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The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Quotes


I was supposed to be having the time of my life.

Esther Greenwood, Chapter 1

While the fashion magazine editorial contest winners spend their days in New York attending shows, luncheons, and parties, Esther is poised on the edge of a mental breakdown, and she cannot enjoy any of it.


'My name's Elly Higginbottom,' I said.

Esther Greenwood, Chapter 1

Esther uses this fake name twice when she meets men. Elly is a sort of imaginary doppelganger for Esther, who imagines Elly as a sweet, unambitious orphan who just wants to marry and raise children.


Do you know what a poem is, Esther? ... A piece of dust.

Buddy Willard, Chapter 5

Buddy Willard, Esther's semi-boyfriend, dismisses Esther's dreams of being a poet. At the time, Esther does not know how to respond. Later, she will wish she had asserted her feminine identity and stood up to him.


I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest.

Esther Greenwood, Chapter 7

Esther imagines her future as a tree covered with ripe figs waiting to be picked. As she is trapped by indecision, all the figs wrinkle and fall off the tree, destroying Esther's vision of any future at all.


I'm so glad they're going to die.

Hilda, Chapter 9

"They" are Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who have been found guilty of espionage and have been sentenced to death by electrocution. Esther is obsessed with the Rosenberg case so much so that her memory of the story begins with the Rosenbergs, "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs"; she identifies with the pair as social outsiders—a condition that can seemingly be cured through electrocution. Esther expects Hilda to share her feelings and is astonished to hear Hilda's real reaction.


Then I knew what the trouble was. I needed experience.

Esther Greenwood, Chapter 10

Home for the summer, disoriented and discouraged, Esther decides to write a novel, but she can only come up with a few opening lines. Her spirits sink even lower: when so little has happened to her, how can she compete with interesting writers? This reaction illustrates that Esther places no value on her own story, her own identity, or her own experiences in the world because she accepts the limits placed on her by society.


The skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn't do it.

Esther Greenwood, Chapter 12

Esther senses that what she really wants to kill is located not in her veins but "somewhere else, deeper, more secret." This observation indicates an understanding in Esther on some level that she does not want to die. What she wants is to kill the things about herself that keep her feeling trapped under the bell jar.


I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow.

Esther Greenwood, Chapter 12

The remark made after the terrible experience at Doctor Gordon's private hospital is double-pronged: Esther longs to fall asleep, but she also longs for death.


I would be sitting under the ... bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

Esther Greenwood, Chapter 15

This image, central to the book, reflects the way Esther visualizes her illness. She can see through the jar she is trapped in, but nothing from the real world can touch or affect her; she is trapped in the cloud of her own terrible thoughts.


The bell jar hung, suspended ... I was open to the circulating air.

Esther Greenwood, Chapter 18

Esther completes her first successful electroconvulsive treatment, and her paralyzing depression begins to lift. The jar has not disappeared, but she feels that she is no longer trapped under it without hope.



Doctor Nolan, Chapter 18

With this brisk remark, Doctor Nolan sweeps away years of Esther's accumulated fears and resentment about sex. Esther's mother once sent her a clipped-out article called "In Defense of Chastity," and Esther has always remembered how unfair the article seemed to women. Doctor Nolan's refreshing reaction—and the prescription she writes Esther for birth control—are key elements in Esther's healing.


To the person in the bell jar ... the world itself is the bad dream.

Esther Greenwood, Chapter 20

Passive-aggressive as always, Esther's mother suggests that they should think of Esther's breakdown as a bad dream. Esther finds the suggestion unacceptable. It might be nice if everyone could forget the bad things that have happened, "but [Esther understands] they were part of me. They were my landscape." She knows that she needs to face the truth, not avoid it.


I ... listened to the ... brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

Esther Greenwood, Chapter 20

Esther, sitting in a pew at Joan Giling's funeral, is not sure what she is burying along with her memories of Joan, but Esther knows that her steady heartbeat is an affirmation of her life.

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