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The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Chapter 20 of The Bell Jar, why is the shadow imagery at Joan's funeral service important?

Recall that before Esther's overdose, the thing she longs for more than anything else is "shadow." The glare of conscious thought seems unbearable to her. Shadow represents welcome oblivion, and she seals the opening in the crawl cellar with logs in order to die in the shadow. At Joan's funeral, shadow expands further to symbolize death, but Esther has come to view death as a form of subtraction rather than shelter. Joan's coffin is "the black shadow of something that wasn't there." In the town cemetery, the "black, six-foot-deep gap"—which Esther also calls a "shadow"—will "marry" the "shadow" of the coffin until snow "erase[s]" the grave. Meanwhile, Jody's "cheeks bloomed like good apples," a healthy image, and Esther hears the "old brag" of her own heartbeat. While she is not devastated by Joan's death, she no longer longs to join Joan. She is not obsessing over the details of Joan's suicide, as once she might have; she no longer identifies with Joan. On a symbolic level, Joan's death provides Esther with the death of the shadows of her identity she once longed to kill. Now Esther is able to bury these shadows and step into the light of the exit interview room: "a ritual for being born twice."

In The Bell Jar, what is the significance of the timing of Joan's suicide?

Joan's suicide follows two crucial interactions with Esther. The first of these interactions takes place in Chapter 18, when Joan seems to harbor some sexual attraction toward Esther: "I like you better than Buddy," Joan says, stretching out on Esther's bed "with a silly smile." Esther rudely answers, "You make me puke," and walks out of the room. The second takes place when Esther arrives at Joan's apartment in Cambridge, hemorrhaging after her sexual encounter with Irwin. It is significant that Esther equates her hemorrhaging with childbirth rather than sex: "woman after woman died, palely and nobly, in torrents of blood, after a difficult childbirth." During these interactions, Joan witnesses Esther taking control of her sexuality, rejecting one lover and accepting another, and symbolically rebirthing herself into a new, more authentic version of herself. In these actions, the seriousness of Esther's intentions triumphs over Joan's tabloid-like attempts to accomplish the same goals. As Esther grows stronger, Joan, the projected image of Esther, grows weaker, until Joan's existence is no longer necessary to Esther's. Alternatively, Esther's rejection of Joan's female sexuality may result in Joan's death and Esther's inability to claim an authentic female identity.

What is the mood of the The Bell Jar's ending?

Chapter 20 closes the book with a hopeful mood. A January snowstorm changes the landscape, "[snuffing] out" traces of human activity and leaving a "pure, blank sheet." Esther comments that her college, too, will look pure, "sunk in a marble calm." However, she recognizes that under the snow, the topography will be the same. The world may look different to her, but she will need to relearn how to navigate familiar surfaces, not conquer a new realm. Esther's mother would like the two of them to treat the past six months as a bad dream, but Esther refuses. She remembers every terrible experience she endures. Although it might be nice if the kind snow of forgetfulness were to cover her past, she knows that her suffering is an indelible part of her new sense of self. Esther realizes that there is no way to guarantee a wonderful future: "All I could see were question marks." This vision is a sign of healthy growth: Esther's outlook is more realistic than it used to be. Like any adult, she knows that there are setbacks ahead. However, a hopeful mood is not a happy ending. In the book's last sentence, Esther speaks of guiding herself by a "magical thread," something fragile that defies realistic understanding. For Esther's creator, another mirror of Esther's identity, the magical thread breaks. Readers familiar with Sylvia Plath's biography may find it poignant that the book closes on Esther, who may be in denial over the effects of her sexual experiences, electroshock therapy, and the significance of Joan's death.

Based on Chapter 18, what is the meaning of Esther's "[taking] up the silver knife" to cut her boiled egg at breakfast?

Esther uses the knife to "[crack] off the cap" of her egg—a lighthearted echo of the electroconvulsive therapy she has just undergone as the electricity cracks her egg—or head. Then she tries to remember what she loves about knives but is unable to recall the details. Although she has never before mentioned loving knives, here Esther refers to her long-held desire to commit suicide. Recall that she earlier says that two knives would work best for the process of disemboweling. Suddenly, when she looks at a table knife, she sees a table knife and not a weapon. Some critics suggest that Esther's forgetfulness regarding her love of knives is a negative comment on electroconvulsive therapy, which may cause Esther's thinking to become fuzzy. However, she refers to the lost suicide wish as a "noose." Esther remembers how to use the table knife, but losing the knife's suicidal association may suggest that the shock treatment is successful.

In Chapter 17 of The Bell Jar, in what ways does Esther demonstrate paranoia at Belsize?

