The Bell Jar

“The Bell Jar” is a novel written by the American poet Sylvia Plath and published in 1963. Plath originally published the story under the pen name Victoria Lucas. However, after her death a month after it’s publishing, the novel was reissued under her real name.

“The Bell Jar” is the only novel written by Plath, who was famous for her poetry and the novel is generally thought to be semi-autobiographical. The novel was not published in the United States until 1971 in accordance with her wishes. It has since become a classic of 20th-century literature and has been translated into a dozen languages worldwide.

The novel revolves around a young woman named Esther Greenwood who is working on a short internship at as a guest magazine editor in 1950’s New York City. It is revealed throughout the novel that Esther struggles with depression and after her internship ends, at a loss for what to do with her future, she begins trying to kill herself in various ways. Eventually, Esther overdoses on sleeping pills and wakes up in a hospital. She is transferred to an asylum where a kindly doctor slowly helps her to recover and regain her brighter outlook on life. In the end of the novel, Esther is set to return to college but well aware that the presence of her mental illness may reassert itself sometime in the future.

Book Summary

In New York City in the summer of 1953, a young woman named Esther Greenwood is working at a short job as a guest-editor for a fashion magazine. Esther lives in an apartment building called the Amazon with other young women who are guest editors. Esther is there on a college scholarship funded by a wealthy woman named Philomena Guinea.

Esther is friends with a sarcastic, southern girl named Doreen. In the first chapter, Esther struggles with the fact that she feels very numb and restless about her life. She feels that, although she has an excellent job, new clothes and gets to attend lavish parties, she isn’t enjoying it and doesn’t understand why. Esther thinks that most girls would probably envy her life but that she doesn’t feel happy.

Betsy, a sweet mid-western girl, regularly tries to befriend Esther much to her own chagrin. One day while Esther is on her way to a party being thrown by her magazine, Betsy offers to share a cab with her. Esther denies her and catches a cab with Doreen instead. While their cab is stuck in traffic, a man approaches and convinces the girls to join him and his friends in a bar. The man tells them that his name is Lenny Shepherd. Lenny shows interest in Doreen and persuades his friend Frankie to keep Esther company while he romances her friend. Esther is a great deal taller than Frankie and does not like him. Esther begins drinking and tells the men at the bar that her name is Elly Higginbottom.

Later on, Esther and Doreen leave with Lenny and Frankie leaves alone. Esther and Doreen go back to Lenny’s apartment with him. The apartment is decorated like a cowboy’s ranch. While there, Lenny puts on a tape of his radio show, saying that he likes to hear himself talk. The three continue drinking and Doreen and Lenny begin dancing and playfully fighting while Esther begins to doze off in a chair. After a while, Esther decides to go home and although she is drunk she manages to walk forty-eight blocks by herself.

When she arrives home, she has sobered up and her feet are swollen from the walk. She goes to her window and looks out it as she thinks about how lonely she is and how isolated she feels from the rest of the people enjoying the city. She takes a bath and goes to bed, only to be awakened several hours later by a drunken Doreen pounding on her door. Esther opens the door and sees that Doreen is mumbling incoherently. She lowers her down onto the carpet and decides to leave her in the hall. Doreen vomits and Esther decides that although she plans to continue to spend time with Doreen after this she isn’t going to remain friends with her.

The next morning when she opens her door, Doreen is no longer in the hall. Doreen and Lenny begin seeing each other. The next day, Esther attends a luncheon thrown by Ladies Day magazine. Esther thinks about how she enjoys the food at these banquets because she had never been to a real restaurant before coming to New York. Her grandfather was a waiter at a country club and once gave Esther some leftover caviar which then became her favorite indulgence.

At this luncheon, Esther eats two plates of caviar among other delicacies. Betty asks Esther why she missed a fur show that morning and Esther begin to tear up as she tells her that her boss, Jay Cee, called her into her office. Jay Cee asked her if she is enjoying her work and Esther assures her that she is. Her boss asks her what she is intending to do after the job is done and, although Esther normally has an answer for such a question, she confesses that she does not know. She hesitantly says that she may consider going into publishing. Her boss tells her that she will need to learn some foreign languages if she wishes to find a career in publishing but Esther thinks that she has no time for a language course, in her senior year schedule.

