’t “taste like
                              anything,” and makes her
                              “feel powerful and godlike.”
                              This mention of clarity—the
                              suggestion of simplicity—
                              supports a recurring theme of
                              whiteness and clarity as a
                              metaphor for the relief and
                              release offered by death.

Key moments from text         I’m stupid about executions.
                              The idea of being
                              electrocuted makes me sick,
                              and that’s all there was to
                              read about in the papers . . . I
                              couldn’t help wondering
                              what it would be like, being
                              burned alive all along your

                              For a long time afterward I
                              hid them away, but later,
                              when I was all right again, I
                              brought them out, and I still
                              have them around the house.
                              I use the lipsticks now and
                              then, and last week I cut the
                              plastic starfish off the
                              sunglasses case for the baby
                              to play with.

                              Jay Cee wanted to teach me
                              something . . . .

                              Buddy Willard went to Yale,
                              but now I thought of it, what
                                                   was wrong with him was that
                                                   he was stupid. Oh, he’d
                                                   managed to get good marks
                                                   all right, and to have an
                                                   affair with some awful
                                                   waitress on the Cape by the
                                                   name of Gladys, but he didn’t
                                                   have one speck of intuition.
                                                   This affair with the waitress
                                                   never really leaves Esther’s
                                                   consciousness throughout the
                                                   novel. Often she mentions
                                                   the possibility that she might
                                                   become a waitress. This may
                                                   well be an indirect way of
                                                   referring to the protagonist’s
                                                   sexual frustration and her
                                                   desire to “break the rules.”

                                                   I’d seen a vodka ad once, just
                                                   a glass full of vodka standing
                                                   in the middle of a snowdrift
                                                   in a blue light, and the vodka
                                                   looked clear and pure as
                                                   water . . . .

                              The Bell Jar
                      (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 2
How is the décor of Lenny’s         It is garishly decorated, and Lenny clearly
apartment significant?              is impressed with his image as a famous,
                                    handsome, and virile lady’s man. He is all
                                    about image; if his actions don’t make that
                                    perfectly obvious, his apartment should
                                    (ranch motif, bar in the shape of a
                                    horseshoe, ugh!!).

                                    Also, this apartment seems so cluttered. If
                                    simplicity (whiteness, clarity, etc.) is meant
                           to imply relief, then this apartment is
                           certainly the antithesis of that.

What is the significance   It is about sincerity and fidelity and honor,
of the song Lenny plays?   Yet he and Doreen get drunk, make
                           complete fools of themselves, and engage in
                           casual sexual activity. He’s a hypocrite (as
                           is she) and a poser.

Esther’s frame of mind     The theme of alienation that threads this
                           novel is never stronger than when Esther
                           says, “I felt like a hole in the ground.” Her
                           words also evoke an unmistakable image of
                           a grave.

Key moments from text      I felt like a hole in the ground. See note

                           They had the windows fixed so you couldn’t
                           really open them and lean out, and for some
                           reason this made me furious. The
                           implication here is that Esther may have a
                           desire to commit suicide by jumping out the
                           window. She becomes angry because her
                           power to act is being hindered. The fact that
                           she says “for some reason” makes me think
                           that her desire to commit suicide has not yet
                           become a conscious one. As her illness
                           progresses, that will certainly change.

                           The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the
                           silence of silence. It was my own silence.
                           What exactly is the “silence of silence,” and
                           how is it different from “my own silence”?
                           Esther’s “own silence” is most likely her
                           complete lack of direction and desire. She
                           has already said that she has no idea why
                           she is in New York, and she will later tell
                           Jay Cee that she doesn’t know what she
                           wants to do. “Silence of silence” must
                           simply be the literal absence of sound.
The china-white bedside telephone could
have connected me up with things, but there
it sat, dumb as a death’s head. Here we
have the motifs of whiteness and silence, as
well as the theme of alienation. This
passage lets us know that Esther feels that
she is set apart. If there is any one theme
that unites all Modern and Post-Modern
literature, it is that of alienation and the
impossibility of meaningful
communication between and among

Buddy’s mother had even arranged for me
to be given a job as a waitress at the TB
sanatorium that summer. . . .” This may
seem to be an unimportant detail, but
remember that Gladys, the woman with
whom Buddy has had an affair, was a
waitress. This connection, it would seem, is
never too far away.

I meditate in the bath. The water needs to
be very hot, so hot you can barely stand
putting your foot in it. Then you lower
yourself, inch by inch, till the water’s up to
your neck. This is reminiscent of burial.
Also, the heat of the water suggests a means
of achieving purity.

. . . “Elly, Elly, Elly,” the first voice
mumbled, while the other voice went on
hissing, “Miss Greenwood, Miss
Greenwood, Miss Greenwood,” as if I had a
split personality or something. The
significance of this passage is obvious,
given the nature of Esther’s encroaching
mental distress.

I wanted to run after her and tell her I had
nothing to do with Doreen, because she
looked stern and hardworking and moral as
an old-style European immigrant and
reminded me of my Austrian grandmother.
Plath’s Germanic heritage figures
prominently in her work. At times it seems
                                                       to be a source of pride (as it does here), and
                                                       at other times it does not.

                                                       It was Betsy I resembled at heart. This tells
                                                       us that Esther recognizes her goodness and

                                   The Bell Jar
                             (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 3

Esther’s financial background                          The fact that Esther does not come from a
                                                       weathy family is significant throughout this
                                                       novel. She notes that she has never eaten at
                                                       a restaurant (other than chains) before
                                                       coming to New York, and she depends upon
                                                       the patronage of Philomena Guinea8, a rich
                                                       writer who takes an interest in her. This
                                                       financial state of affairs serves only to
                                                       enhance Esther’s feelings of alienation.

What is the significance of                            After her meeting with Jay Cee, Esther
Mr. Manzi?                                             realizes that her lie to Mr. Manzi was really
                                                       unconscionable. She had gotten good
                                                       grades in science but found that science
                                                       tended to compress the world rather than
                                                       expand it. As she audits the second
                                                       semester of Mr. Manzi’s chemistry course,
                                                       she pretends to take notes but really just
                                                       writes poetry.

  This character clearly is patterned after Olive Higgins Prouty, Plath’s benefactress. Prouty is the author of
Stella Dallas, a melodramatic story of a poor woman who married into a wealthy family but soon finds that
she does not belong. She leaves her husband and takes her infant daughter with her. As the girl grows up,
Stella realizes that she should live with her father so that she can take advantage of all the financial
advantages he had to offer. This novel was made into a successful film starring Barbara Stanwyck. The
last image of Stella is a powerful one; she stands outside in the pouring rain and peers through a window
asher daughter get married. A real tear jerker!! I mention this plot in some detail because this is the kind
of story that Prouty is know for—melodramatic, contrived, overtly sentimental. This is everything that
Plath disdained as a writer. How it must have galled her to accept charity from this woman!!
Key moments from text   I never intended to get married. This is a
                        recollection from childhood; nonetheless,
                        this disenchantment with marriage is
                        something that seems to have followed
                        Esther into young adulthood. Certainly this
                        refusal to marry is not in keeping with 1950s
                        American expectations.

                        I had been unmasked only that morning by
                        Jay Cee herself and I felt now that all the
                        uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself
                        were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the
                        truth much longer.

                        “Does your work interest you, Esther?”
                        “Oh, it does, it does,” I said. “It interests
                        me very much.” I felt like yelling the words,
                        as if that might make them more convincing,
                        but I controlled myself. This suppressed
                        desire to yell is interesting. It might suggest
                        rage and / or frustration. But it might also
                        be a symptom of Esther’s approaching

                        My German-speaking father, dead since I
                        was nine, came from some manic-depressive
                        hamlet in the black heart of Prussia. This is
                        not such a flattering image of Germany. See
                        previous note regarding Plath’s Germanic
                        heritage. What I didn’t say was that each
                        time I picked up a German dictionary or a
                        German book, the very sight of those dense,
                        black, barbed-wire letters made my mind
                        shut like a clam. Plath’s mention of black
                        barbed wire in relation to German puts one
                        in mind of concentration camps. This is yet
                        another negative image.
                            The Bell Jar
                       (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 4

Why is this ptomaine incident       The fact that Esther enjoys being ill and
so important                        having others care for her is an interesting
                                    bit of characterization. This protagonist
                                    desires release and relief throughout this
                                    entire novel. This illness affords her the
                                    opportunity to stop struggling and allow
                                    other to do for her. This may also be a
                                    means of foreshadowing the all-
                                    encompassing mental illness that descends
                                    upon Esther later. One must also wonder if
                                    this later mental illness is not, at least in
                                    part, a self-fulfilling prophecy—a means of
                                    acquiring a form of release that is second
                                    only to death itself.

