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The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In The Bell Jar, why is Esther fascinated with the Rosenbergs?

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a married couple, were the only U.S. civilians executed during the Cold War. They were charged with passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Julius was definitely guilty; Ethel's guilt is now in doubt. Both of the Rosenbergs refused to turn over any information about coconspirators, and both refused to confess to any of the charges. Once they had been sentenced to death, widespread protests began in the United States, and many prominent Europeans asked that they be spared the death penalty. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), a French philosopher and author, referred to the case as a "lynching." Pope Pius XII (1876–1958) asked President Eisenhower (1890–1969) to intervene, but the president refused. Esther's obsession with the couple's execution was shared by many—500 people attended the Rosenbergs' funeral, and 10,000 more stood outside the cemetery during the service. However, Esther's fascination may be viewed as a connection of outsiders, those who do not fit into the prescriptions of society. It may also be symptomatic of Esther's deteriorating mental condition that she sees more of a connection between herself and a pair of accused criminals than she does with the other contest winners. The Rosenbergs operate as another of Esther's projected mirrors of herself. In The Bell Jar, the Rosenbergs' execution by electric chair foreshadows Esther's shock therapy. The comparison is disturbing in that it begs the question of whether electricity as a means of mental therapy and as a means of punishment are exclusive. In some ways, Esther's experience with electricity under Doctor Gordon's care can be viewed as a kind of punishment for mental illness.

In Chapter 6 of The Bell Jar, the birthing woman is Mrs. Tomolillo. Later, Esther calls her hospital roommate Mrs. Tomolillo. What is the connection between the two women?

The woman Esther watches give birth is definitely named Mrs. Tomolillo. Later, Esther has a hospital roommate whose name sounds to her like Mrs. Tomolillo. Having mentioned the similarity, Esther thereafter refers to the roommate as Mrs. Tomolillo. Mrs. Tomolillo may be meant as a vague stand-in for motherhood. The first Mrs. Tomolillo gives birth; the second rejects Esther, real or imagined, for her suicide attempt and later mirrors Mrs. Greenwood's gestures behind her back. If Esther's suicide is read as a symbolic attempt at rebirth, the connection between the two Mrs. Tomolillos is illuminating. In the first case, Esther usurps the role of her birth mother, or any birth mother for that matter, to give birth to herself. Yet, like Mrs. Greenwood, the second Mrs. Tomolillo rejects Esther for the attempt, presumably asking to be separated from Esther and ridiculing Esther's birth mother for not also rejecting her daughter by refusing to visit her. Esther's decision to refer to the other inpatient by the name of the woman who gives birth may also illustrate her belief that women who have babies become insane.

What is the significance of Esther's changing views regarding her clothing throughout the course of The Bell Jar?

Esther's clothes reinforce the theme of birth and death in the novel. At the beginning of the book, Esther is extremely invested in what she wears. It is an exterior projection of her identity as a successful college student in New York working at a prestigious fashion magazine. She has shopped carefully for her stay in New York, but when the story opens, she is already sick of those clothes "hanging limp as fish in my closet." The shift in attitude toward the clothing mirrors the shift in Esther's mental state from hopeful to hopeless. By the time her month in New York City comes to an end, Esther hates all her clothes. While wearing them, she fails miserably at establishing herself as a potentially strong professional woman. Packing them to take home would only mean bringing failure home as well. Just before she catches the train home, she throws them off the hotel rooftop in a kind of funeral for the self she did not become: "Flutteringly, like a loved one's ashes," the "gray scraps" blow away, vanished symbols of her unhappy attempt to establish her identity as a professional woman in New York. Because the gray scraps include all Esther's day clothes, she has to borrow an outfit from Betsy, a trying on of a new identity. However, as Esther's mental state continues to spiral out of control, she wears Betsy's outfit for weeks without washing it—a fact she mentions twice, adding that it gives off a "sour but friendly smell," as if she has buried herself alive in this borrowed identity. Just before her discharge interview, Esther wears her old black shoes and a "red wool suit flamboyant as my plans." The shoes symbolize her old self and her breakdown, and the suit symbolizes the future she hopes is waiting for her: her new identity in clothing, a blend of the two selves.

In Chapters 8, 15, and 20 of The Bell Jar, how are weight and illness connected?

When Esther visits Buddy in the sanatorium, she notes that "the last thing I expected was for Buddy to be fat." He responds, "Don't worry, I'll thin down in a couple of weeks." The prevailing medical thinking seems to reflect that weight means health: "They stuff us day after day and then just make us lie around." However, in Esther's case, the weight she gains does not equate with health. Esther mentions her hospital weight gain twice—first in Chapter 15 and then in Chapter 20, where it is included in a list of bad memories of her illness. In the 1950s, successful treatment for delusional thinking was still unknown. Insulin therapy was a well-intentioned but useless treatment in which patients were given insulin injections that caused several hours of low blood sugar levels. This situation made them groggy and confused but was believed to summon the body's defense mechanisms. For mentally ill patients who had normal insulin levels—the majority of people who received this treatment—the injections produced constant hunger and an enormous appetite for carbohydrates. Esther gains an unwanted 20 pounds (9 kilograms) because her body rejects the unnecessary treatment she is given to cure her mental illness.

In The Bell Jar, in what ways does the metaphor of the bell jar function?