She remembers a lie she once told to a professor, just to get out of a chemistry class. She asked the dean to let her take chemistry without being graded so that she could free up space in her schedule for a Shakespeare class. However, in reality, she did not want to take the Shakespeare class and only wanted to get out of the chemistry class. Because Esther was a great student, the dean, and her chemistry teacher, Mr. Manzi allowed it believing that her desire to take the course just for the sake of learning and not to get a grade showed maturity. The whole time Esther was in the course she pretending to take notes on the subject but was actually just writing poems. Now she feels guilty for deceiving her teacher that way.

Jay Cee then gives Esther some more editing work and speaks to her gently, before sending her off to the banquet. Esther thinks of her mother and wishes she were more like Jay Cee. Esther’s mother does not want her to work for a magazine and wants her to learn a more practical skill that is easier to find a job for because she knows how hard it is for a woman to make it on her own. Esther’s father died when she was only 9 years old and left no inheritance.

After the banquet, Esther goes to a movie with a few of the other girls but begins to feel sick halfway through. She and Betty leave only for Esther to vomit on the way back to her apartment and then vomit till she passes out on her bathroom floor. A nurse tells her that she has food poisoning from the banquet. Esther later awakens to find Doreen trying to feed her soup.

The next morning, Esther receives a call from Constantin, an interpreter at the UN. He asks her to come out to the UN for a meal and Esther assumes that he did so as a favor to a woman named Mrs. Willard but agrees anyway. Esther was once engaged to Mrs. Willard’s son, Buddy who is currently undergoing tuberculosis treatment in a sanitarium. Esther was in love with Buddy until they started dating and then she fell out of love with him. He asked her to marry him recently and she has yet to give him an answer. Buddy is studying to become a doctor in her hometown and still writes to her regularly. He is unsure that he wants a wife who is a poet or a writer and this is what causes Esther to have second thoughts about marrying him.

Esther remembers visiting Buddy at Yale one day. He took her to see the interesting sites in his medical classes and took her to a class where a woman was giving birth to a baby. Although she did not say anything, Esther was horrified by the sight of the baby being born. Buddy told her that the woman had been given a drug so that she wouldn’t remember the pain and Esther thought that it sounded like a drug that had been invented by a man.

After the birth class, Esther and Buddy went back to Buddy’s room. Buddy asks Esther if she has ever seen a man naked and she replies that she hasn’t. He asks if she would like to see him naked and when she agrees he takes off his clothes. The sight of male genitalia depresses her and makes her think of “a turkey neck and turkey gizzards”. Esther refuses to let him see her naked and asks him if he’s ever slept with anyone before. To her surprise, he says that he slept with a woman named Gladys at his summer job in Cape Cod. Esther is bothered by this revelation, not because Buddy has slept with someone but because he lied about it up till now.

Esther asks her friends what they think of this confession and they tell her that a woman doesn’t have a right to be upset about finding such a thing out unless she is pinned or engaged. Esther decided that she wanted to break it off with Buddy but before she had a chance he called her long distance and informed her that he had TB. She felt oddly relieved at this news and she began using this as an excuse to get the other girls in the building to leave her alone about going out on Saturday nights.

Constantin picks Esther up and drives her to the UN. On the drive, they talk about Mrs. Willard and both reveal that they do not like the woman. Constantin holds Esther’s hand and she feels happier than she has since before her father’s death. She likes Constantin and finds him attractive, but worries that he is too short for her. While at the UN, Constantin’s skills as an interpreter impress Esther and she realizes that it is another thing that she cannot do. She thinks of her life as a fig tree where the figs represent different choices she could make – wife, mother, editor, traveler – but she cannot choose and thus, all of the figs rot and falls off the tree.

Constantin takes Esther to dinner and she begins to feel better. She decides that she wants to sleep with him to get back at Buddy. Esther has decided that her virginity is impractical since even someone as seemingly wholesome as Buddy is not a virgin. However, to Esther’s disappointment, Constantin only wishes to talk to her and though they sleep in the same bed that night, nothing else happens.

