The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Chapter 11 of The Bell Jar, why is it significant that Esther encounters a woman she mistakes for Mrs. Willard?

Esther does not want to think of herself as a prude from Boston, but she also knows on some level that walking around with a strange sailor is a bad idea. Her sudden memory of Mrs. Willard is a stand-in for social expectation: Mrs. Willard certainly would not approve of Esther's taking up with a sailor! Also, Mrs. Willard represents conventional women's roles, which opposes the sexual freedom "Elly" flirts with on Boston Common via a handsome sailor. When the "brown figure" appears to be walking toward them, Esther panics and pretends she is only talking to the sailor to ask for directions; she does not want Mrs. Willard to think she knows him. When she realizes that the woman in brown is not Mrs. Willard after all, Esther shifts her story; now her preposterous explanation is that the woman is "some blasted lady from this orphan home in Chicago." Oddly, Esther starts to believe her own story. Not only has this invented character been cruel to her; she is also responsible for everything wrong that has ever happened to Esther. Esther feels so much self-loathing that it is easier for her to project her failures, believing that the woman in brown leads her astray.

Based on text details in Chapter 11 of The Bell Jar, how accurate is Esther's assessment of Doctor Gordon as conceited?

Readers learn later that Doctor Gordon administers shock therapy incorrectly, making him incompetent, but Esther's instant prejudice against him is not supported by the details of the text. He is so "pretty" that she hates him on sight because he does not match her preconceived image of him. He has a picture of his beautiful family on his desk, which makes Esther "furious." Worse, the photo is half-turned toward Esther: "Doctor Gordon was trying to show me right away that ... I'd better not get any funny ideas." Esther herself wonders whether she is judging Doctor Gordon too hastily—until he mentions that he once worked at her college and comments on the prettiness of the girls there. Esther's condemnation of Doctor Gordon stems perhaps more from her prejudices against beauty than from any conceit he demonstrates. Remember that she has not bathed in three weeks and is sitting in his office wearing someone else's clothes. She is the opposite of beauty, and she feels judged by the beauty she observes around her.

In Chapter 10 of The Bell Jar, what does the character Dodo Conway, Esther's neighbor, represent to Esther?

On one level, it seems to Esther that Dodo embodies the suburban, Catholic ideal: lots of children; a big, rambling house; cocker spaniel puppies; lots of toys—"the whole sprawling paraphernalia of suburban childhood," the childhood Esther never had. However, Esther sees something sinister in Dodo. Her house is "set behind a morbid façade of pine trees," and it is dark-colored, unlike other neighborhood houses. When Esther looks closely, she can see that Dodo's children are "pale, with smudgy faces and bare smudgy knees." Dodo's stomach is "grotesque" and "protruding," and she is pushing an old, black baby carriage. As Esther describes her, Dodo seems alien, prehistoric, almost witch-like; Esther even suggests that Dodo has supernatural hearing. The fact is that Esther might feel more comfortable if there were something wrong with Dodo. The other woman went to a Seven Sister college (liberal arts women's colleges in the Northeast), like Esther, and is married to an architect. In Esther's eyes, Dodo embodies the conventional womanhood that will be Esther's destiny, too, if she is not careful. Dodo is Esther's future dopplegänger, a fate characterized by conventional marriage and motherhood to be avoided at all costs. Esther imagines that Dodo is purposely wheeling the baby carriage back and forth in front of Esther's house to taunt her, causing Esther to feel as if she is losing her struggle against her prescribed fate.

In Chapter 9 of The Bell Jar, what is the significance of the words Esther uses to tell Marco the location of his diamond stickpin?

"It's in my imitation jet bead evening bag," Esther says. "Somewhere in the muck." Esther has already mentioned the fact that her evening bag is made of imitation jet. She certainly does not need to relay this information to Marco, so why does she? And why does she say the bag is in the "muck," or the dark, slimy soil? There are two points Esther might intend to make. The first is that My evening bag is worthless and phony, like me, and it's in the muck—the proper place for me. Remember that Esther's encounters with sexuality often leave her feeling shame over her own "dirty nature," a nod to the female conventions she allows to rule her life. Esther might also suggest that Marco is the dark figure in the encounter and that rooting around in the muck is the proper fate for him. When Marco tries to rape Esther a few minutes earlier, she describes her bare skin as looking like "a pale veil separating two bloody-minded adversaries." Esther labels herself as being "bloody-minded" when she is the victim , and the remark reveals her deep self-hatred. Although Esther has said and done nothing to bring on the attack, she seems to feel she deserves it.

In Chapter 9 of The Bell Jar, what is the significance of the closing photo shoot at the magazine?