One of Plath's purposes in writing the text is to convey how it feels to lose a sense of identity to mental illness. A metaphor is a comparison between two seemingly unlike objects that an author uses to suggest a hidden similarity in a way that conveys to readers a new way of thinking about an issue. The metaphor is the perfect literary vehicle for Plath. Esther says that her illness makes her feel as if she is sealed inside an airless vacuum, unable to connect with the outside world: "I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air." When Esther has some success with electroconvulsive therapy, she says, "The bell jar hung suspended ... I was open to the circulating air." The comparison between the familiar object of the bell jar and the unfamiliar topic of mental illness serves to give readers a concrete image through which to understand an abstract concept. The bell jar is also associated with experimentation, and Esther is in a very real way being experimented on with insulin and electroconvulsive therapy. She also conducts her own experiments with regard to the "crucial situations" she wills herself to watch in an effort to expand her worldview.

How might knowing of Plath's suicide affect the reading experience of The Bell Jar?

Plath's tragic death inevitably colors the reader's perception of her work, especially since so much of what Plath writes is autobiographical. Plath and Esther share many similarities: both hail from Boston; both lose their fathers as children; both win fashion magazine internships; both are rejected from creative writing courses; both attempt suicide; both are sponsored by female patrons; and both undergo electroconvulsive shock therapy. Any reading of The Bell Jar demands that readers acknowledge Plath's expertise in writing about mental illness. However, to read the text as merely autobiographical limits the experience. Plath's gift as a writer may reside in her ability to create a text that is autobiographical and also open to multiple interpretations due to its largely symbolic nature, particularly as readers try to evaluate Esther's relationship with Joan and the significance of Joan's death. The text is as much about Plath as it is about growing up in the face of loss, gender constraints, and faulty role models.

In Chapter 14 of The Bell Jar, what is the significance of the line "there are lots of blind people in the world"?

When Esther awakes in the hospital room after her suicide attempt, her eye is injured and bandaged. She says, "I can't see," and presumably a nurse responds, "There are lots of blind people in the world. You'll marry a nice blind man someday." The theme of blindness illuminates Esther's situation in several ways. Symbolically, she has just rebirthed herself through suicide. Remember that she cries, "Mother!" as she emerges from her basement womb. Physically, newborn babies are nearsighted; they see objects at distances of only about 8 to 15 inches (203 to 381 millimeters). Additionally, one cause of blindness is a lack of connection between what the eye sees and how the brain processes the information. In her mental illness, Esther's brain has a great deal of difficulty processing stimuli from the outside world, causing her to entertain delusional thinking. Finally, the theme of blindness connects with the theme of marriage in the nurse's comment. The suggestion seems to be that despite Esther's literal and symbolic blindness, the goal for a woman is still marriage. Esther may have hoped to be born anew, but the society into which she emerges has not changed a bit.

What is the function of Valerie's character in The Bell Jar?

Valerie, a hospital patient and friend of Esther's, is one of the few perfectly cheerful characters in the book. At their first meeting, Esther compares her to a Girl Scout leader. However, it is not until Valerie shows Esther her forehead scars that the reader learns that Valerie has had a lobotomy—a form of brain surgery in which part of the patient's prefrontal cortex is cut away. Valerie is lucky to have escaped without terrible side effects. Lobotomies, called "surgically induced childhood" by one doctor, were meant to improve psychiatric symptoms. Most of the improvement came from the fact that post-lobotomy patients were too impaired to cause much trouble. So what is wrong with being happy all the time? Valerie does not seem to mind her plight: "I'm not angry anymore," she says, adding that being calmer means she gets more hospital privileges. However, the reader understands the price she has paid even if Valerie is no longer capable of assessing this price. She will not leave the hospital, and she does not have enough intelligence left to care. Laughing, she tells Esther she likes it there. Valerie's claim that she is not angry anymore calls into question this character's presumed mental illness. Being dissatisfied with the status quo is not equivalent to mental illness, but women are treated as though it is. Valerie is an example of the medical establishment's power over the mentally ill in the 1940s and 1950s. Esther pushes back against this power when she refuses to endure more electroconvulsive ("shock") treatments with Doctor Gordon. The book's implication is that Esther, tormented as she is, is still better off than Valerie, who is stripped of her burgeoning female intelligence and condemned to the eternal happiness of childhood.

In Chapter 17 of The Bell Jar, why does Esther say she does not recognize her own photo in the magazine Joan shows her?

Esther's quest is for an adult identity that she can project, claim, and manage in the real world. Throughout the novel, she assumes a variety of identities: professional New York City editor, Elly Higginbottom, Betsy (in wearing her clothes), and Ee Gee. As part of Esther's healing, she must reject these false identities and develop an authentic sense of self. When she views the photograph (a kind of mirror) in the magazine, she is so far removed from this earlier identity that she does not recognize this "girl" as herself: "The girl was holding a glass full of transparent drink." When Esther says, "No, it's not me. Joan's quite mistaken. It's somebody else," Esther does not lie. This woman in the photograph is no longer Esther. The rejection of this image is suggestive of Esther's healing.

In Chapter 1 of The Bell Jar, Esther mentions her baby. Given her previous responses to birth, how does this information affect the novel's ending?

Esther's reference to a "magical thread" at the novel's end may be disconcerting as it suggests that Esther is still unclear about how to control her own life and her own choices. If her future is guided by a mysterious "magical thread" then she is not the empowered woman readers might hope her to be at the end of her journey. It may also be disconcerting that while Esther references the baby, she does not reference a marriage or a career. In fact, she mentions the baby as she cuts apart souvenirs of her old identity in New York for the baby's enjoyment: "I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with." The baby becomes Esther's final mirror, the ultimate biological and symbolic extension of Esther's self. Yet this image is unclear. Does Esther resign herself to traditional women's roles as a mother and perhaps a wife, or does she transcend these roles into something of her own making, presumably as the author of this text meant to illuminate the reality of mental illness? The ambiguous end of Esther's story mirrors, perhaps, the unending journey of self-revelation.

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