She wakes in the middle of the night and watches Constantin sleep as she wonders what it would be like to be married. Esther thinks that marrying would endanger her ambitions. She remembers Buddy telling her that she won’t want to write poems once she has children. Esther remembers Buddy’s father driving her to see him in the sanatorium. Mr. Willard told her that he would like to have her as his daughter and she began to cry. He mistook the tears as tears of joy. Esther visited Buddy and he asked her how she would like to be “Mrs. Buddy Willard”. Esther said that she would never marry and Buddy laughed.

A few days later Esther is doing a photo shoot for the magazine and holding a paper rose meant to symbolize the inspiration for her poems. She is told to smile and begins to cry. She is given a moment to collect herself and Jay Cee brings her some stories to critique. Esther wonders if Jay Cee would ever accept her manuscript.

On Esther’s last evening in the city, Doreen asks her to come to a dance with her and Lenny and a friend of Lenny’s. When Esther arrives at the dance, she assumes that her date, a man named Marco is a woman hater. When they meet he gives her a diamond pin and tells her that he will do something worthy of the diamond. He grips her arm so hard that he leaves bruises. Esther does not want to dance, but Marco forces her to. Later he takes her outside alone. Esther asks him if he loves anyone and he says that he loves his cousin but that she is going to be a nun so he cannot have her. Marco becomes angry and pushes Esther into the mud where he climbs on top of her and rips her dress. She tells herself that if she only lies there and does nothing “it” will happen. However, Marco calls her a slut and Esther begins to fight him, punching him in the nose. This makes Marco back off. But before he leaves he tells Esther that he wants the diamond back. He threatens to break her neck if she doesn’t give it to him. Esther gets up and leaves him searching through the mud for her purse and diamond.

Not able to find Doreen, Esther manages to get a ride back to Manhattan and goes up to the roof of her building. There she throws every piece of her expensive wardrobe off of the ledge piece by piece. The next day Esther returns home to Boston. Her mother meets her at the train station and tells her that she was rejected from the writing course that she planned on taking. This upsets Esther as she now has no plans for her summer. She opens a letter from Buddy that says that he thinks that he is falling in love with a nurse but that if she comes to visit him she may be able to win back his affections. Esther crosses out his letter and flips it over, writing on the other side that she is engaged to a UN interpreter and never wishes to see Buddy again. She then mails the letter back to Buddy.

Esther decides to begin writing a novel but quickly becomes frustrated by her lack of experience. Esther drifts around for a while, trying to decide what to do with her life both short-term and long-term. She becomes frustrated and depressed. Eventually, she sees a doctor ask for sleeping pills but the doctor refers her to a psychiatrist. Esther goes to see the psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon. She has not showered or changed clothes for weeks as she no longer has the energy and hasn’t slept in a week. Esther immediately distrusts Dr. Gordon because he is good-looking and seems full of himself. Dr. Gordon keeps a picture of his family on his desk and Esther, assuming that he keeps it there to ward off advances from female patients, becomes furious at it.

Nevertheless, Esther begins visiting Dr. Gordon every week although her mother is loathed to pay the twenty-five dollars and hour that he charges. Dr. Gordon eventually tells Esther’s mother that her daughter needs shock treatments to combat her depression and suicidal thoughts. Esther begins suffering from an inability to write legibly and an inability to read. Esther is reluctant to undergo shock treatment but realizes that there is nothing she can do to get out of it. Soon she receives the treatment and wonders what awful thing she must have done to receive this punishment. The treatment reminds her of a time when she accidentally shocked herself with her father’s lamp. After the treatment, Esther tells her mother that she no longer wants to see Dr. Gordon and her mother is relieved, telling her she was sure that she would decide to get better.

Esther sees a picture in the newspaper of a young actress who died after being in a coma. She thinks that if the woman’s eyes were open in the picture they would have the same “dead, black, vacant expression” in them as her own. She decides that she is going to sit on a park bench for five minutes and then go and kill herself. In her head, she hears a “little chorus of voices” that she often hears repeating critical things that people in her life have said to her over the years.

She tries to slit her wrist but cannot bring herself to and cuts her calf instead. She then goes to the beach and realizes that she would have needed a warm bath to sit in after cutting her wrists in order to bleed out. She considers drowning herself in the ocean but cannot bear the temperature and goes home.