Key moments from the text           I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then
                                    I’d know what to do.

                                    I hate Technicolor. Everybody in a
                                    Technicolor movie seems to feel obligated to
                                    wear a lurid costume in each new scene and
                                    to stand around like a clotheshorse with a
                                    lot of very green trees or very yellow wheat
                                    or very blue ocean rolling away for miles
                                    and miles in every direction. The vibrance
                                    of color in Technicolor films is antithetical
                                    to the blankness and whiteness that Esther
                                    seems to love and desire. The excessive,
                                    “lurid” color seems somehow contrived to
                                    her. It is just one more bit of evidence that
                                    society is false.

                                    I felt purged and holy and ready for a new
                                    life. This line is great support for the theme
                                    of rebirth through suffering. I began to
                                    feel if it was a good enough present I
                                        wouldn’t mind about what happened,
                                        because I felt so pure as a result.

                                 The Bell Jar
                           (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 5
What is the significance of             Esther sees in this story parallels to her
the story about the fig tree?           own life with Buddy. They are
                                        constitutionally different. He is, by all
                                        indications, a “fine young man” by 50s
                                        standards. She, on the other hand, is rather
                                        bohemian. Even though her identity is not
                                        yet well-formed in her head, she intuitively
                                        knows that she and Buddy should not be

                                        Also, we notice another reference to
                                        Judaism. I would contend that both
                                        characters in this story somehow suggest
                                        Esther herself, not she and Buddy
                                        separately. Remember this pervading theme
                                        of split personalities and Plath’s alternating
                                        identification with Jews and German goy.

                                        Later Esther will identify each fig that these
                                        two characters pick as a different life path /
                                        life choice.

How does this chapter                   Constantine’s phone call make her begin
reveal how Esther is, at                to fantasize about “a man who would love
least partially, a girl of the          me passionately the minute he met me.”
1950s?                                  This girlish fantasy reads like some corny
                                        movie from the 1940s. For all her divergent
                                        values and habits, Esther is, after all, a
                                        young girl who is in the process of

Key moments from the text               Slowly I swam up from the bottom of a black
sleep. Here we have a submersion image—
reminiscent of burial and death. Also, we
notice a clear connection to water, a symbol
inexorably tied to both father and deathly

I felt sorry when I came to the last page. I
wanted to crawl in between those black lines
of print the way you crawl through a fence,
and go to sleep under that beautiful big
green fig tree. This passage reveals the
comfort of literature (and “make believe”).
It also elicits a dual image of Esther’s death
and her perpetual life through literature.
This is interesting, considering Plath’s own
experience; her work has secured her

“Do you know what a poem is, Esther?”
“No, what?” I said.
“A piece of dust.” Buddy’s implication here
is that poetry is dead—not a great remark to
make in the presence of a great poet!
Thematically, however, Buddy’s choice of
words is interesting here; mortality threads
this novel, but if there is one thing that
Esther would never think of as “dead,” it’s
poetry. Her imagined response is interesting
as well. “So are the cadavers you cut up.
So are the people you think you’re curing.
They’re dust as dust as dust. I reckon a
good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a
hundred of those people put together. This
“dust as dust as dust” sequence is
reminiscent of “ashes to ashes and dust to

If you expect nothing from somebody you
are never disappointed. This supports the
pervading motif of nothingness. This line
sounds so nihilistic—right in keeping with
Modernist despondency and the theme of
                              The Bell Jar
                        (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 6

Esther’s witnessing a birth          This novel is full of references to babies and
                                     birth images and mentions of children—
                                     almost always in a neutral to negative light.
                                     We might take Esther’s objection to children
                                     as a rejection of life, birth of course being
                                     the beginning, rather than the restful end, of
                                     life. But her objections may, at least in part,
                                     be much simpler; the whole process
                                     frightens her. Here is a girl-woman who is
                                     in the process of discovering herself; giving
                                     birth to another human being would take this
                                     attention away from self and project it in an
                                     entirely different direction. Also, she may
                                     not wish to continue the pattern of pain and
                                     disappointment that she has experienced in
                                     her own life.

                                     Esther’s thoughts about the drug
                                     administered to the woman giving birth are
                                     interesting; she reflects that this drug, which
                                     cheats a woman by causing her to forget her
                                     pain, must have been developed by a man.
                                     This “jab” at men notwithstanding, one must
                                     wonder why Esther would think that anyone
                                     would relish pain of this sort. She says that
                                     the woman is clearly feeling the pain when
                                     she is giving birth, so the only possible
                                     benefit of remembering the pain would be
                                     the prevention of future pregnancies.
                                     Otherwise, she must mean that pain is
                                     simply a treasure to be cherished. This latter
                                     reason works well as support for the theme
                                     of rebirth through pain and suffering.
                                     What do you think? A bit of a stretch?

Key moments from the text            After that, Buddy took me out into a hall
where they had some big glass bottles full of
babies that had died before they were born.
Here we have the themes of birth and death
intertwined. Brilliant.

I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug
a man would invent. Here was a woman in
terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it
or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she
would go straight home and start another
baby, because the drug would make her
forget how bad the pain had been, when all
the time, in some secret part of her, that
long, blind, doorless and windowless
corridor of pain was waiting to open up and
shut her in again. The first sentence of this
excerpt would work well in support of a
feminist reading of this novel. In the last
sentence, however, Plath’s focus might well
be less gender specific. She might just as
well be speaking of mental illness itself. It
is also interesting that she uses the word
corridor here. See previous note about
schizophrenic illusions.

I heard the scissors close on the woman’s
skin like cloth and the blood began to run
down—a fierce, bright red. Then all at once
the baby semed to pop out into Will’s hands,
the color of a blue plum and floured with
white stuff and streaked with blood . . . .
Here we have the motif of blood associated
with birth and sex. Both acts seem
ritualistic in Plath’s vision. Both are seen as
a sort of blood sacrifice.

All I’d heard about, really, was how fine and
clean Buddy was and how he was the kind of
person a girl should stay fine and clean for.
This passage elicits the theme of the stifling
expectations of 1950s society. The
inescapable connection here is that which
exists between virginity and purity. Fine
and clean clearly means “virginal.” Esther’s
discovery that Buddy has not been honest
about his sexual escapades makes him seem
                                     unforgivably hypocritical. There’s that old
                                     double standard at work again.

                                     The only thing I could think of was turkey
                                     neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very
                                     depressed. I just mention this one because
                                     it’s a hoot!!

                                     He [Buddy] was always saying how his
                                     mother said, “What a man wants is a mate
                                     and what a woman wants is infinite
                                     security,” and, “What a man is is an arrow
                                     into the future and what a woman is is the
                                     place the arrow shoots off from” . . . . This
                                     passage employs a corny metaphor in order
                                     to present men as the “thinkers and doers”
                                     and women as their nurturers.

