An Instructor's Guide toThe Bell Jar by Sylvia PlathNote to TeachersThemes: mental illness, depression, adolescence, suicide
"I was supposed to be having the time of my life.I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me all over America who wanted nothingmore than to be tripping about in those same size-seven patent leather shoes I'd bought in Bloomingdale's one lunchhour with a black patent leather belt and black patent leather pocketbook to match. And when my picture came out inthe magazine the twelve of us were working on drinking martinis in a skimpy, imitation sliver-lame bodice stuck onto a big, fat cloud of white tulle, on some Starlight Roof, in the company of several anonymous young men with all-American bone structures hired or loaned for the occasion everybody would think I must be having a real whirl.Look what can happen in this country, they'd say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poorshe can't afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car.Only I wasn't steering anything, not even myself."
from The Bell JarAs it turns out, Esther Greenwood brilliant, talented, successful, and increasingly vulnerable and disturbed doeshave an eventful summer. The Bell Jar follows Esther, step by painful step, from her month-long summer stint as aguest editor at a fashion magazine through the following, snow-deluged January. Esther slides ever deeper into adevastating depression, attempts suicide, undergoes bungled electroshock therapy, and enters a private hospital.In telling her story one that is based on Plath's own summer, fall, and winter of 1953-1954 Esther introduces usto her mother, her boyfriend Buddy, her fellow student editors, college and home-town acquaintances, and fellowpatients. She scrutinizes her increasingly strained relationships, her own thoughts and feelings, and society'shypocritical conventions, but is defenseless against the psychological wounds inflicted by others, her world, and byherself. Pitting her own aspirations against the oppressive expectations of others, Esther cannot keep the airless bell jarof depression and despair from descending over her.Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther's breakdown with such intensity that Esther's insanity becomescompletely real and even rational. Although her illness was never actually diagnosed, several researchers in the fieldhave noted Plath's unerring description of schizophrenic perception: objects loom out of all proportion, and virtuallyeverything seems both unreal and dangerous. Despite the medical interventions of the last quarter-century, Plath's vividevocation of madness remains true and uneclipsed by any later writer. Published in the United States in 1971, The BellJar sailed right onto bestseller lists and quickly established itself as a female rite-of-passage novel, a twin in spirit toCatcher in the Rye.
Questions for Discussion
1. What factors, components, and stages of Esther Greenwood's descent into depression and madness are specified?How inevitable is that descent?2. In a letter while at college, Plath wrote that "I've gone around for most of my life as in the rarefied atmosphereunder a bell jar." Is this the primary meaning of the novel's titular bell jar? What other meanings does "the belljar" have?