Days later, Esther goes to the beach with her friend, Jody, Jody’s boyfriend Mark and another man their age named Cal. After some talk about a local play, Esther asks Cal how he would commit suicide if he were to do it. He tells her that he would shoot herself and Esther are disappointed by the answer. She thinks that shooting oneself is a very male form of suicide. She knows that she would probably not be able to get a gun and even if she did, she wouldn’t know precisely where to shot herself.

She decides again to drown herself in the ocean. She swims out with Cal and after her tells her that he is tired, remains swimming alone. She thinks that she will continue until she tires and then let herself drown. She lets the mantra “I am, I am, I am”, run through her mind as she swims. Esther thinks about that morning when she tried to hang herself, but could not find a way to do it. She considered simply going back to the doctor instead of killing herself but does not want to bury her family under medical bills. Esther now finds that every time that she tries to sink under the water her body bobs back up to the surface.

Esther tries many ways of coming out of her depression, including volunteering at the local hospital and even considering becoming a nun. She visits her father’s grave for the first time and begins to weep. Esther decides that she will overdose on sleeping pills and goes home to write her mother a note. After she finishes the note she hides in a crawl space, takes around fifty pills and finds herself falling asleep.

Instead of dying, Esther wakes in a hospital with bandages covering her head. She asks to see a mirror and sees that she has a bruised face and a shaved head. Esther is so horrified that she drops the mirror and breaks it. She is moved to a different hospital and put in a room with another woman, Mrs. Tomolillo. When she tells Mrs. Tomolillo that she tried to kill herself, the woman asks the doctors to draw the curtains between them.

Esther’s mother comes to visit her and scolds her for not listening to the doctors. Esther asks her mother to get her out of the hospital and her mother tells her that she will try. Esther begins to get belligerent with the nurses and kicks them and their trays. She breaks a thermometer and manages to steal a ball of mercury.

Philomena Guinea, the wealthy woman who sponsored Esther’s scholarship, pays for her to go to a private mental hospital. Guinea writes to Esther and confesses that she was once in an asylum herself and that she wants Esther to write again. Esther is aware that she should be grateful for the woman’s help but she cannot feel anything. She feels that she is trapped under a bell jar of sadness that she cannot escape from. On the way to the new hospital, Esther considers jumping from the car and leaping from the Charles bridge into the river below but cannot because her mother and brother are on either side of her in the car.

Esther’s new psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan is a woman, which pleases Esther. She tells Dr. Nolan that she did not like her electroshock treatments and Dr. Nolan tells her that her treatment was done incorrectly and that if she went through it again it would be different. Dr. Nolan prescribes thrice daily injections of insulin for Esther. Another girl in the hospital named Valerie shows Esther her lobotomy scars and tells her that she used to feel angry all of the time but now she feels happy.

One day Esther discovers an old college friend of hers in the ward, a woman named Joan Gilling. Joan explains that she came to the asylum after reading about Esther and Esther asks her what she means. She reveals that she recently began struggling with depression and her doctor sent her to a psychiatrist who made her describe her symptoms in front of nine student doctors. The doctor told her that she needed group therapy and Joan left in disgust. That day she saw an article about Esther’s disappearance. She shows Esther the newspaper clippings. The newspaper reported Esther as missing at first and then reported that a search party had been looking for her. The last article describes how Esther’s mother was doing laundry when she heard moaning and found Esther in the crawl space. Reading these clippings inspired Joan to kill herself.

Esther receives other visits from old friends and teachers but dislikes all of them because the people do not know what to say to her. She especially hates seeing her mother as her mother believes that Esther’s illness is somehow her own fault.

Esther is moved into another ward reserved for the women who are about to be released. She does not feel much better but is relieved that the threat of shock treatments is over. Joan finds a picture of Esther in her fashion magazine and Esther tells her that it is someone else. One day Esther discovers that she is to have another shock treatment and becomes terrified and furious with Dr. Nolan for not telling her. Dr. Nolan tells her that she wanted to keep the information secret so that Esther wouldn’t worry unnecessarily. She tells Esther that she is going to do the treatment herself and the nurse who is helping her speaks to Esther very kindly. The moment the treatment begins, Esther falls asleep.