Esther breaks down sobbing during a photo shoot for the magazine because the potential photo, a physical manifestation of Esther's identity, mirrors the truth regarding her obscure future: there is no good object for her to hold that will show readers "what [she wants] to be." Jay Cee leaves Esther alone to cry for a few minutes before "[breezing] back" with a pile of manuscripts. "These'll amuse you," she says. The remark is cruel in two ways: it is blatantly uncomforting, and it mocks the writers who have sent the manuscripts to the magazine. It is as if she is saying, "Here—these stories by hopeful would-be writers (like yourself) are so stupid that they'll make you laugh." Yet, Jay Cee's remark helps Esther recover, in a way. Alone with the pile of stories, Esther smiles. She imagines a manuscript with her name on it "floating in mid-air" on its way to the famous writer with whom she hopes to study that summer. She imagines pseudonymously sending some of her stories from her writing course to Jay Cee. One day, she fantasizes, the Fiction Editor will bring them to Jay Cee and say, "Here's something a cut above the usual." This imagined scene is poignant, but childish, an indication that Esther is far removed from that path to adulthood she seeks. Esther has not made a success of her stint with the magazine; instead, she takes refuge in a fantasy about surprising Jay Cee with her unexpected brilliance. Her stories will stand above the ones that ordinary people are scribbling every minute, just as Esther was supposed to stand out among the other guest editors. What Esther does not know yet is that the fantasy is twice wrong. She will not be sending Jay Cee any of her brilliant stories from the writing course. She has not even been accepted to the course.

In Chapter 9 of The Bell Jar, Esther compares Hilda's voice to that of a dybbuk. What is a dybbuk, and how does the comparison support the novel's themes?

A dybbuk is a figure from Jewish folklore: the restless dislocated soul of a dead sinner that takes possession of a living person's body. When the dybbuk has attained its goal or has been exorcised, it leaves the host body in peace. Esther views Hilda as a dybbuk not only because of Hilda's deep voice but because she speaks so cruelly of the Rosenbergs' execution, which distances Esther from Hilda as Esther often finds herself sympathizing with the Rosenbergs as fellow outsiders. In an alternative reading, Esther may be guilty again of projecting herself onto another person in her constant search for a concrete self. An unwelcome spirit—Esther's depression—is indeed taking over her body. She does not know what the spirit wants or how to make it depart. In some ways, Esther is also possessed by the spirit of her dead father and has never properly grieved for him.

In Chapter 8 of The Bell Jar, what is the significance of Esther's plunge down the mountain during her ski outing with Buddy?

When Esther stands fearfully poised at the top of a mountain that is much too high for her skill set, she sees Buddy farther down the mountain, his arms "waving feebly as antennae," a mere bug. By contrast, the "great, gray eye of the sky" has such grand, impersonal magnificence that Esther's qualms vanish: "The thought that I might kill myself formed in my mind coolly as a tree or a flower." Why "coolly"? Why does the idea of dying calm Esther? This moment seems to be the first time it occurs to Esther that killing herself would remove all the debris that now clutters her life. As Esther picks up speed, she feels herself shedding the burdens of the present and moving toward the same kind of purity she feels after a hot bath—the "white [sweetness]" of an unborn baby. Compared to the clean white and gray spaces around her, Buddy, and the life he represents, looks "brown and inconsequential."

When Esther breaks her leg in Chapter 8 of The Bell Jar, why is Buddy's expression "queer, [and] satisfied"?

Just as Esther is angry at Buddy for making her go to the top of the ski slope (it does not occur to her to say no), Buddy is angry at Esther for refusing his proposal. He does not express this anger any more than she does, but he is not a boy who has much experience with rejection. Buddy has never skied before, and he has tuberculosis, but he is determined to get Esther up that mountain: "His persistence in the face of mulishness [presumably Esther's mulishness] was astounding." There is a hint of punishment in the way he drills her on a small slope over and over before turning her loose on the rope tow. Buddy cannot know that Esther will not be able to detach herself from the rope tow until she reaches the top of the mountain, but her broken leg complements his wish to punish her.

In Chapter 7 of The Bell Jar, what does purity mean to Esther when she says, "When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue"?

Nowhere is Esther's all-or-nothing thinking more evident than in her views on purity. For her, the world is "divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn't." This thinking is a very reductive way to view other people, a sign of both Esther's youth and her incipient depression. For Esther, the concept of purity (remaining a virgin until marriage) is both complicated and oversimplified. She resents the idea that women are expected to stay pure while men (Buddy, in particular) can have sex without harming their reputations. She also views being impure before marriage as a path to ruin. Note that Esther ascribes an almost miraculous power to "[cross] the boundary line" by having sex: "I thought it would be the way I'd feel if I ever visited Europe." Readers might expect her to remember that Buddy's affair hardly transforms him into a new person, but at this point in her life, Esther's romantic or deluded notions reign supreme over any real evidence to the contrary.

In The Bell Jar, in what ways is Esther Greenwood an unlikable character?

Even allowing for Esther's unhappiness, Esther treats almost everyone in The Bell Jar with disdain. She makes snap judgments based on first impressions as she does with Doctor Gordon. She blames others for making her act in certain ways without considering that she could refuse. An example of this is when she goes with Buddy on the ski outing, rather than saying no. However, Esther never seems to be trying to ingratiate herself with readers. Her purpose in telling her story is not to prove that she triumphs over all odds or even that she is a nice person. She wants people to know what it feels like to be mentally ill, and she is unsparing and clear-eyed in describing her breakdown. Though Esther is hard on people, she is much tougher on herself.

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