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"To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream."
Published in 1963 and written by Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a young, beautiful, successful nineteen-year-old girl whose mental stability is beginning to falter to the point of severe depression and attempted suicide. The novel opens with Esther in New York and, despite being in a situation that many girls dreamed of, all she can think of is how the Rosenbergs are going to be executed. Esther feels increasingly isolated and troubled by her inability to enjoy herself in direct violation of what society expects.
Esther feels ever-mounting pressure from society. In her mind, being a successful woman and having a family are mutually exclusive. If she marries a man, particularly Buddy, as everyone expects of her, she will be expected to eventually give up her "silly" notions of writing poetry. Esther also feels that her virginity is a burden and almost loses her virginity when a man she meets in New York, Marco, attempts to rape her. Eventually, Esther experiences a breakdown and returns to her mother's house. Her condition worsens as she develops insomnia. and she visits a psychiatrist, Doctor Gordon. Doctor Gordon fails miserably to help her; said failure is excruciatingly amplified by incorrect use of electroconvulsive therapy.
She begins half-hearted suicide attempts. The first is trying to slit her wrists in the bathtub, but she just can't do it because her pale skin "[looks] so white and defenseless that [she can't] do it." Her second attempt involves her attempting to drown herself in the local bay, but the water just spits her back out. Her third and final suicide attempt is much more serious. She leaves a note saying that she's gone for a stroll, walks down to the basement, and secures herself in a corner. She downs a bottle of sleeping pills and loses consciousness.
Esther awakes in a hospital and is eventually transported to a psychiatric hospital. Esther meets Doctor Nolan who, upon hearing about Esther's horrible experience with electroconvulsive therapy, reassures Esther that it isn't suppose to be traumatic. She says that it's like going to sleep. Esther undergoes ECT once more and, as Doctor Nolan promised, it works as it should, much to Esther's delight. While at the institute, Esther loses her virginity and begins to understand death through the suicide of one of her friends from New York. The novel ends with Esther entering a room for her interview to decide whether or not she was fit to be readmitted into society. The novel ends with the words, "I stepped into the room".
The novel itself has been adapted once in 1979 starring Marilyn Hassett as the protagonist and another adaptation is set for 2011 starring Julia Stiles.
- American Dream: Subverted hard: Esther started out in a single-parent household (it was that way only after her father died) then went to a prestigious university on a scholarship and found herself at a summer internship for a New York magazine that's supposed to be Mademoiselle. She achieved all of this by working hard, but, if anything, Esther is miserable.
- Arc Words: "I am, I am, I am".
- Adult Fear / High Octane Nightmare Fuel: If you or someone you care about has ever suffered depression, seeing shock treatment as a legitimate medical practice to treat it will horrify you.
I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.
- A common misconception about Electro-Convulsive Therapy thanks to egregious misrepresentation of ECT by Hollywood, etc. In real life, ECT is a safe and effective therapy for certain forms of severe depression, mania, and catatonia that do not respond effectively to medication. The Hollywood Science version does have a small basis in fact. Prior to WWII, the way that ECT was performed could cause convulsions serious enough to break bones. The use of muscle-relaxers and anesthetics pioneered during the post-war period, combined with better understanding of the process, eliminated the convulsive trauma. The only known adverse effects from ECT are short-term memory loss and amnesia, both of which are temporary (although there may be other effects from the medications and anesthesia). The novel itself differentiates between the improperly-performed "Hollywood" version; and the properly performed procedure, which is correctly shown to be beneficial.
- Attempted Rape: Marco with Esther.
- Author Avatar: Esther Greenwood is Sylvia Plath.
- Bad Dreams: Metaphorically used to describe what the world is like to the person inside the bell jar.
- Biography: The events of the novel are so heavily inspired/influenced by Plath's own life that it's particularly difficult to not read The Bell Jar as Plath's autobiography.
- Coming-of-Age Story: An atypical and significantly darker one because Esther learns from her madness.
- Country Mouse: Esther grew up in a small town. In New York she wasn't in control of anything, even herself, and she just went through the motions.