When Esther wakes from her treatment, Dr. Nolan takes her outside and Esther feels that her bell jar has lifted and she can breathe the fresh air again. Dr. Nolan tells her that she will have shock treatments three times a week. Joan confesses to Esther that she is attracted to her and that she is a lesbian and Esther roughly refuses her. Esther later tells Dr. Nolan that she has a fear of pregnancy and that she wishes for the kind of freedom that men have. Dr. Nolan gives her the name of a doctor who will fit her with a diaphragm and Esther is delighted to gain freedom from the fear of becoming pregnant and being forced to marry the father. Esther decides that she wants to find the right man to lose her virginity to.

Joan soon leaves the hospital and tells Esther that she is going to train to become a psychiatrist. Esther is jealous of Joan’s plans and the fact that she is leaving even though she, herself is due to leave soon. Esther obtains leave from the hospital to go into town and meets a math professor named Irwin. They have coffee together and Esther returns to his apartment with him. She receives permission from Dr. Nolan to spend the night by lying to her and saying that she is spending the night at Joan’s place.

That night, Esther loses her virginity to Irwin and expects to feel different afterward but only feels a sharp pain. When she realizes that she is bleeding, Esther panics but Irwin reassures her that it is normal. However, the bleeding does not stop and Esther bandages herself with a paper towel and asks Irwin to drive her to Joan’s apartment. Joan takes Esther to a hospital and the doctor there is surprised by the amount of blood loss, saying that it is uncommon for a first sexual encounter. He stops the bleeding.

Esther hears several nights later that Joan has gone missing and the next morning she wakes to hear on the news that Joan has hung herself in the woods.

In the last chapter, Esther is set to return to college and wonders how she will be able to readjust to her college life now that she has been through so much. Her mother tells her that everyone will act as if her bout with insanity has been a bad dream and pick up where they left off. Buddy comes to visit her and seems more reserved and less confident since his illness. He wonders, thoughtlessly who will marry her now that she has been in an asylum.

Esther calls Irwin and asks that he pay her doctor’s bill from the night they had sex. He wonders when they will see each other again and she tells him that they won’t and hangs up on him, relieved that he cannot find her. She says goodbye to Valerie and feels free. Esther attends Joan’s funeral and listens to her internal mantra “I am, I am, I am”, again.

In the last part of the book, Esther is about to begin her exit interview at the hospital and is nervously awaiting its start. She feels ready to leave but knows that the bell jar of her illness may descend on her once again some day.

Characters Analysis 

Esther Greenwood – the protagonist and main narrator of the novel. Esther is a young woman living in New York City who has been attending an internship as a guest editor for a fashion magazine. Esther has many things that she thinks most girls desire such as fine clothes, a wonderful job, and regular parties to attend, but cannot discern why these things do not bring her joy. Esther feels a strange sense of disconnectedness to her world and cannot bring herself to care about anyone or anything within it. She regularly hurts people’s feelings in ways that she does not understand.

The novel follows Esther’s descent into mental illness as her severe depression and suicidal tendencies accelerate after she is rejected from the writing course that she wanted to attend and realizes that she has no other plans for her life moving forward. Esther also struggles with her own sexual identity and realizes that she would prefer to lose her virginity to someone that she does not know very well, in direct opposition to society’s ideals at the time. However, she suffers from a phobia about pregnancy and does not wish to experiment sexually until she can be sure that she won’t become pregnant and this, tied to the man that she had sex with.

After Esther is fitted with a diaphragm, she is free to lose her virginity to a man she meets in Boston without fear of becoming pregnant. At the end of the novel, Esther has recovered marginally well from her mental illness and feels like she is ready to return to college. However, she knows that the depression could come back later on. The novel’s ending is thus, left up to the reader as to how Esther fared after it was over.

Buddy Willard – Esther’s one-time boyfriend. Buddy is a medical student who represents the ideal societal standard for a 1950’s male. He is handsome, intelligent, a good student attends church, loves his parents, etc. Esther herself admires Buddy from afar before she meets him but once they begin dating she sees his flaws and begins to become dissatisfied with him.

Esther assumes that Buddy is a virgin as she is and is shocked to learn that he slept with a waitress over the summer when he was on Cape Cod. Buddy does not apologize for this or for not informing Esther that he was not a virgin and this irritates Esther more than the admission. Esther also dislikes the way that Buddy seems to be trying to mold her into a perfect wife for him without taking her needs into consideration. Buddy does not wish her for to continue writing poetry as he does not see the point in it. He tells her that she will no longer want to write after she becomes a mother.

