The Bell Jar
Research Paper: The Bell Jar, By: Sylvia Plath Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a work of fiction that spans a six month time period in the life of the protagonist and narrator, Esther Greenwood. The novel tells of Esther’s battle against her oppressive surroundings and her ever building madness, this is the central conflict throughout the narrative. After coming home from a month in New York as a guest editor for a magazine, Esther begins to have trouble with everyday activities such as reading, writing and even sleeping. Her mental state decreases rapidly until she eventually attempts suicide.
During the rest of the novel Esther recounts her experiences in recovery until she finally plans to leave the hospital. Even though Esther’s condition seems stable at this point, she is aware that her depression could return at any time. Critic’s reviews regarding the novel offer various points of view and ideas pertaining to The Bell Jar. Critic Diane S. Bond writes of society’s stereotypes of women, and how this was a main factor in Esther’s madness. She explains how instead of being her own person, Esther conforms to the role that is culturally engrained in society, in other words she does what she believes is expected of her.
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Bond describes how, “Esther fails to establish an autonomous, or separative, self, and ultimately resorts to culturally-ingrained stereotypes of women” (49). While Bond blames society’s expectations for the heroines breakdown, Paula Bennett blames the time period of the 50’s, “The oppressive atmosphere of the 1950s and the soul-destroying effect this atmosphere could have on ambitious, high-minded young women like Plath” (223). There are many examples from the book that support these ideas. While in New York, Esther is concerned because she is not enjoying herself.
She feels that she should be excited and accomplished like the other girls, however she finds her work pointless and she feels lost. Basically, Esther believes something is wrong with her because she is not living up to society’s expectations of how she should feel. While the novel offers a variety of elements to be focused on, the author’s use of symbolism is quite fascinating. Some of the symbols used include the fig tree, newspaper headlines, the beating heart, and more importantly, the bell jar. The fig tree is a representation of life choices available to Esther.
Newspaper headlines appear often throughout the novel, usually symbolizing something different each time. For example, at one point, the headlines represent Esther’s effect on others around her. The human body’s physical longing to live is represented by the beating heart. When Esther attempts suicide, she takes note of the sound of her beating heart and connects it with her body not allowing her to kill herself. The most obvious and significant symbol is the bell jar. Not only is this the name of the book, but the bell jar represents the main character’s madness.
As Esther feels emotionally unstable, she views herself as trapped under a bell jar enable to escape. Symbolism is a very important element in this novel, as it gives readers insight regarding Esther’s feelings and helps Plath convey abstract ideas essential to the novel. The fig tree is mentioned in the beginning of the novel. Esther has a book of short stories, and reads a tale about a Jewish man and a nun who meet every afternoon under a fig tree. The nun and the Jewish man are in love; however their relationship is obviously doomed.
At first the fig tree represents Esther’s relationship with Buddy Willard. Before Esther met Buddy she thought for sure she was in love with him. However after they met and got to know each other, Esther grew to hate Buddy. This is somewhat like the fig tree story because as the nun and Jewish man were picking figs, they see a chick hatch, their hands touched. After this the nun never comes out to pick figs again. Esther mentions that the moment she realized that she loathed Buddy Willard was the day that they saw a baby being born.
Obviously there is a connection between the chick hatching and the baby being born. One critic explains that, “The fig tree corresponds to the natural, biological rhythms of her own heart and mind. But as her recollection of the fig tree is affected by her relationships to Buddy, the tree not only loses its seductive power, but it comes to image Esther’s paralyzed imagination. Adding up all the things [she] couldn’t do and feeling dreadfully inadequate, Esther sees her life branching out . . . like the green fig-tree in the story” (Budick 881).
Budick considers the fig tree as not only a representation of Esther’s involvement with Buddy, but as a symbol of choices that face Esther as well. In the novel Esther imagines each fig on the tree as a different path she can take in her life. She wants to choose all of them, however she can only choose one. As the heroine is plagued with uncertainty on which path, or fig, to choose, all of the figs die and fall from the tree. Esther associates this with the possibilities in her life slowly disappearing as time passes.
Another critic, Marjorie Perloff, relates to Plath’s character, “I would guess that every woman who reads this passage has felt, at one time or another, that “choosing one meant losing all the rest,” that because female roles are no longer clearly defined, women are confronted by such a bewildering variety of seeming possibilities that choice itself becomes all but impossible. ” (517). The fig tree clearly represents certain aspects of the main character’s life. This symbol helps readers identify with Esther as well as understand her character better.
Critics agree that there are many parallels between the fig tree and Esther’s life, such as her relationship with Buddy Willard, and her inability to choose a specific path in her life. Newspaper headlines are mentioned throughout the novel. In chapter 16, Joan shows Esther newspaper articles and clippings about her disappearance. There were initial articles about Esther, the missing girl, the rest led up to the last article, which described the discovery of the girl in a dark hole in the basement, moaning and sick from overdosing on pills.
Joan explains that reading these articles inspired her to go to New York and commit suicide. Although she didn’t succeed in killing herself, Joan’s behavior shows how much of an impact Esther’s madness has on the lives of others. According to Paula Bennett, “These headlines symbolize Esther’s exposure, her effect on others, and the gap between Esther’s interpretation of experiences and the world’s interpretation of them. First, they show Esther that the public knows about her behavior—she does not act in a vacuum, but in the interested eye of the world” (103).