- Despair Event Horizon: Terrified of the thought of being in the kitchen for the rest of her life, absolutely no idea what to do now that she's out of college because all she was ever good at was winning scholarships, intense insomnia that has lasted for three weeks, traumatized by the ECT, and feeling completely trapped inside a bell jar because of her depression, Esther begins to her suicide attempts.
- Double Standard: Society's expectations on virginity for men and women is a major point of contention for Esther. Buddy Willard expects Esther to be pure for him, but Buddy openly admits to sleeping with a waitress one summer as many men did.
- Driven to Suicide: Three different attempts by Esther as described above and Joan commits suicide.
- The Fifties: The novel is set in this decade, but the novel, and perhaps by extension Plath herself, takes an extremely scathing and critical look at the decade's opinions on women.
- Gainax Ending: The novel ends with Esther entering the room for her medical review, though it is generally believed that she ends up being readmitted into society.
- Grave Clouds: It's cloudy at the graveyard before the rain kicks in.
- Gray Rain of Depression: When Esther visits her father's grave, it begins to rain. She realizes that she didn't cry when her father died and then she "laid [her] face to the smooth face of the marble and howled [her] loss into the cold salt rain."
- Heroic Spirit: "I am, I am, I am" is the sound of Esther's heartbeat; she hears it when she tries to drown herself. In spite of herself, Esther's body wants to keep living.
- Her First Time: Esther thought that losing her virginity would bring about this incredible change, like visiting Europe for the first time. She sleeps with an experienced man. Boy, was she wrong.
- It Got Worse: Esther's mental and emotional state eventually deteriorates to the point of attempting suicide.
- Les Yay: Esther discovers Joan and DeeDee in bed together. Joan tells Esther that she likes her more than she likes Buddy.
- Meaningful Name: Esther Greenwood. The name Sylvia comes from "sylvan" which is associated with woods and what color do you typically think of when you think of woods?
- Nature Abhors a Virgin: This is one of Esther's chief concerns. To Esther, her virginity is a burden; she's doomed to be a virgin until she marries a man or be deemed a slut for having premarital sex. She loses her virginity near the end, but does so not because she's curious, as an expression of love, or it may feel good, but rather to alleviate herself of this burdensome virginity.
- Parental Abandonment: Esther's father is dead.
- People Jars: Used metaphorically to describe how depression can come back to haunt you and blurs everything around you.
- Rage Against the Reflection: Esther when she wakes up in hospital after her suicide attempt.
- Seemingly-Wholesome Fifties Girl: Esther. Most of the girls she meets in New York qualify as well, including Joan and Betsy aka "Pollyanna Cowgirl."
- Shallow Love Interest: Buddy Willard as a gender subversion. You don't learn a whole lot about him other than wanting to be a doctor and sleeping with a waitress.
- Shout-Out: In chapter 10, while at home, Esther attempts to read Finnegans Wake. It doesn't work out.
- Snow Means Death: It snows the day of Joan's funeral.
- Society Is to Blame: Most of Esther's problems at the start can be traced back to society: see Double Standard, society expects young women to be cheerful when Esther is anything but, and see Nature Abhors a Virgin.
- Stock Shout-Outs: Got a moody female character or a girl that's feeling down? Show her reading The Bell Jar. Can be seen in The Simpsons, Family Guy, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Gilmore Girls, and Ten Things I Hate About You. Other sources merely reference the novel.
- The Shrink: Doctor Gordon and Doctor Nolan.
- Title Drop: See the opening quotation for the page and Harsher in Hindsight.
- Truth in Television: This is the epitome of why The Bell Jar is still read today. If you've ever felt depressed or suicidal, then this novel perfectly describes how you felt and does it better than you ever could. It's also very true about being a virgin in your early twenties and feeling guilty about it. It also presents the aforementioned Double Standard that still exists today, though perhaps in a slightly different way.
- Unable to Cry: When visiting her father's grave as an adult, Esther realizes that she didn't cry when her father died.
- X Meets Y: When Robert Taubman of the New Statesman reviewed The Bell Jar he described it as "the first feminine novel in a Salinger mood."