Moving to Belsize, the ward where women stay just prior to release, is a promotion of sorts for Esther. Belsize is "the best house of all." However, Esther doubts that she belongs there: "I can't go there ... I'm not ready. I'm not well enough." Her interactions with the staff and other patients suggest that paranoia still plagues Esther despite her promotion. Joan is already at Belsize, having (as Esther sees it) leapfrogged over Esther to get there. Esther worries that Joan will be arrogant. She also worries that the other women in Belsize will gossip about her behind her back, though when she goes to the living room "to put a lid on their nasty talk," she finds that they are not talking about her at all. Esther also suspects that one of the nurses at Belsize has been "instructed" to show Esther the negative alternatives to Belsize that result from a lack of cooperation. The nurse says to her, "You're all right, it's those boobies at the state place that worry me off my feet." Esther then notes that "The nurse gave me a straight look, and I could see she thought I had no business in Belsize at all." In fact, nothing the nurse says indicates that this assessment is true. Rather, Esther's perceptions reflect her paranoia. Esther may have made enough progress to move to Belsize, but she is still far from a recovery.

In Chapter 16 of The Bell Jar, why does Doctor Nolan smile "as if something had pleased her very, very much" when Esther says she hates her mother?

Esther's confession to Doctor Nolan shows that she is beginning to trust the therapeutic process enough to tell her doctor what she really thinks, without censoring herself. This act is an important step in her healing. Esther makes it clear throughout the text that she is angry at her mother, but until now, she has not shared her feelings with Doctor Nolan. Esther dreads her mother's visits: "She never scolded me, but kept begging me, with a sorrowful face, to tell her what she had done wrong." This request is selfish. Mrs. Greenwood should support Esther, but instead she puts herself at the center of the conversation: her concern is not on how she can help her daughter, but on how Esther can make her feel better about herself. When Esther reveals to Doctor Nolan that she hates her mother, Esther "[waits] for the blow to fall"—she believes that what she says is so terrible that Doctor Nolan will punish her. Instead, Dr. Nolan is pleased.

In Chapter 13 of The Bell Jar, why is it significant that Esther never cries for her father's death?

Esther has not cried for her father because her mother would not allow it: "My mother hadn't let us come to his funeral ... his death had always seemed unreal to me." In fact, Esther has never seen her mother cry for him, either: "She had just smiled and said what a merciful thing it was for him he had died." How confusing this statement—and her mother's smile—must have been to Esther! A child would not be able to understand why her father would rather die (and abandon her) than be crippled. Mrs. Greenwood's remark has the effect of closing the subject and barring Esther from expressing her own feelings of loss. As a consequence, Esther continues to have trouble expressing her feelings on any subject as she struggles to find a path into adulthood. Recall that it takes her a year to think of a response to Buddy's insult to poetry, something of great value to Esther.

In Chapter 13 of The Bell Jar, what is the symbolic importance of Esther's ruining the hospital maternity bouquets?

Esther does not mean to wreck the bouquets—at least not consciously. As Esther sees it, a new mother might be "[discouraged]" by seeing a less-than-fresh bouquet, and she performs an act of kindness by pulling out the dead flowers and sticking them into a basin in an alcove. Esther is unaware of her real motivation: separating death from life. When she touches the basin, "cold as a tomb," she smiles: "This must be how they laid the bodies away in the hospital morgue. My gesture, in its small way, echoed the larger gesture of the doctors and nurses." However, the main job of doctors and nurses is to keep patients healthy, not to put their bodies in a morgue. Doctors and nurses would not view the stowing-away of dead patients as a "gesture" but as a sign that they had failed at their jobs. Esther's view inverts the reality of the situation, a symptom of her illness.

In Chapter 13 of The Bell Jar, what feelings does Esther reveal about her body, the physical manifestation of her identity?

Esther has a habit of treating her body and mind as separate entities. She views her mind as the real Esther and her body as the subject of her mind, and she believes that body and mind are at odds. "If I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash," Esther thinks. If she could die by the will of her mind, she would. However, her body has "all sorts of little tricks" that save her life. In Chapter 12, the ocean water is so cold that she cannot make herself walk into it; now, the ocean water is warmer, but she cannot force herself to drown. Nor could she strangle herself earlier in the day. Yet Esther ignores Cal when he tells her that he would use a gun if he wanted to kill himself. She is even disappointed: "It was just like a man to do it with a gun." Why? Because a gun would be more efficient, and it might work. Esther believes that her mind is fully resolved on suicide and that only her body gets in the way. However, her mind does not allow her to realize that there are more efficient ways to die than hanging by a bathrobe belt.

In Chapter 12 of The Bell Jar, what is the significance of the body part imagery?

Some of the body parts Esther mentions include Doctor Gordon's back, a nurse's wall-eye, Esther's right palm, Mrs. Greenwood's knuckles, Esther's wrist, the calf of Esther's leg, a shell "big as a thumb joint," sharks' teeth, and whales' earbones. Chapter 12 features Esther's first, disastrous shock treatment—an event that "[shakes her] like the end of the world." One function of the severed-body-part references is to underscore Esther's sense that she has been shaken to pieces by the treatment. Esther hates and fears the treatment, but at the same time, she is disappointed that it does not make her feel any different. Now, she suspects, her outcome is hopeless. As she moves closer to the idea of suicide, she begins to view her body as a collection of disjointed parts instead of a unified whole. In her mind, Esther is literally coming apart.

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