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The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Chapter 1 of The Bell Jar, how and why does Esther make it clear that she is relating her story several years after the book's action takes place?

When Esther describes some of the prizes she wins during her stay in New York, she mentions a sunglasses case decorated with a green plastic starfish. She says that "for a long time afterward," she hid the presents away, "but later, when I was all right again," she brings them out. She adds, "Last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with." This is the only time in the book that Esther refers to life after her breakdown. The reference serves two purposes. By establishing that Esther has a baby, it is clear that several years have passed since her summer in New York. It also underscores the fact of her recovery. Esther is no longer the dangerously ill young woman she was during the summer of 1953; she is now, presumably, married, with a child whose happiness is important to her.

In Chapter 1 of The Bell Jar, what is the significance of Esther's friendship with Doreen?

A striking feature of The Bell Jar is Esther's disdain for almost everyone she encounters. Doreen, a fellow contest winner, is perhaps the only exception, although Esther's description does not make Doreen sound particularly likable. In fact, she calls Doreen "one of my troubles." Winning the magazine contest has paradoxically resulted in a drastic blow to Esther's self-esteem. She begins to realize that her college successes are meaningless in a place such as Manhattan. Unable to enjoy her guest editorship, she feigns scorn to hide her deep insecurity. Doreen, on the other hand, genuinely disdains the contest; she does not feel she needs it to get ahead, and Esther envies Doreen's self-confidence. Esther also envies Doreen's beauty and sexual experience. Tagging along after Doreen makes Esther feel even less sophisticated. This insecurity causes Esther to behave self-destructively, which feeds her self-hatred and makes her feel even more cut off from the other young women in the contest. Doreen is exactly the kind of person an adult would consider a bad influence, and Esther meets her at a time when she is particularly susceptible to negative or destructive influences. This relationship fuels Esther's depressive spiral by isolating her from the group and supporting her tendencies toward self-destruction.

In Chapter 2 of The Bell Jar, what does bathing represent to Esther?

Esther views a hot bath as a cleansing—a kind of rebirth. For Esther, bathing takes away the taint of shame. In the bath, Esther performs a kind of hypnosis or chants a kind of mantra to transform herself: "I said to myself: 'Doreen is dissolving, Lenny Shepherd is dissolving ... I don't know them, I have never known them and I am very pure.'" What is striking is the depth of Esther's guilt regarding minor infractions. Sure, she skips a scheduled party and has too much to drink, but these are not the types of infractions that generally require a purity ritual. The bath makes Esther feel so sinless and inviolate that a few hours later, she refuses to give any help to Doreen. Fearing that Doreen will somehow contaminate her, she leaves her friend passed out on the floor in the hotel hallway: "I felt if I carried Doreen across the threshold into my room and helped her onto my bed I would never get rid of her again."

At the end of Chapter 2 of The Bell Jar, why does Esther call Doreen "an ugly, concrete testimony to my own dirty nature"?

At no time during the previous evening does Esther do anything that could be considered "dirty." What is troubling her is the shame she feels about having watched Doreen and Lenny's escalating sexual encounter. Esther goes to Lenny's apartment with the intention of seeing "as much as I could." She adds that she often forces herself to watch "people in crucial situations," such as "a street fight or a baby pickled in a laboratory jar." This act sometimes causes Esther to feel surprised or sickened, but she pretends to be unaffected as she gathers this data about the world outside her safe suburban life. As she stares at Lenny and Doreen drinking and dancing, Esther feels left out and embarrassed, but she is also interested in observing the sexual encounter. She seems particularly interested in Doreen's act of sexual freedom, which contradicts prescribed gender roles of the time period. Esther only leaves when the couple's behavior becomes explicit. Having witnessed the scene—and knowing that she chooses to witness it—is what makes Esther feel dirty. Even to herself, she has difficulty acknowledging a personal interest in sexual freedom, much less acting upon it.

In Chapter 16 of The Bell Jar, what is the significance of Joan's description of her breakdown in relation to Esther?

Everything Joan tells Esther about her breakdown sounds like sensationalized tabloid fodder. Joan hates her summer job, but she is not able to provide specific details regarding her employer: "some fraternity, like the Masons, ... but not the Masons." She costumes herself in a fur coat to attend her first therapy session because "I thought, my first psychiatrist—you know." She collects clippings about Esther's suicide attempt, as if she is president of Esther's fan club. Most troublingly, she makes a halfhearted suicide attempt after reading about Esther's disappearance. To Esther, Joan is "the beaming double of my old best self, specially designed to follow and torment me." Esther projects herself onto Joan, who mirrors the projection back to Esther. When Esther contemplates suicide she scans the tabloids for news of suicides: "SUICIDE SAVED FROM 7-STORY LEDGE! ... The trouble about jumping was that if you didn't pick the right number of stories, you might still be alive when you hit bottom." Esther, too, costumes herself in Betsy's clothes and new identities such as Elly Higginbottom. Esther makes halfhearted suicide attempts as well, with the razor blade, rope, and ocean drowning. As Esther evaluates Joan's story, she tries to evaluate her own level of crazy: "I thought either Joan must be crazy ... or she must be trying to see how crazy I was."

In Chapter 3 of The Bell Jar, what is the symbolism of the food Esther consumes at the Ladies' Day luncheon?