Apart from all this, Buddy has a cruel streak that sometimes shows itself. He tells Esther that he slept with the waitress because she was “free, white, and twenty-one” and, in their final meeting in the book, wonders aloud why anyone would marry her now that she has been in an asylum. However, at the end of the novel, after undergoing a long illness and treatment, Buddy is somewhat changed and more worldly.

Mrs. Greenwood – Esther’s mother. Mrs. Greenwood remains in the background of the novel for most of its story but plays a key part nonetheless. Mrs. Greenwood fully supports the societal ideal of a 1950’s woman and these teachings from her mother pervade Esther’s mind throughout the novel. She often wonders what her mother would think of what she is doing at any given moment and how her mother would disapprove.

She regularly encourages Esther to find a more practical career than writing and tells her that she hopes her writing will not interfere with her eventual role as a mother and a wife. Mrs. Greenwood does seem to love Esther, but she does not understand her or her mental illness. At one point, Esther tells Dr. Nolan that she hates her mother and Dr. Nolan reacts as if this is an excellent breakthrough in Esther’s recovery.

Sylvia Plath Biography

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27th, 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts. Plath’s father was a respected entomologist and biology professor at Boston University who died when Plath was only eight years old. That same year, Plath began writing poetry and published her first poem in the Boston Herald’s children’s section. Plath published many other poems in magazines and newspapers locally as a child and won her first award at the age of 17 from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Plath graduated from high school in 1950 and had her first national publication in the magazine Christian Science Monitor. She began attending Smith College and was an excellent student in her first years. Editing the college’s newspaper, The Smith Review and becoming a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine during her third year of college. However, the experience was not what she hoped it would be and Plath began showing symptoms of depression during that time.

Plath attempted suicide in 1953 by overdosing on sleeping pills and began receiving therapy for her depression, eventually receiving electroconvulsive therapy. After a six-month stay in a psychiatric ward, Plath seemed to recover somewhat and returned to college in 1955. Shortly after graduating, Plath won the Glasock Prize for her poem “Two Lovers and a Beachcomber by the Real Sea”.

Plath then received a scholarship to study at one of the women-only colleges in Cambridge University in England. Attending Cambridge, Plath continued writing and publishing poetry and it was while there that she met her husband Ted Hughes, the famous poet in 1956.

Plath was familiar with Hughes’ work and the two bonded over their love of poetry, astrology and the supernatural. They married that same year in London and moved to America the following year in 1957. Plath began teaching at Smith college and later took a job as a receptionist in the psychiatric wing of Massachusetts General Hospital. During this time she continued to write and made friends with some of the most famous poets of her time including Anne Sexton and George Starbuck.

Plath continued to struggle with depression during this time and began receiving treatment for it again. In 1959, she and Hughes moved back to England living in London at 3 Chalcot Square where a plaque still records her residence to this day. Plath gave birth to a daughter named Frieda in 1960 and that same year published her first collection of poems entitled, “The Colossus”. In 1961, Plath became pregnant again but lost the child before it was born. That year Plath began working on her only novel, the semi-autobiographical “The Bell Jar”.

In 1962, she gave birth to a son whom she named Nicholas and that same year she discovered that her husband had been having an affair with the woman that was renting their house. She and Hughes separated in July of 1962. Plath began writing ferociously in October of that year and wrote most of the poems that she has become famous for at that time. In December, she returned to London with her children. The winter was a tough one for Plath and her depression returned but she managed to keep writing and completed the poetry collection which would be published after her death.
Her novel, “The Bell Jar” was also completed and published in 1963.

Plath began having serious depressive episodes and trying to take her own life. In 1962, she drove her car off of the side of the road and into a river, later admitting to police that it was an attempt to take her own life.

In 1963, she told her doctor that her depression had gotten so bad that she could no longer write. Her doctor prescribed an antidepressant and began making daily visits to her house, all the while attempting to get her to a hospital. He arranged for a live-in nurse to stay with Plath.

On the morning of February 11th, 1963, the nurse arrive to help Plath care for her children only to find her dead of carbon monoxide poisoning with her head in the oven. She was just 30 years old. Her death was ruled a suicide and she was buried in Heptonstall church, in West Yorkshire, England.