                            The Bell Jar
                        (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 7

This is a good time to discuss       Virginity seems burdensome to Esther.
Esther’s assessment of sexual        Besides, she does not relish remaining a
relations between man and            virgin when Buddy has not remained one;
woman.                               he has not had the same charge as she—to
                                     remain “pure” for marriage. Consequently,
                                     her rejection of this double standard and her
                                     refusal to see virginity as a moral necessity
                                     cause her to move entirely in the opposite
                                     direction and disregard its value altogether.
                                     Her inability to envision herself as both wife
                                     and poet or as both mother and professional
                                     teacher indicate that Esther has fallen victim
                                     to “either / or” thinking. She sees all options
                                     as mutually exclusive. It is not surprising,
                                     therefore, that she comes to regard virginity
                                     as a burden, rather than a treasure. Since
                                     50s society stresses the necessity of love,
                                     marriage, and monogamy as prerequisites
                              for a young woman’s sexual experience,
                              Esther decides that she will not experiment
                              with anyone who has an emotional
                              attachment to her or for whom she may
                              develop such an attachment. Her approach
                              is antithetical to the stifling expectations of
                              1950s society.

                              Let’s also take a moment to consider that
                              sexual curiosity is natural in human beings,
                              so why should Esther—or any other young
                              woman, for that matter—be an exception?
                              She obsesses about the act itself; we know
                              this because of her frequent references to
                              Buddy’s experience with Gladys and her
                              later puzzlement at the attraction that
                              lesbians feel for one another.

How is Constantin different   Esther claims that he is different in that
from the average American     he has intuition. Clearly, she sees the
man (in Esther’s view)?       American men she has encountered as less
                              than insightful, and she does not wish to
                              become subservient to one. Perhaps this is
                              less of a commentary on men and more of
                              an indictment of American life and culture.

Key moments from the text     He had what no American man I’ve ever met
                              has had, and that’s intuition.

                              . . . he took my hand and squeezed it, and I
                              felt happier than I had been since I was
                              about nine and running along the hot white
                              beaches with my father the summer before
                              he died. Because Constantin is not
                              American, Esther feels comfortable with
                              him; she is not hesitant to see him as a
                              suggestion of her beloved father. This is an
                              excellent example of one of our controlling
                              themes in this novel: the unrelenting
                              search forfather—coupled paradoxically
                              with a diminished view of male
                              benevolence and goodness.
I hated the idea of serving men in any way.
This one is self-explanatory. What theme(s)
does it support?

Instead of the world being divided up into
Catholics and Protestants or Republicans
and Democrats or white men and black men
or even men and women, I saw the world
divided into people who had slept with
somebody and people who hadn’t . . . .
Again, “either / or” logic is evident here, as
is Esther’s obsession with sexual relations
between men and women.

That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to
get married. The last thing I wanted was
infinite security and to be the place an
arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and
excitement and to shoot off in all directions
myself, like the colored arrows from a
Fourth of July rocket. This is Esther’s
answer to Mrs. Willard’s “wisdom.” See the
last item under Key moments for Chapter 6.
The second half of this excerpt also reveals
Esther’s desire for freedom—certainly this
mention of the Fourth of July strengthens
that connection.

Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon
as she and my father left Reno on their
honeymoon—my father had been married
before, so he needed a divorce—my father
said to her, “Whew, that’s a relief, now we
can stop pretending and be ourselves”?—
and from that day on my mother never had a
minute’s peace. The idea here is that
marriage inevitably involves pretense and
disappointment. More importantly, it
involves particular misery for the woman.
                            The Bell Jar
                       (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 8

Explain Buddy’s reaction to         He tells her that she’s crazy—the irony
Esther’s claim that she wishes      abounds!! This is ironic, given Esther’s
never to marry.                     later mental problems, but it is also ironic in
                                    that it is the unrealistic and stifling
                                    expectations of 1950s society that is truly
                                    “crazy” here.

What is the central significance    It is here that we see Esther’s first serious
of Esther’s experience on Mount     attempt at suicide. The locale here works
Pisgah?                             well as a narrative (and thematic) device; the
                                    snow has a clear connection to death and
                                    relief. See “Motifs” section of this study
                             Key Passage:

               I aimed straight down.
               A keen wind that had been hiding itself struck me full in the
     mouth and raked the hair back horizontal on my head. I was
     descending, but the white sun rose no higher. It hung over the
5    suspended waves of the hills, an insentient pivot without which
     the world would not exist.
               A small, answering point in my own body flew toward it. I
     felt my lungs inflate with the inrush of scenery—air, mountains,
     trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”
10             I plummeted down past the zigzaggers, the students, the
     experts, through year after year of doubleness and smiles and
     compromise, into my own past.
               People and trees receded on either hand like the dark sides
     of a tunnel as I hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end of
15   it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby
     cradled in its mother’s belly.
               My teeth crunched a gravelly mouthful. Ice water seeped
     down my throat.
               Buddy’s face hung over me, near and huge, like a distracted
20   planet. Other faces showed themselves up in back of his. Behind
     them, black dots swarmed on a plane of whiteness. Piece by
     piece, as at the strokes of a dull godmother’s wand, the old
     world sprang back into position.
               “You were doing fine,” a familiar voice informed my ear,
25   “until that man stepped into your path.”
               People were unfastening my bindings and collecting my ski
     poles from where they poked skyward, askew, in their separate
     snowbanks. The lodge fence propped itself at my back.
               Buddy bent to pull off my boots and the several pairs of
30   white wool socks that padded them. His plump hand shut on
     my left foot, then inched up my ankle, closing and probing, as
     if feeling for a concealed weapon.
               A dispassionate white sun shone at the summit of the sky. I
     wanted to hone myself on it till I grew saintly and thin and
35   essential as the blade of a knife.
               “I’m going up,” I said. “I’m going to do it again.”
               “No, you’re not.”
               A queer, satisfied expression came over Buddy’s face.
               “No, you’re not,” he repeated with a final smile. “Your leg’s
40   broken in two places. You’ll be stuck in a cast for months.”

                       keen: sharp, sharply painful, bitter, piercing (line 2)
                       insentient: non-conscious or inanimate (line 5)
                       hone: to sharpen with a fine whetstone for razors (line 34)
What significant sentence
appears just before this passage?   Esther says, “The thought that I might kill
                                    myself formed in my mind coolly as a tree
                                    or a flower.” This makes it clear that this is
                                    a deliberate attempt at suicide. But the idea
                                    of suicide is not dark and foreboding to
                                    Esther, but as natural and attractive as a tree
                                    or flower.

What pervasive themes emerge        Certainly the search for simplicity,
here?                               cleanliness, and relief is at work here.
                                    Also, the injury itself affords Esther another
                                    chance at rebirth through suffering. It
                                    seems that injury, pain, and suffering brings
                                    Esther a feeling of renewal—a fresh chance
                                    to live.

What other motifs or                         white sun (line 4)
recurrent ideas appear in           The motif of whiteness is connected to the
this passage?                       theme of death, making it seem pure, clean,
                                    good and comforting. The sun also brings
                                    light, but this is not the same as whiteness.
                                    Esther says that she was “descending, but
                                    the white sun rose no higher.” For her,
                                    descent or submersion is positive, as it
                                    suggests relief and release. The fact that the
                                    sun rises no higher suggests its identity as a
                                    “pivot without which the world would not
                                    exist.” It is necessary and permanent. It is
                                    true that the sun and sunlight are often
                                    associated with male energy, but I’m not
                                    sure that that particular dynamic is at work
                                    here. What do you think? If you see this
                                    latter connection in this passage, be sure to
                                    support your argument with specific textual

                                     small answering point in my own body (line 7)
                                    Esther suggests that something inside of her is
                                    an “answering point” to the sun. This drive to
                                    join the forces of nature must surely refer to
                                    her desire to end her temporal life. This word
                                    choice again reinforces the idea that Esther’s
                                    gravitation to death is something that is
                                    inherently present in her—an innate longing.
  This is what it is to be happy. (line 9)
She equates happiness with a plunge toward

    years of doubleness . . . compromise (lines 11-12)
Esther is most likely referring to her years of
living as other have expected her to live. The
theme of the stifling expectations of 1950s
society emerges here as well.

        dark sides of a tunnel (lines 13-14)
This is perhaps a symptom of schizophrenia.
See previous note on related symptoms.
Mention of a tunnel also suggests a path that a
traveler might follow. Is suicide such a path?
Is Esther “destined” to do this? Is that why
the idea appeared to her “as coolly as a tree or

                well (line 15)
Here we have another submersion image—
suggesting burial.

