The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In The Bell Jar, which three women does Esther view as surrogate mothers, and how effective is each in this role?

Jay Cee, Esther's boss at the fashion magazine, is "plug-ugly" and speaks with "brutal promptitude," but Esther admires her and feels intimidated in her presence. Jay Cee seems to be disappointed in Esther's job performance, which may be why she gives Esther a ridiculously long list of the qualifications she would need to make a career in publishing. She does not notice that the reason Esther's performance is poor is not that Esther refuses to "roll up her shirtsleeves," but that Esther is suffering from the beginning stages of mental illness. Esther yearns to please her, but adult readers may suspect that nothing particularly pleases Jay Cee. The preposterously named Philomena Guinea is Esther's "benefactress" in that she pays for Esther's college education. When Mrs. Guinea hears about Esther's suicide attempt, she also pays for Esther's stay at a private mental facility. Like Esther, Mrs. Guinea is a writer; like Esther, she once suffered a serious mental breakdown. It is clear that Mrs. Guinea identifies with Esther. She may overidentify with her: she pays for the mental facility because Esther is having trouble writing, but she would not have paid if Esther's breakdown had been caused by a love affair. However, Esther does not seem to think much of her patron. Although Mrs. Guinea actually appears in person a few times, Esther barely describes her and recounts nothing that she says. Doctor Nolan is the most sympathetic and most helpful of Esther's substitute mothers. Esther likes her from the first, partly because she is young and attractive, "a cross between Myrna Loy and my mother." Readers are not given a lot of information about Esther's sessions with Doctor Nolan, but it is clear she offers the warmth and acceptance Mrs. Greenwood does not seem capable of providing. When Esther says she hates her mother, the doctor is pleased: Esther is coming to trust that no subject between them is taboo. Interestingly, the hospital refuses to release Esther into her real mother's care even when she is recovered, and she remains with her surrogate mother until she returns to college.

In Chapter 6 of The Bell Jar, what is the emotional relationship between Buddy and Esther as Buddy shows her "some really interesting hospital sights"?

Although it is true that Esther asks for "really interesting hospital sights," meaning gore and ghoulishness, there is a quality of passive aggression—or just plain aggression—in the outing Buddy provides for her: he seems to be saying, "You asked for it, you got it." The reader senses that he is either testing or punishing Esther, perhaps both. No matter how revolting the scene, Esther never protests. If Buddy is testing her to see how tough she is, she certainly passes: "I was quite proud of the calm way I stared at all these gruesome things," she says. A quiet battle for dominance is taking place between the two students, and perhaps the two genders, but neither mentions it. As he will do later in the book, Buddy seems to want to punish Esther for showing interest in the world of professional men. How dare she imagine she is as good as he is when all she does is write poetry? He will show her what work is really like.

In Chapter 6 of The Bell Jar, Esther references having her college Posture Picture taken. What are Posture Pictures, and what is the significance of the reference in this scene?

Twenty-first century students may have trouble believing that from the 1940s through the early 1970s, 10 of the nation's most competitive colleges had the bizarre custom of photographing every student in the nude. The ostensible purpose of this study was to assess the risk of skeletal disorders in the college population and to study body types. In women's colleges, which had a longstanding tradition of improving female posture, the photos were also used to help students spot their own posture deficiencies. Thousands of such photos were stored for decades, some of them at the Smithsonian Museum; most were destroyed in the 1990s. A 1950 Vassar graduate recalls that if women were menstruating when their photos were being taken, they were still allowed to wear the belts that held their sanitary napkins. The comparison between taking a Posture Picture and undressing in front of Buddy reiterates the lack of romance or real sexual desire during the encounter between Buddy and Esther.

In Chapter 6 of The Bell Jar, why is it important that Buddy's contraction of tuberculosis causes Esther to rejoice?

Esther is delighted to hear the news, which she views as a "wonderful relief." She likes to imagine that the illness is "a punishment for living the kind of double life Buddy lived and feeling so superior to people." She has been planning to break up with Buddy, meaning she would have to start the "boring business" of going on dates; now she will not have to! She can just tell her friends that Buddy's in a sanatorium. That will keep them from wondering why she never goes out anymore. Esther also feels a certain glee that Buddy's sick when he has always labeled her own illnesses as being psychosomatic: "I thought this an odd attitude for a doctor to have." True enough—Buddy's patronizing behavior is one more way he tries to keep Esther in her proper place. The scene reiterates that much of Esther and Buddy's relationship is about punishing each other for fulfilling or failing to fulfill traditional gender roles.

In Chapter 5 of The Bell Jar, Esther reads a short story about a fig tree. How does Esther and Buddy's relationship distort the fig tree story?