Esther stuffs herself with food at the Ladies' Day luncheon, as if she is trying to nourish an empty sense of self. She takes special care in consuming avocados and caviar, in particular—both symbols of fertility. Avocados take nine months to grow from flower to fruit. Their shape is reminiscent of a uterus, and the seed within might be viewed as a developing fetus. According to legend, eating an avocado makes a woman more likely to conceive. With its multitude of tiny eggs, caviar represents fertility in many cultures. Both caviar and avocados are also said to be aphrodisiacs. Considering Esther's tremendous ambivalence toward sex and childbearing, it is notable that caviar and avocados are two of her favorite foods, as if in some way her body acts on its own to build its ability to enter womanhood on a physical level. In fact, Esther later accuses her body of thwarting her psychological desire to commit suicide, as if the body and the mind are separate entities. When Esther and the other young women at the luncheon develop food poisoning as a result of consuming the crab stuffed into the avocados, it is as if their bodies are repudiating their ripeness for sexual maturity. Interestingly, caviar has been shown to be beneficial in treating depression. Maybe that is another reason Esther craves it.

In Chapter 3 of The Bell Jar, what are the implications of Esther's comparison between her lack of career plans and meeting a missing father?

Esther's language is usually quite precise—she is a poet, after all—so this convoluted and confusing simile needs to be read a couple of times before it makes sense, and even then it is an odd, personal, and telling choice. Esther mentions a "nondescript person that's been hanging around your door for ages" as if everyone is familiar with a person like that. Not every college student who suddenly realizes she does not know what to do with her life would identify that feeling with discovering that "the person you thought all your life was your father is a sham." In the same way that no one could trust a sham father, Esther cannot trust her own instincts to tell her what kind of adult she wants to be. This is The Bell Jar's first reference to fatherhood, and clearly Esther views fathers as unreliable figures. Readers will not learn until later that Esther's own father died when she was a child—the ultimate abandonment.

In Chapter 6 of The Bell Jar, which events support the medical student's warning that if women watch too many births, "It'll be the end of the human race?"

Readers are aware that Esther sometimes forces herself to watch "crucial" events. When she begs Buddy to show her "some really interesting hospital sights," she means she wants to see something gruesome. Buddy is more than ready to oblige. After a gory parade of cadavers, fetuses in jars, and malignant moles, he takes Esther to watch the birth of a baby. Esther is repulsed by every detail of the birth: the delivery bed looks like "some awful torture table"; the patient seems "to have nothing but an enormous spider-fat stomach and two little ugly spindly legs"; and the baby is "the color of a blue plum and floured with white stuff." Esther only identifies with the laboring mother when she learns about what she assesses to be the male-designed drugs the doctor gives the woman. They do not stop the pain, "or she wouldn't groan like that," but they will make her forget the pain so that she will be willing to begin the sexual process again: "All the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again." Esther concludes that the sexual cycle is a trap for women. After the birth, Buddy takes Esther to his dorm room for what may be the least romantic seduction attempt in American fiction. He even tells her that his mother approves of his underpants because "they wash easily." It is not surprising that Esther refuses to initiate the sexual cycle with Buddy, especially when she gets Buddy to confess to an affair with a waitress. "After that," says Esther, "something in me just froze up." For Esther, the medical student's warning seems likely to come true.

The motif of doppelgängers—two people who are very similar—repeats in The Bell Jar. Who are some of Esther's doppelgängers?

Buddy Willard: like Esther, Buddy has won academic prizes and honors all his life. Like Esther, he is very good-looking. (Esther does not think she is pretty, but it is safe to assume she is: The Bell Jar is a roman à clef, and Sylvia Plath was famously attractive.) Esther is dismissive of his interests and he of hers. Both characters are conflicted about sex and unsure what part sex should play in their relationship. Joan Giling: Joan is a school friend from Esther's hometown. Like Esther, Joan has an on-and-off relationship with Buddy Willard. Joan's mental breakdown eerily parallels Esther's. Joan makes a suicide attempt after reading that Esther tries to kill herself. She is admitted to the same psychiatric hospital as Esther, who resents Joan for making rapid progress. Shortly after Esther's hemorrhage, Joan commits suicide, as if Esther, finally and successfully giving birth to a new, authentic sense of self, no longer needs this doppelgänger in her life. It is also possible that Joan's death signals an abandonment of Esther's true self when Esther commits to a traditional gender role by having sex with a man. Elly Higgenbottom: Elly is the name Esther uses when she does not want to give her real name, but she is also a doppelgänger—an imaginary version of Esther herself. Esther imagines Elly as a young woman who fits comfortably into the world. She imagines that Elly comes from Chicago: Chicago University seems like a more natural setting for "unconventional, mixed up people" than Esther's staid women's college. Elly has a "sweet, quiet nature" and no ambitions for professional success. Elly has a bunch of children. She is also an orphan, with no troublesome mother to contend with. Elly is also the name Esther often gives to men when she wants to "try on" a heterosexual relationship.

In Chapter 20 of The Bell Jar, Esther remarks, "Irwin's voice had meant nothing to me ... I was perfectly free." To what kind of freedom is she referring?

On a literal level, Esther is free of Irwin himself: she never has to see him again, and he has no way of tracking her down. However, it is more important to Esther that she is free of her burdensome virginity and its associated social gender conventions. She wants to gain sexual experience on her own terms, without emotional involvement. Readers may feel uncomfortable with her goal; sex without consequences is hard to manage, and Esther may be oversimplifying her reaction. However, there is no denying that she has experienced sexual freedom in a self-contained and meaningless encounter, a social taboo, without being ostracized from the female community. For a long time, Esther has been eager for sexual experience. She resents the notion that women have to be pure when men do not. Her step toward sexual independence may seem coldhearted—one could argue that she uses Irwin as an instrument in her own identity building—but her method is in keeping with Esther's determined and somewhat ruthless personality.

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