        white sweet baby (line 15)
This is death itself, “the pebble at the bottom
of the well.” This is a favorable image of a
baby. The irony is strong here as well—death
is portrayed as a baby. The end of life and the
beginning somehow grotesquely fused. The
whiteness of this “baby” further establishes
the connection between whiteness and deathly
comfort and release.

        cradled in its mother’s belly (line 16)
If death is the baby, then who is its mother?
The earth? The universe? Resolve this
question relative to your own reading of this

       plane of whiteness (line 21)
Again, the connection of whiteness and death.

        a dispassionate white sun (line 33)
Since Esther describes the sun as white, then
it must be related to death. If death is
simply a natural progression that follows
birth and life, then the sun, as a natural
“object” has some connection to it. But at
this point in the passage, this attempt at
suicide has been unsuccessful. Following
this line of reasoning, we could say that the
sun is equally relative to life. The fact that
she describes it as dispassionate, though, is
quite interesting. This “white” sun does not
seem to care if she lives or dies. She sees
this blankness as somehow comforting—at
least it doesn’t seek to determine her path
for her, as other human beings around her
invariably do.

   essential as the blade of a knife (line 35)
Esther often speaks of knives. Their
sharpness seems to be, in most cases, a
metaphor for mental sharpness. Sharpness,
then, is a good thing. At this point in the
narrative, she wishes to “hone” herself on
this dispassionate white sun until she
becomes as thin and sharp as a knife. Also,
we cannot escape the obvious association of
knives and suicide. Remember, however,
that Esther will later refuse to slash her
wrists because the skin of her wrists “seems
so white and defenseless” (Plath 147).

  A queer satisfied expression came over
  Buddy’s face. (line 38)
This sadistic impression of Buddy is
interesting. Either he does take some
satisfaction is Esther’s injury (and his role as
doctor-healer-protector), or perhaps the bell
jar really is distorting Esther’s intentions and
perceptions of others. It might be fruitful to
pursue this latter possibility, as it would
afford you an opportunity to discuss the
central symbol of the bell jar.
                            The Bell Jar
                          (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 9

Marco represents a type           Esther identifies Marco as a “woman hater.”
                                  His misogyny establishes him as an enemy of
                                  empowered womanhood. Certainly feminist critics
                                  have made much of his identity as an allegorical

                                  Twice he appears as an animal:
                                         a.) He puts Esther in mind of a snake she
                                             once saw at the Bronx Zoo. The
                                             traditional connection here would be
                                             with Satan himself. Certainly Marco’s
                                             brutality and his seething and
                                             inexplicable anger make him a good
                                             candidate for this reading. Esther
                                             remembers that this snake struck at her
                                             three times through the protective glass.
                                             This certainly is powerful foreshadowing
                                             of the danger he poses.
                                         b.) After he has pushed Esther into the mud,
                                             ripped her dress, called her a slut, and
                                             smeared his blood on her face, Marco
                                             crawls through the mud looking for the
                                             purse containing the diamond pin he
                                             gave to Esther. How appropriate that
                                             she should leave him as he crawls
                                             through the muck like a pig.

Key moments from the text                I buried my face in the pink velvet façade of
                                         Jay Cee’s loveseat and with immense relief
                                         the salt tears and miserable noises that had
                                         been prowling around in me all morning
                                         burst out into the room. The “miserable
                                         noises” clearly refer to the “descending of
                                         the bell jar.”

                                         Marco hooked an arm around my waist and
                                         jerked me up against his dazzling white suit.
Then he said, “Pretend you are drowning.”
Here we have two possible death references
here. He is wearing a white suit,
“dazzling”ly white. Certainly this must
have meaning—perhaps the threat that she
instinctually perceives in this man connects
him with the possibility of death. Moreover,
his command that she pretend that she is
drowning is a more overt association.

Marco set his teeth to the strap at my
shoulder and tore my sheath to the waist. I
saw the glimmer of bare skin, like a pale veil
separating two bloody-minded adversaries.
The expression pale veil sounds particularly
poetic; also it offers another example of the
palor motif. Most interesting, however, is
this suggestion that these two wrestling
bodies are both enemies and conspirators.
The sex act itself seems to be a mere act of
mutual aggression, yet there also seems to
be the implication that both participants are
committed to the consummation of it. Also,
again we see the connection of sex and
blood sacrifice.

Then, deliberately, he wiped his finger under
his bloody nose and with two strokes stained
my cheeks, “I have earned my diamond with
this blood. Give it to me.” He, in essence,
paints Esther for war. The sexual interaction
between man and woman does indeed
assume a warlike quality, but Esther should
now be bracing for a much more consuming
battle for her sanity. After this experience,
she sheds her extravagant wardrobe
(shedding the veneer of sanity / normality)
and faces a brutal internal struggle. In a
sense, she goes into battle metaphorically
“naked.” If we can briefly take a look at this
novel as an expression of Zen Buddhist
philosophy, we realize that Esther must
relinquish all that she has in order to gain
anything of real value—connection to
Catcher in the Rye?
                                     A stiff breeze lifted the hair from my head.
                                     At my feet, the city doused its lights in sleep,
                                     its buildings blackened, as if for a funeral.
                                     This excerpt undoubtedly presents an overt
                                     reference to death, but the significance
                                     seems somewhat greater in this instance;
                                     Esther is on the brink of the “death” of her
                                     sanity. The funeral she refers to here may
                                     not be a funeral for her body, but instead it
                                     may be one for her mind (and spirit?).

                             The Bell Jar
                        (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 10

Esther’s failure to be accepted      This corresponds to Plath’s failure to be
into a writing course                accepted into Frank O’Connor’s course at
                                     Harvard (summer of 1953).

Esther’s poor hygiene                A common occurrence in cases of

Finnegan’s Wake                      This is an incredibly dense, all but
                                     incomprehensible novel by James Joyce.
                                     Once, in the final meeting of a graduate
                                     class in Joyce, I and my classmates spent a
                                     full hour attempting to explicate the first
                                     paragraph of this text. We never finished
                                     and never really came to understand what
                                     ground we had covered. I’m sure that
                                     Esther’s inability to focus is indeed a
                                     symptom of her mental disorder, but I can’t
                                     imagine that her sane mind could do much
                                     better with it. LOL.

                                     Seriously, though, I want to tell you that the
                                     first line of Finnegan’s Wake flows like a
                                     river—it opens with the passage riverrun,
                                     past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore
                                  to bend . . . . The movement is almost
                                  dizzying and nauseating.

                                  Plath’s choice of this particular novel for
                                  Esther to read at this point in the narrative is
                                  brilliant. It is about an actual wake (works
                                  well with the death motif), and it is virtually
                                  impenetrable. I can’t help but think that
                                  Plath is deliberately amusing herself (and
                                  her reader) here.

Key moments from the text         Children make me sick. See previous note.

                                  I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet
                                  over my head. But even that didn’t shut out
                                  the light, so I buried my head under the
                                  darkness of the pillow and pretended it was
                                  night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up.
                                  Here is another submersion image (bed
                                  sheets). It is interesting that she uses the
                                  word buried.

                                  . . . I thought I might . . . work my way to
                                  Germany and be a waitress . . . . Notice
                                  Plath’s combination of references—
                                  Germanic heritage and (possibly) the
                                  waitress / sex connection.

                                  I crawled between the mattress and the
                                  padded bedstead and let the mattress fall
                                  across me like a tombstone. It felt dark and
                                  safe under there, but the mattress was not
                                  heavy enough. The thought of death is both
                                  dark and comforting.

                            The Bell Jar
                     (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 11

Dr. Gordon                        Holden Caufield would most certainly call
                               this man “phony.” Esther does not trust him
                               for the same reasons that would prompt
                               Holden to see him as phony: he looks too
                               groomed, and his conversation reveals him
                               as silly and insufferable.

Esther’s lies                  The fact that Esther finds it incredibly easy,
                               almost enjoyable, to lie to the sailor she
                               meets on Boston Commons indicates that
                               the line separating reality and fantasy is
                               steadily and rapidly diminishing for her.