The story is about a fig tree planted midway between a convent and the house of a Jewish man. The man and one of the nuns regularly meet at the tree to pick figs. One day, while they watch a baby bird hatching—the end of the sexual process—their hands touch, an expression of sexual desire. Thereafter, the convent sends a kitchen maid to pick figs, instead of the nun. The story reminds Esther of Buddy because they, too, have shared the experience of watching a birth: in their case, it is a baby at Buddy's medical school. In contrast to the birth of sexual desire, however, Esther experiences feelings of revulsion regarding Buddy. She associates his naked body with a "turkey neck and turkey gizzards." When Esther learns that Buddy has had an affair, she associates the birth with the revelation of Buddy's hypocrisy: "What I couldn't stand was Buddy's pretending I was so sexy and he was so pure."

In The Bell Jar, how is the confinement of the bell jar paralleled in other settings?

Just as the symbolic bell jar separates Esther from society so too do the hospitals where she stays. In addition, Buddy is confined in a sanatorium during his struggle with tuberculosis, and Deer Island Prison, where Esther considers suicide by drowning, is a place of imprisonment. The Rosenbergs, too, are imprisoned. In all cases, the characters are physically separated from society as unwanted elements because they are mentally ill, potentially infectious, or criminally dangerous. The implication is that society is intolerant of perceived threats to convention and order whether or not the threats are real. In addition, society favors the grouping and labeling of people for the sake of convenience: the Amazon Hotel is a place of confinement for pure young women. These physical settings mirror Esther's psychological landscape as she struggles against the idea that adulthood means finding a prescribed label and associated setting and settling into it.

In The Bell Jar, how do the tabloids Esther reads while contemplating suicide connect with Joan's scrapbook?

As a poet, Esther's identity is tied to her writing, her ability to give voice to her story. It is ironic that Esther searches for links to her story in cheap tabloids rather than in literature: "They were the only things I could read. The little paragraphs between the pictures ended before the letters had a chance to get cocky and wiggle about," a reminder of her failure to produce good prose herself. In other words, the brevity maintains meaning for her, not giving way to her delusions. This understanding translates into her search for suicide ideas; the brevity of her life may help her to pin down meaning as well. When Joan produces the tabloid headlines about Esther, she has the same reaction that she does to the magazine photograph that she denies. She does not recognize "this girl" as herself: "This girl had disappeared from her home on August 17th." In denying this previously false identity, Esther shows growth toward a new, more authentic version of herself—one that need not grace the pages of these "scandal sheet[s]" to achieve recognition.

In The Bell Jar, how does New York City contrast with Esther's hometown?

Esther's suburb outside Boston epitomizes post–World War II America. It is characterized by materialism, consumerism, and a baby boom. Following the end of the war, suburbs grew to accommodate returning soldiers, and the baby population rose steadily from about 1946 until about 1964. Remember that Dodo Conway's house is bigger and better than the others in the neighborhood and that she is pregnant with her seventh child: "The older people around, like my mother, had two children, and the younger, more prosperous ones had four, but nobody but Dodo was on the verge of a seventh. Even six was considered excessive." Dodo Conway is having her own personal baby boom! Yet the suburbs function as their own kind of bell jar, insulating the residents from society and each other while supporting societal conventions, as suggested by the use of the word facade to describe the exterior of Dodo's house. In contrast, New York City is a place where women such as Doreen explore sexual freedom and women such as Jay Cee balance work with marriage. It is also a place where danger and anger lurk, as in Esther's encounter with Marco. Although Esther feels stifled by her life in the suburbs, the seedy side of New York City threatens her sense of purity, which causes her to begin to mentally unwind.

In what ways can The Bell Jar be viewed as a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age story?

Esther experiences many rites of passage in her journey from girlhood to womanhood: college enrollment, a trip away from home to New York City, a marriage proposal, and her first sexual experience. However, Esther's coming-of-age journey is arrested by her mental breakdown. Rather than becoming an empowered adult ready to take on the world, Esther regresses into madness and symbolically into infancy when she attempts to rebirth herself via suicide. Although Esther survives her suicide attempt to try again to progress into womanhood, the passage will not be smooth. She must integrate her suicide and hospitalization into the landscape of her new identity and live with the threat that the ever-present bell jar may descend again. Some critics view this text as a failed bildungsroman, where Esther does not ever successfully come of age.

In Chapters 1 and 2 of The Bell Jar, what effect does Doreen and Lenny's sexual encounter have on Esther?

Esther has trained herself to look at crucial situations, in this case a sexual encounter: "I wanted to see as much as I could ... look so hard that I never forgot it." Esther thinks these observations will help her learn about the world outside her suburban bell jar: "I certainly learned a lot of things I never would have learned otherwise this way." Esther gives readers the impression that she is uncomfortable with Lenny and Doreen at the bar, and things do not improve for her when the three of them reach Lenny's apartment and she has to sit there watching the pair jitterbug. As she says, "there is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other." One meaning of the word demoralizing is "throwing into disorder or confusion." Esther's struggle with her identity as a sexual being is one of her primary conflicts, which contributes to the deteriorating disorder, or confusion, of her mental state. She is unable to reconcile Doreen's display of sexual freedom, which Esther envies on one level, with the social pressure for female purity or virginity.

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