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The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Context



Every decade has its unique challenges, and in 1950s America, many of those challenges were especially hard on the middle class. Thanks to the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, familiarly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, the years following World War II saw a greatly increased emphasis on the importance of college education. More than a million service people who had earned college degrees on the G.I. Bill went on to become professionals, transforming the middle class. As college educations became more available, the notion that college was an essential step toward adulthood took hold. College could affect the future, whether or not a person had been a soldier in World War II; failing to make the best use of college years could make a negative difference.

In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood feels tremendous pressure to make good at college. Getting into college, paying for it, and profiting from the experience are key priorities for her. She is deeply worried about the ways her hospital stay will affect her college education.

Gender Roles

Though she worries about her future professional life, Esther also worries about how her professional ambitions will affect her prospects for a happy marriage. Post–World War II Americans believed that one reason the United States was superior to the Soviet Union was that American family life was so strong. Communist women worked while their children went to daycare. American women, the backbone of their families, stayed home to raise successful, happy children. From 1940 through 1960, the percentage of U.S. families with three children doubled; the number of families with four children quadrupled.

But what about American women who wanted professional success? There was not a clear path for them. In The Bell Jar, Buddy tells Esther that once she has children, she will not feel like writing poetry anymore. Esther wonders whether maybe it is true that having a family will make her "numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state." Esther's mother works, but only because she must support the family due to the absence of Esther's father. Esther does not see this busy, anxious working woman as an inspiration but as a warning.

In 1950 the top occupation for women in the United States was secretary. Esther is both relieved and frightened to discover that she has no aptitude for taking shorthand.


The 1950s are generally regarded as a time of rampant sexual double standards. College women often had strict curfews and were generally required to sign out when they went out for evenings or weekends. Female birth control was illegal in some states—including Massachusetts, where Esther's college was located. Standards of dress were monitored even when women went off campus. At Radcliffe College, women wearing shorts in Harvard Square had to cover them with raincoats buttoned to the knee.

However, double standard is not quite the right term for this kind of inequality. It was not that society approved of sexual freedom for men and disapproved of the female equivalent. Rather, national surveys in the 1950s found that women believed premarital sex to be unacceptable for either gender, whereas men found it acceptable for both genders. The belief that female sexuality needed to be restrained came from women more than men. This situation would, of course, make it even harder for women such as Esther to assert their sexual feelings.

Depression, Suicide, and Medical Treatment

Developing truly effective psychiatric medications became a priority for medical researchers in the 1950s. New antipsychotics worked well for patients with schizophrenia, but effective remedies for depression—a mood disorder that causes pervasive feelings of sadness and disinterest and affects sufferers' feelings, thoughts, and behavior—would not become well known until the 1970s.

Insulin therapy involved injecting patients such as Esther with high doses of insulin to cause daily insulin comas. The theory behind the technique was that inducing an insulin coma could somehow end delusional thinking. Although there was no standardized protocol for the treatment and no evidence to show that it worked to end depression or any other mental illness, insulin therapy was popular in the 1940s and 1950s for treating patients with psychosis.

The only reliable result of insulin therapy was that patients tended to gain large amounts of weight. Other risks included seizures, brain damage, and even death; at least 1 percent of patients given insulin therapy died, and the figure may actually be closer to 5 percent.

The patients chosen for this treatment had better-than-average prognoses to begin with, and the therapy called for a great deal of medical supervision; it is likely that these two factors were responsible for any recoveries, not the treatment itself. As better medications were developed to treat mental illness, insulin therapy was gradually discontinued.

Electroconvulsive ("shock") therapy sometimes helped with depression, but it was a drastic and expensive solution that required long periods of hospitalization. This procedure is now performed under general anesthesia, but that was not always the case in the 1950s. Esther's psychiatrist, Doctor Gordon, does not use general anesthesia. In electroconvulsive therapy, small electric currents are passed through the patient's brain, causing short seizures. For reasons that are still not completely understood, this form of seizure can reverse certain symptoms of mental illness.

Regardless, the text focuses a spotlight on the physical violation of young women by the medical field. Young women were subjected to violent shock treatments and lobotomization, which were wildly unethical and ineffective. The novel is a critique of these treatments as inhuman attempts to get women to comply with traditional gender norms.

In the 1950s many other patients with depression fell through the cracks of the medical system. Unfortunately, the adolescent suicide rate has tripled since World War II and remains the second leading cause of death.for high school and college students. Where suicidal understanding is concerned, The Bell Jar has become even more relevant for adolescent readers than when Sylvia Plath wrote it.

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