Key moments from the text      I saw the days of the year stretching ahead
                               like a series of bright, white boxes, and
                               separating one box from another was sleep,
                               like a black shade. Here white takes on a
                               negative meaning. Esther’s obsession with
                               this color is evident, and we may well be
                               able to explain away all mentions of it by
                               claiming that she is obsessed with attaining
                               pureness and simplicity and, therefore,
                               subconsciously employs the word white (or
                               some related word) as a means of expressing
                               this obsession. Still, it is black, which
                               represents sleep, that is comforting here.
                               The white boxes represent waking (and
                               torturous) hours.

                               I wanted to do everything once and for all
                               and be through with it. A wish for death.

                               . . . as if I were being stuffed farther and
                               farther into a black, airless sack with no
                               way out. Esther feels trapped.

                               He looked Nordic and virginal. Now I was
                               simple-minded it seemed I attracted clean,
                               handsome people. This reminds me of
                               Emily Dickinson’s “Much madness is
                               divinest sense.9” In other words, it seems
                               that Esther is implying that her “madness”
                               now helps her to fall in line with society’s

    Here’s Dickinson’s text:
                                       expectation. This is certainly a pregnant

                                       They [Japanese warriors] disemboweled
                                       themselves when anything went wrong. I tried
                                       to imagine how they would go about it. They
                                       must have an extremely sharp knife. . . . Here
                                       Plath’s reference to knives is an overt
                                       reference to suicide, but she might still be
                                       connecting this symbol to the idea of clarity of
                                       thought. It seems to Esther that hari kari
                                       makes absolute sense. This thinking that
                                       drives these soldiers to destroy themselves
                                       seems brilliant in its simplicity.

                            The Bell Jar
                          (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 12

Esther’s electroshock treatment        This description of the experience is
                                       incredibly vivid. We are reminded of
                                       Esther’s earlier concerns over the
                                       Rosenbergs. From a narrative perspective,
                                       this scene does must to establish a kinship
                                       between her and them.

the picture of the dead                Plath incorporates newspaper headlines
starlet                                rather frequently in this novel. The nature of
                                       the stories and headlines that capture Esther’s
                                       attention provides the reader with yet another
                                       means of characterization; often the headlines
                                       concern death. This one in particular is
                                       interesting because she thinks that she and this
                                       dead starlet resemble once another—their
                                       lifeless expression establishing the central
                                       similarity between them.

Deer Island Prison                     Esther’s visit to this locale is telling; she is
                                       now in another sort of prison of her own,
                                       and the physical proximity of this prison to
                                       her childhood home suggests a connection
                                   between her present situation and her
                                   troubled childhood.

                                   It shouldn’t have escaped our notice that
                                   when the ticket salesman asks the crying
                                   Esther who she knows at Deer Island Prison,
                                   she replies, “It’s my father.” This is a
                                   strange response. Here the theme of
                                   Esther’s relentless search for father once
                                   again emerges. It is hardly coincidental that
                                   she visits the beach shortly after this
                                   interchange. See previous note linking
                                   seashore and father.

Esther’s return to the beach       First of all, we notice the theme of Esther’s
near her childhood home            relentless search for father. This is the
                                   beach where Esther strolled happily with her
                                   father. Secondly, we see that Esther has
                                   come to this location in order to kill herself.
                                   She fingers a box of razors in her pocket—
                                   another potential weapon to use against

Esther’s position on the sandbar   The fact that Esther is positioned on a
                                   sandbar indicates that she is “closing in” on
                                   death, so to speak. The sandbar is the last
                                   bit of land before seemingly endless water.
                                   She is on the outer boundary of life, as it

Key passages from the text         Then something bent down and took hold of
                                   me and shook me like the end of the world.
                                   Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, throught an
                                   air crackling with blue light, and with each
                                   flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought
                                   my bones would break and the sap fly out of
                                   me like a split plant.

                                   I wondered what terrible thing it was that I
                                   had done. This description has always made
                                   this horrific experience so immediate for me.
                                   Plath’s combination of auditory (it shrilled),
                                   tactile (shook me . . . great jolt . . . bones
                                   would break), and visual (blue light . . . flash)
                                   images is astounding. What a poet!!
                                     I thought maybe I ought to spill a little blood
                                     for practice . . . a bright seam of red welled up
                                     at the lip of the slash. The blood gathered
                                     darkly, like fruit, and rolled down my ankle
                                     into the cup of my black patent leather shoe.
                                     Here we once again see the motif of blood. If,
                                     however, it is connected to sacrifice here, it
                                     would be sacrifice of the body. There doesn’t
                                     seem to be any sexual connection at all.

                                     “How do you get into that prison?”
                                     “You get a pass.”
                                     ”No, how do you get locked in?” It is clear
                                     that Esther is thinking of incarceration
                                     because of her own psychological

                                     It pleased me to think they [Esther’s black
                                     patent leather shoes] would be perched there
                                     on the silver log, pointing out to sea, like a
                                     sort of soul-compass, after I was dead. If the
                                     shoes would function as a “soul compass”
                                     after Esther’s suicide, then surely Plath must
                                     be connecting death and the sea. The
                                     implication is that the soul moves seaward
                                     after temporal life has ceased. Another reason
                                     that this excerpt is interesting is that Plath
                                     does not often refer to the “soul” or make any
                                     suggestions whatsoever concerning its

                             The Bell Jar
                        (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 13

Esther’s second visit to a beach     Once again Esther visits a beach—this time
                                     accompanied by other youths (Jody, Cal,
                                     Mark). Ironically, the chapter opens with
                                     the kids discussing a play in which a young
                                     boy loses his sanity as a result of a brain
                                  disease. The boy’s mother debates whether
                                  she should kill him. Just after Esther
                                  mentions this bit of plot, she wonders if her
                                  own mother has asked these other kids to
                                  invite her to the beach. Is Esther somehow
                                  seeing her mother as detrimental to her own
                                  well-being? The distortions of the bell jar
                                  are really showing here.
Another two attempts at suicide   Earlier that day Esther had attempted to hang
                                  herself. Her instinctual attempt to preserve
                                  her own life, however, prevents her “success”
                                  in this endeavor.

                                  Esther’s subsequent attempt to kill herself
                                  occurs at the beach. Her plan is to swim so far
                                  from shore that she could not possibly make it
                                  back, but each time that she tries to submerge
                                  herself, she bobs to the surface.

Esther’s brief career as a        This passage presents more baby / children
candy striper                     images and reveals the theme of death as a
                                  function of the flowers that Esther is to
                                  deliver. As she removes dead flowers from
                                  vases in the patients’ rooms and lays them in
                                  the washbasin, she imagines that this is how
                                  the dead bodies in the morgue must look.

Esther’s visit to her father’s    This passage may well contain the dramatic
grave                             climax of the novel. Her relentless search
                                  for father, in a sense, ends here. She does
                                  find him (his grave), yet when it seems that
                                  she will never find the tombstone, she
                                  claims that she “couldn’t find [her] father
                                  anywhere.” What she actually wants is to
                                  commune with him—his “soul.” Perhaps
                                  this explains her two attempts to drown
                                  herself at the beach. If she were to die, she
                                  could join him.

                                  She mentions that her mother never would
                                  allow her to visit the grave before.
                                  Sociologists agree that this sort of closure is
                            absolutely essential if one is to accept the
                            reality of death and dying.

                            Esther implies that she blames herself for
                            “years of neglect.” It is easy to misread this
                            sentence and lose its intentions—who has
                            neglected whom? She blames herself for
                            not visiting his grave and tending it, but she
                            also undoubtedly feels that her father’s death
                            has been the ultimate abandonment. Plath
                            certainly seems to feel that way—consult
                            her poetry (particularly “Daddy”) and see
                            for yourself.
the pills and the cellar    Here is Esther’s most successful attempt.
                            As far as plot is concerned, this incident
                            offers a key complication. This is what will
                            move her into the hospital and hasten her
                            movement back to sanity.

                            This passage closely mirrors what happened
                            to Plath at the end of the summer of 1953.