Newspaper headlines are a representation of the conflict between Esther’s experience of herself and others’ experience of her. For example, Esther sees the incident of her attempted suicide as only pain and swallowing pills in the darkness; however, others see a shocking story of a missing girl, a search party, and the astounding discovery of Esther in her own basement. Plath clearly uses the newspaper headlines to express Esther’s skewed perceptions of how things really are, as well as the consequences of her actions on not only herself ut others as well, even those who are strangers, like Joan. After Esther’s numerous suicide attempts, she becomes convinced that she would easily succeed if it wasn’t for her body’s will to live. She states that she could kill herself effortlessly if it wasn’t for the “tricks and ruses of her body. ” In one part in particular, Esther tries to drown herself by swimming towards a rock far off the shore. Every time she sinks to the bottom her body floats to the top. During this incident Esther hears her heart beating, and she puts it to the words, “I am, I am, I am. This beating heart is a representation of Esther’s failed suicide attempts and the human desire to survive (Perloff 518). The main character recalls another suicide attempt at the ski slopes with Buddy Willard. She purposely flies down a hill that she knows she cannot handle, but instead of plummeting to her death she breaks her leg. This critic, Budick, shares views slightly similar to Perloff’s, however Budick explains the beating heart as the cycle of healing and rebirth, “The repetitive beat of her heart asserts both identity (I) and existence (am). Its triple repetition recalls Dr. Nolan’s naming of Esther three times.
It signals not only the fact of Esther’s rebirth but the rhythm that will define it and the power that will control it. The beat or brag is not, like an electrical, spermatic charge (or even like a literal birth), a one-time expulsion of self outward. It is a continuous, repeating, loving pulsation that heals and births in the same process. And the force that supervises it is the self. Esther causes her own deep breath and listens to her own heart” (883). While Esther views her inability to kill herself, or her beating heart, as a hindrance, Budick explains the beating heart as helpful and even loving towards Esther.
Even though she believes she really wants to die, her beating heart that pushes her forward through bad times really helps her heal and eventually escape her insanity. Though not all critics agree on what exactly the heartbeat represents, it still proves to be a noteworthy symbol in the work. The most obvious and significant symbol in the novel is the bell jar. For Esther, the bell jar represents her insanity, or “madness. ” When plagued with insanity, she feels as though she is trapped inside an airtight jar that warps her views and thoughts on the world and does not allow her to connect or relate with those on the outside of the bell jar.
At the end of the novel, the bell jar has lifted, but Esther senses that it “still hovers over her, waiting to drop at any moment. ” There are many examples in the book that illustrate how Esther’s views are twisted while seeing things from inside the bell jar. Mrs. Greenwood, Esther’s Mother, attempts to help her on many occasions, but instead of seeing her mother’s gestures as loving or caring, Esther develops hatred towards her. Mostly due to her mental illness, Esther behaves selfishly. She does not consider the effect her suicide attempts have on her mother, or on her friends.
Her own terrifying world totally occupies her thoughts (Bond 120). In other words, this critic is saying that when Esther is “under the bell jar” her behavior is not rational, and her selfish behavior is an example of her inability to connect with others. When Esther is at the beach with her friends, she feels like an outsider, watching everything that goes on. Instead of being herself and connecting with others, she focuses on trying to act normal, as if nothing is wrong with her, this obviously shows Esther’s inability to relate to those outside of the bell jar.
According to Perloff, “Sylvia Plath is no silly sentimentalist; she knows quite well that her heroine is different from most college girls, that her bell jar is less fragile, less easy to remove than theirs. But the external or official distinction between madness and sanity, she suggests in her linkage of physical and mental illness, is largely illusory” (517). Perloff’s quote directly supports the theory that Plath uses the bell jar to represent the main character’s madness and her loss of touch with reality.
The entire novel is centered around the bell jar, not only is this symbol mentioned frequently throughout the work, but it is used as the title of the novel as well. In general, I agree with the critic’s opinions on the novel’s symbolism, however there are some things that could be added to their analysis of certain ideas. For example, the fact that the novel started out with Esther’s reaction to the Rosenberg’s execution in all of the newspapers is of some importance, especially pertaining to the symbolism of newspaper headlines.
The fact that Esther obsesses over this, supports the idea that newspaper headlines symbolize Esther’s view of things as opposed to society’s view of things. While the majority of the population felt that the Rosenberg couple were getting what they deserved, Esther expressed sympathy for them. Other than that, the critics shared many of my own perceptions of Plath’s symbolism. Plath’s use of symbolism is key in communicating abstract ideas in The Bell Jar. Without symbols such as the fig tree, the heartbeat, newspaper headlines, and the bell jar, many of the novels messages would be lost.
For example, the bell jar and its representation of Esther’s madness give readers a vivid picture of what it feels like to lose one’s sanity. Without this symbol it would be hard to put the feeling into words. The bell jar is a perfect symbol of madness. The fig tree plays a significant role in expressing the idea that “if you choose one, you lose the rest”. While most people have experienced his feeling, Plath’s use of the fig tree gets the point across gracefully and effectively. Obviously symbolism plays a vital role in The Bell Jar. Works Cited Bennett, Paula.
My life, a loaded gun : Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and female creativity. Boston: Beacon Press. Bond, Diane. “The Separative Self in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. ” Women’s Studies Vol. 18 (1990): 49-64. JSTOR. Harford Community Coll. Lib. 2 Apr. 2008 . Budick, Miller. “The Feminist Discourse of Sylvia Plath’s the Bell Jar. ” College English. Vol. 49. 8 (1987): 872-885. JSTOR. Harford Community Coll. Lib. 2 Apr. 2008 . Perloff, Marjorie. “A Ritual for Being Born Twice: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. ” Contemporary Literature. Vol. 13. 4. (1972): 507-522.