The Bell Jar

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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. 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...
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