Key moments from the text   I thought I would swim out until I was too
                            tired to swim back. As I paddled on, my
                            heartbeat boomed like a dull motor in my

                            I am I am I am. This passage is reminiscent
                            of Edna Pontillier’s suicide at the end of
                            Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. The sea, in
                            that text, represents absolute freedom from
                            society’s stifling expectations of women.

                            This “I am I am I am” beating of Esther’s
                            heart will, in a later scene, become a “brag”
                            that mocks her misery. It seems to her that
                            her heart, in keeping her alive, is mocking
                            her pain.

                            There was no wastebasket in sight, so I
                            crumbled the flowers up and laid them in the
                            deep white basin. The basin felt cold as a
                            tomb. I smiled. This must be how they laid
                            the bodies away in the hospital morgue.
                                  I laid my face to the smooth face of the
                                  marble and howled my loss into the cold salt
                                  rain. Because Esther claims that she has
                                  never, prior to this moment, cried for her
                                  father’s death, this seems to be a great
                                  breakthrough. Throughout this novel Esther
                                  has seemed so pliable and quiet, but here she
                                  is “howling.” Surely this moment paves the
                                  way for her later recovery.

                                  The earth seemed friendly under my bare
                                  feet. Esther feels that the earth welcomes
                                  her. The connection here is obvious.

                       The Bell Jar
                     (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 14

Esther as a “baby”                Plath’s description of her experience here
                                  resembles a description of a child in the
                                  womb—or perhaps a child leaving the
                                  womb. Consider the following bits of text:

                                         It was completely dark.

                                         I was being transported . . .down a

                                         a slit of light opened like a mouth or
                                         a wound

                                         hands wrapped around my limbs

                                         the light leapt into my head, and
                                         through the thick, warm, furry dark,
                                         a voice cried. “Mother!”

                                         Air breathed and played over my
                            If I opened my eyes, I would see
                            colors and shapes bending in upon
                            me like nurses.

                            At first this whole passage may seem
                            to support the theme of rebirth
                            through suffering, but when
                            Esther’s brother asks her, “How are
                            you?,” she responds, “The same.” In
                            other words, there does not appear to
                            have been any cessation of pain.

Plath’s social commentary   This novel gives us a glimpse into
                            the world of mental hygiene. This is
                            one of the first noteworthy texts that
                            does do. If you are interested in
                            reading further, you might take a
                            look at Clifford Beers’s A Mind that
                            Found Itself (1900) and Frances
                            Farmer’s Will There Really Be a
                            Morning? (1970).

key moments from the text   I felt the darkness, but nothing else,
                            and my head rose, feeling it, like the
                            head of a worm. The worm
                            reference is interesting here because
                            Plath has previously described
                            sunbathers at the beach as worms.
                            Of course there is also the suggestion
                            that Esther is a “worm” because she
                            has been nestled in the earth.

                            I huddled down more deeply in the
                            bed and pulled the sheet up over my
                            head . . . I only burrowed down
                            further in the bed. Another
                            submersion image (bed sheets).
                         The Bell Jar
                       (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 15
Esther’s cruelty and                As we read this chapter, we should remember
selfishness                         Aurelia Plath’s claim about her daughter’s
                                    original plan to present this narrative twice
                                    (see pages one and two of this study guide).

                                    Mrs. Plath contended that the “bell jar” of
                                    madness distorts Esther’s perceptions and
                                    causes her to spurn kindness and misinterpret
                                    good will as manipulation and such. Here we
                                    see Esther’s ungratefulness for Philomena
                                    Guinea’s financial and moral support and her
                                    heartlessness and cruelty in relation to her
                                    suffering mother.

Dr. Nolan                           Esther seems immediately to trust Dr. Nolan.
                                    Whereas she sees Dr. Gordon as thick and
                                    insensitive, she sees Dr. Nolan as kind,
                                    trustworthy, benevolent. We must wonder if
                                    her being a woman has contributed to Esther’s
                                    faith in her efficiency and wisdom. Esther
                                    does mention that she is surprised to see a
                                    woman in this professional position. This
                                    whole narrative turn seems to support the
                                    themes of feminine power and the
                                    untrustworthiness of men.

Miss Norris                         This character’s silence is worth mention.
                                    Esther’s fondness for this woman seems
                                    somehow tied to this silence. We have
                                    established that this entire novel is permeated
                                    with a quest for silence, nothingness,
                                    whiteness, and death. In a sense, Miss Norris
                                    embodies these ideals—thus explaining
                                    Esther’s pleasure in her company.
                            Esther speaks of sitting with Miss Norris in
                            “sisterly silence.” This demonstrates a kinship
                            of sorts.

Valerie                     We might be tempted to say the same of
                            Valerie; she has, after all, been lobotomized.
                            This is clearly a way to achieve a blankness.
                            But Esther (and Plath) characteristically
                            demonstrates a fear and distaste for mental
                            numbness. Esther does not overtly express
                            such distaste in this chapter, but she does not
                            seem fond of Valerie in the same way that she
                            seems fond of Miss Norris.

Joan Gilling                This is a shocker!! Joan, the girl that Buddy
                            was dating when he declared his interest in
                            Esther, is a fellow patient. She mentions that
                            she is familiar with Esther’s case—she has
                            read the newspaper articles concerning the
                            search for the missing student and the
                            subsequent discovery of her suicide attempt.
                            We must wonder if Joan has found courage
                            and a perverted inspiration in Esther’s much-
                            publicized experience. At any rate, it seems
                            certain that Esther either does not make this
                            connection or does not feel any degree of guilt
                            in this matter. Is this further support for her
                            distorted perceptions and callousness (the
                            “bell jar effect”)?

key moments from the text   I knew I should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea,
                            only I couldn’t feel a thing. If Mrs. Guinea
                            had given me a ticket to Europe or a round-
                            the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one
                            scrap of difference to me, because wherever I
                            sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in
                            Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under
                            the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own
                            sour air.

                            If anyone does that to me again I’ll kill myself.
                            When the trusted Dr. Nolan does indeed do
                            this to Esther, the latter does not attempt
                                   suicide. This must mark a change in her

                                   The woman didn’t stir, just stared up at the
                                   ceiling. I felt hurt. I thought maybe Valerie
                                   or somebody had told her when she first came
                                   in how stupid I was. This seems to suggest
                                   delusions of persecutions.

                                   I looked at Valerie in awe, appreciating for
                                   the first time her perpetual marble calm. This
                                   passage perhaps suggests admiration or
                                   envy—since marble and calmness are
                                   reminiscent of death, silence, nothingness, etc.

                        The Bell Jar
                      (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 16

Joan as a “protégé”                She mentions that she is familiar with
                                   Esther’s case—she has read the newspaper
                                   articles concerning the search for the
                                   missing student and the subsequent
                                   discovery of her suicide attempt. We must
                                   wonder if Joan has found courage and a
                                   perverted inspiration in Esther’s much-
                                   publicized experience. At any rate, it seems
                                   certain that Esther either does not make this
                                   connection or does not feel any degree of
                                   guilt in this matter. Is this further support
                                   for her distorted perceptions and callousness
                                   (the “bell jar effect”)?

newspaper clippings                This is another motif in this novel—
                                   newspaper and magazine articles. In a
                                   sense, this is a reflexive device (writing as a
                                   reflection on the power or role of writing);
                                   Plath uses magazines and newspapers to
                                   suggest the manner in which 1950s America
                                   thinks and reacts to stories like her own.
                                                     By its very nature, a newspaper article is
                                                     devoid of sympathy10. It presents the “who,
                                                     what, where, when, and (sometimes) why
                                                     and how”—the “facts” involved in a news
                                                     story. In a sense, newspapers are a brilliant
                                                     reflection of the themes of alienation and the
                                                     impossibility (or at least the unlikelihood) of
                                                     meaningful communication.

Esther’s hatred for                                  One would think that an admission of hatred
her mother                                           for one’s parent would be a negative
                                                     development in a patient’s case; nonetheless,
                                                     Dr. Nolan seems pleased with Esther’s claim
                                                     to hate her mother. Perhaps it is
                                                     understandable that she feels this way—or
                                                     claims to feel this way: Esther has caused
                                                     her mother a great deal of pain and worry.
                                                     This claim that she hates Mrs. Greenwood
                                                     may well be an attempt to avoid the sense of
                                                     guilt that she would otherwise feel if she had
                                                     a more honest and healthy (sane?) vision of
                                                     all that has happened and her particular role
                                                     in the upheaval.
Esther’s approaching                                 We can’t help but notice a few changes
recovery                                             in Esther’s behavior and outlook:

                                                                     She does not seem to be as
                                                                      obsessed with the prospect
                                                                      of suicide.
                                                                     She realizes that she should
                                                                      feel grateful for Philomena
                                                                      Guinea’s sponsorship.
                                                                     She seems to be making an
                                                                      attempt to understand and
                                                                      identify with Joan Gilling.
                                                                     She demonstrates anger
                                                                      toward her mother—perhaps
                                                                      a manifestation of culpability
                                                                      and regret for having caused
                                                                      pain and suffering.

  Both definitions (popular and literary) apply here. I mean to suggest that 1950s society does not
encourage any compassionate feeling for those who have attempted suicide or stepped outside of the tightly
confining boundaries established for them by convention (for example, devaluing of feminine virginity).
Nor did it encourage any attempt to “understand” this kind of behavior and the people who exhibit it.
key moments from the text   I noticed the Bloomingdale earrings
                            and the Bloomingdale necklace
                            glinting out of it with bright, white
                            highlights, like imitation stars.
                            Plath’s use of the word imitation is
                            significant. She seems to be
                            suggesting that the “reality” that
                            fashion magazines offer is not reality
                            at all. The cleanliness and glamour
                            are false and ridiculous. We must
                            remember that this is the life that
                            Esther is “living” at the outset of the

                            As I pulled out of sleep, I found I was
                            beating on the bedpost with my
                            hands and calling. Sleep seems like
                            a tomb, and Esther’s having to “pull
                            out of it” suggests effort and perhaps
                            a subtle unwillingness.

                            Out of the wastebasket poked the
                            blood-red buds of a dozen long-
                            stemmed roses. Esther’s cruelty in
                            disposing of her mother’s roses in
                            front of her is memorable, as it this
                            description of them as blood red.
                            Again, blood suggests sacrifice,
                            suffering, and the cessation of life.
                            Life in a waste-basket—interesting!

                            Save them for my funeral. Again,
                            this is a cruel remark. Also, it
                            supports the pervading theme of
                            death (specifically suicide). It is a
                            haunting bit of text that suggests the
                            inevitability of death for the

                            It’s your birthday. The irony is
                            powerful here. Birthday elicits the
                            image of birth (obviously), but
                            Esther is in the hospital on this
                            particular birthday because of an
                                                     attempt to end life rather than begin

                                Key Passage:

                                   . . . Mrs. Greenwood asked that this
     picture be printed in hopes that it will encourage her daughter to
     return home.


5              A dark, midnight picture of about a dozen moon-faced peo-
     ple in a wood. I thought the people at the end of the row looked
     queer and unusually short until I realized they were not people,
     but dogs. Bloodhounds used in search for missing girl. Police Sgt.
     Bill Hindly says: It doesn’t look good.

10                            GIRL FOUND ALIVE!

                The last picture showed policemen lifting a long, limp blan-
     ket roll with a featureless cabbage head into the back of an
     ambulance. Then it told how my mother had been down in the
     cellar, doing the week’s laundry, when she heard faint groans
15   coming from a disused hole. . . .
                I laid the clippings on the white spread on the bed.
                “You keep them,” Joan said. “You ought to stick them in a
                I folded the clippings and slipped them in my pocket.
20              “I read about you,” Joan went on. “Not how they found
     you, but everything up to that, and I put all my money together
     and took the first plane to New York.”
                “Why New York?”
                “Oh, I thought it would be easier to kill myself in New
25   York.”
                Joan grinned sheepishly and stretched out her hands, palm
     up. Like a miniature mountain range, large, reddish weals
     upheaved across the white flesh of her wrists.
                “How did you do that?” For the first time it occurred to me
30   Joan and I might have something in common.
                “I shoved my fists through my roommate’s window.”
                “What roommate?”
                “My old college roommate. She was working in New York,
     and I couldn’t think of anyplace else to stay, and besides, I’d
35   hardly any money left, so I went to stay with her. My parents
     found me there—she’d written them I was acting funny—and
     my father flew straight down and brought me back.”
                “But you’re all right now.” I made it a statement.
                Joan considered me with her bright, pebble-gray eyes, “I
40   guess so,” she said. “Aren’t you?”
                            The Bell Jar
                        (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 17

the “surprise”                       It is interesting that even though Dr. Nolan’s
electroshock therapy                 failure to warn Esther about this treatment is
                                     clearly a breach of trust, Esther does not
                                     seem to hold a grudge. This is perhaps
                                     because Dr. Nolan’s failure to warn her
                                     about it has been a kindness: she did not
                                     want Esther to spend all night dreading the
                                     treatment. But it is perhaps more likely that
                                     Esther is willing to forgive this breach of
                                     trust because Dr. Nolan is female—
                                     decidedly less threatening and suspicious
                                     than a male counterpart.

The picture of                       Esther’s refusal to admit that this is a
Esther in the fashion                picture of her is interesting. On the one
magazine                             hand, this is a deliberate lie. Her reticence
                                     might be attributable to a sense of shame at
                                     having been part of the “phony” life of New
                                     York fashion magazines and such.

                                     The source of this shame might be much
                                     simpler as well—after all, being a patient in
                                     a mental institution after such a glamorous
                                     past must be rather humbling and

                                     Then, too, Esther’s claim that this is not she
                                     in the photograph may be an honest
                                     response; she certainly does not identify
                                     herself as a glamour queen. Therefore, this
                                     girl in the photograph indeed is not the “real

Key moments from the text            I gathered all my news of Joan into a little
                                     bitter heap, though I received it with surface
                                     gladness. Joan was the beaming double of
                                                     my old best self, specially designed to follow
                                                     and torment me. Is Joan a foil for Esther?
                                                     Esther’s claim that she (Joan) is a means of
                                                     exacting torture on her may suggest that she
                                                     feels jealous of Joan’s good mental health.
                                                     Isn’t this a suggestion that Esther’s recovery
                                                     is well on the way?

                                                     Doctor Nolan put her arm around me and
                                                     hugged me like a mother. This certainly is a
                                                     positive vision of motherhood. Somehow
                                                     Dr. Nolan and Jay Cee seem similar in this
                                                     regard. Still, Dr. Nolan enjoys a special
                                                     distinction—she is the only character that
                                                     Esther ever claims to love. A psychologist
                                                     might well call this affection transference.11

                                  The Bell Jar
                            (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 18

rebirth through pain                                 The electroshock treatment seems to have
and suffering                                        brought a certain degree of freedom and
                                                     relief. Esther claims that she can now
                                                     breathe more freely.

knives                                               Esther’s inability to remember why she used
                                                     to love knives is ironic. We should see
                                                     knives in association with a sharpness of
                                                     wit. Her inability to remember is evidence
                                                     that this treatment has somewhat dulled her

Joan’s fondness for                                  This is interesting, given Esther’s view of
Mrs. Willard                                         this woman as silly and insufferable. Yes,
                                                     Joan and Esther are indeed foils.

  Affection that a patient develops for a doctor who he perceives has helped him. Often the rightful locus
of this affection belongs elsewhere, but the patient somehow is not yet willing to acknowledge this
emotional tie. In this novel, the emotional relationship Esther is not yet willing to acknowledge clearly
must be that which exists between her and her mother. This is why she speaks of Dr. Nolan in terms of a
Lesbianism                  Esther’s reaction upon discovering Joan and
                            Dee Dee in a compromising position is an
                            interesting bit of characterization. She is
                            still a bit naïve—this is, after all, a
                            bildungsroman. This incident provides
                            insight for our protagonist. Dr. Nolan helps
                            her to understand the primary motivation for
                            lesbian behavior. Equating this sexual
                            activity with a quest for tenderness and
                            understanding clearly supports the theme of
                            feminine power and the spiritual inadequacy
                            of men (in Esther’s mind anyway).

Birth control               Dr. Nolan’s dismissal of the article on the
                            necessity for female virginity as
                            “propaganda” and her putting Esther in
                            touch with a doctor who will provide her
                            with a diaphragm are steps toward personal
                            empowerment for Esther. Here we need not
                            draw much of a distinction between personal
                            empowerment and the empowerment of
                            women in general.

Key moments from the text   All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt
                            surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung,
                            suspended, a few feet above my head. I was
                            open to the circulating air.

                            I took up the silver knife and cracked off the
                            cap of my egg. Then I put down the knife
                            and looked at it. I tried to think what I had
                            loved knives for, but my mind slipped from
                            the noose of the thought and swung, like a
                            bird, in the center of empty air.

                            I looked at Joan. In spite of the creepy
                            feeling, and in spite of my old, ingrained
                            dislike, Joan fascinated me. It was like
                            observing a Martian, or a particularly warty
                            toad. Her thoughts were not my thoughts,
                            nor her feelings my feelings, but we were
                            close enough so that her thoughts and
                            feelings seemed a wry, black image of my
                                “What I hate is the thought of being under a
                                man’s thumb,” I had told Doctor Nolan. “A
                                man doesn’t have a worry in the world,
                                while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head
                                like a big stick, to keep me in line.”

                      The Bell Jar
                    (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 19

loss of virginity               This chapter is rather difficult to read. What
                                Esther perceives as a right of passage
                                becomes a physically painful experience and
                                one that offers little more than humiliation and
                                fear. However, Plath’s tone seems rather
                                detached. We must wonder if this is because
                                she sees this experience as ultimately
                                liberating for her protagonist or because she is
                                implying that the “bell jar distortion” that has
                                allegedly caused Esther to misinterpret other
                                characters’ motives and react with cruelty to
                                acts of kindness is once again at work. This
                                incident aside, Esther seems to be recovering
                                nicely, but the emotional detachment that has,
                                in part, defined this character is not yet fully

                                We must also wonder if Plath is using this
                                disturbing scene simply to support her theme
                                concerning the stifling expectations heaped
                                upon women during the 1950s.

                                Esther seems to understand and accept Dr.
                                Nolan’s claim that lesbian women turn to
                                other women in order to find love and
                                tenderness; still, she is determined to
                                experience sex with someone with whom
                                she shares absolutely no tenderness—not
                                even an emotional familiarity. We must,
                    therefore, wonder if this scene hinges on

 a “blood ritual”   The profuse bleeding that Esther
                    experiences is obviously symbolically
                    significant. What she is looking for in a
                    sexual partner is rather telling; particularly
                    interesting is her insistence that he be “a
                    kind of impersonal, priestlike official, as in
                    the tales of tribal rites.” It seems obvious
                    that she regards her virginity as a sacrifice of
                    sorts. The more interesting question is what
                    is it a sacrifice to?

                    Perhaps Esther herself is the sacrifice. She
                    seems bent on self-destruction. It is not
                    inconceivable that the “death” of her
                    virginity suggests the death of the girl

                    Does the loss of Esther’s virginity signify
                    her initiation into the world of “sane”
                    adulthood? Remember after all that this
                    novel is a bildungsroman.

                    Another interesting question is how can
                    Esther simultaneously require emotional
                    distance from the man with whom she will
                    share her first sexual experience AND feel
                    the need to “respect” him. These two
                    requirements seem contradictory, and the
                    ultimate effect of having her long for both is
                    that the character emerges as still confused,
                    still suffering from distorted vision.

Joan’s death        If Joan is Esther’s foil, then the former’s
                    death is particularly interesting. In a sense,
                    Joan must die if Esther is to live. Still,
                    Joan’s successful attempt at suicide is a bit
                    unsettling. You must admit that this scene
                    smacks of foreshadowing. Plath’s own
                    suicide (February 1963) makes this moment
                    in the novel all the more disturbing.
key moments in the text                I felt the first man I slept with must be
                                       intelligent, so I would respect him. Irwin
                                       was a full professor at twenty-six and had
                                       the pale, hairless skin of a boy genius. I
                                       also needed somebody quite experienced to
                                       make up for my lack of it, and Irwin’s ladies
                                       reassured me on this head. Then, to be on
                                       the safe side, I wanted somebody I didn’t
                                       know and wouldn’t go on knowing—a kind
                                       of impersonal, priestlike official, as in the
                                       tales of tribal rites.

                                       I wondered how much I would bleed, and
                                       lay down, nursing the towel. It occurred to
                                       me that the blood was my answer. I couldn’t
                                       possibly be a virgin any more. I smiled into
                                       the dark. I felt part of a great tradition.

                               The Bell Jar
                          (Chapter by Chapter Guide)

Chapter 20

Buddy’s insensitivity                  When Buddy visits Esther, he callously says
                                       to her, “I wonder who you’ll marry now.”
                                       The implication is that her suicide attempt
                                       has somehow transformed her into
                                       “damaged goods.” Again, we are dealing
                                       with that 1950s’ notion that a woman is a
                                       commodity whose worth is determined by

                                       Even more significant than Buddy’s
                                       unthinking cruelty is Esther’s graceful
                                       response to his blunder. This equanimity
                                       suggests that she has recovered significantly.

culpability for Joan’s death           The fact that Esther wonders if she is
                           somehow at fault for Joan’s suicide suggests
                           a burgeoning sensitivity in her. This shows
                           how much her condition has improved;
                           when she first encounters Joan in the
                           asylum, she feels no culpability for the girl’s
                           situation—although it seems fairly obvious
                           that Esther’s suicide attempt has bolstered
                           her courage and acted as a catalyst in Joan’s

Esther’s fear of falling   Perhaps the most haunting line in this whole
ill again                  novel comes in this chapter:

                                   But I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at
                                   all. How did I know that someday—
                                   at college, in Europe, somewhere,
                                   anywhere—the bell jar, with its
                                   stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend

rebirth through pain       In one of the last paragraphs of the novel,
and suffering              Esther describes herself in terms of a
                           damanged tire that has been repaired and is
                           now ready once more for the road. She even
                           expressly mentions rebirth:

                                  But I wasn’t getting married. There
                                  ought, I thought, to be a ritual for
                                  being born twice—patched,
                                  retreaded and approved for the road,
                                  I was trying to think of an
                                  appropriate one when Doctor Nolan
                                  appeared from nowhere and touched
                                  me on the shoulder.
                    Key Passage:

     Joan’s parents invited me to the funeral.
               I had been, Mrs. Gilling said, one of Joan’s best friends.
               “You don’t have to go, you know,” Doctor Nolan told me.
     “You can always write and say I said it would be better not to.”
5              “I’ll go,” I said, and I did go, and all during the simple
     funeral service I wondered what I thought I was burying.
               At the altar the coffin loomed in its snow pallor of flow-
     ers—the black shadow of something that wasn’t there. The faces
     in the pews around me were waxen with candlelight, and pine
10   boughs, left over from Christmas, sent up a sepulchral incense
     in the cold air.
               Beside me, Jody’s cheeks bloomed like good apples, and
     here and there in the little congregation I recognized other faces
     of other girls from college and my home town who had known
15   Joan. DeeDee and Nurse Kennedy bent their kerchiefed heads
     in a front pew.
               Then, behind the coffin and the flowers and the face of the
     minister and the faces of the mourners, I saw the rolling lawns
     of our town cemetery, knee-deep in snow now, with the tomb-
20   stones rising out of it like smokeless chimneys.
               There would be a black, six-foot-deep gap hacked in the
     hard ground. That shadow would marry this shadow, and
     the peculiar, yellowish soil of our locality seal the wound in the
     whiteness, and yet another snowfall erase the traces of newness
25   in Joan’s grave.
               I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my
               I am, I am, I am.

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