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The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Symbols


In many ways, The Bell Jar is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, in which Esther seeks to establish her identity as an adult. Many of Esther's conflicts regarding this quest are illustrated through the novel's symbols in much the same way that Esther's suicide and consequent rebirth and her delusion as an escape from social convention may be read symbolically.

Bell Jar

A bell jar is a transparent glass container with a knob for easy lifting that seals its contents from the exterior. Bell jars may be used to display decorative objects, to protect sterile instruments during a surgical procedure or experiment, or to create a vacuum. Esther imagines that she is trapped under a bell jar, and the three uses of bells jars all apply in Esther's case.

Esther has grown up, as it were, on display; her survival demands repeated public displays of perfection such as her grades and honors. When she wishes to die, one thing she yearns for is the darkness that sleeplessness denies her. The transparency of the bell jar will not allow her a private place to hide.

A symbolic bell jar also protects Esther from the real world. She constantly seeks experiences that her sterile environment has kept from her: sexual experience, the chance to make her own choices (and mistakes), and the opportunity for close observation of the dark side of humanity. Esther feels that as a woman of her culture, she is sheltered from things that men get to experience as a matter of course; she has even been sheltered from grieving her father's death. Of course, such protection requires that Esther remain trapped.

Vacuum bell jars are produced by placing the jar on a base vented to a hose fitting that is in turn connected to a vacuum pump. Esther Greenwood may have been familiar with a classroom experiment in which a ringing alarm clock is set under a bell jar before the jar is sealed. As air is pumped out of the jar, the noise of the alarm disappears: sound waves cannot travel in a vacuum. In Chapter 15, Esther speaks of stewing "in [her] own sour air." After her first successful shock treatment in Chapter 18, when she feels the bell jar lift somewhat, she is led into the "fresh, blue-skied air" and feels herself "open to the circulating air." Lifting the bell jar also relieves Esther's obsession with killing herself. As she cracks off the cap of an egg, she is literally unable to remember why she had loved knives so much: "My mind slipped from the noose of the thought." Fresh air might mean fresh ways of thinking. Although some critics interpret this as actual progress, this scene can also be read as the erasure of Esther's true self—a woman with many thoughts. A poet cannot be a poet without thought.

Esther equates her illness to a bell jar, but in many ways, she has spent her life in one. "To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby," she explains, "the world itself is the bad dream."


Like most adolescents, Esther looks in the mirror a lot. However, she does not always recognize what she sees. When she flees Lenny's apartment and returns to her hotel in Chapter 2, she catches sight of her reflection and sees a "big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically" into her face. The mirror over her hotel bureau seems warped, and her face looks "like the reflection in a ball of dentist's mercury." (Later, Esther will hoard a tiny ball of mercury from a thermometer she breaks during a stay in the hospital following a thwarted suicide attempt.)

After a crying fit at the magazine office in Chapter 9, Esther glances into her compact: "The face that peered back at me seemed to be peering from the grating of a prison cell after a prolonged beating." The face that stares back after her suicide attempt in Chapter 14 is even worse: Esther thinks it is a painting until the image she is watching smiles back at her. Esther dashes that mirror to the floor, breaking it. Later, her mother tells Esther that if she had not broken the mirror, she would not have been kicked out of the hospital: "But of course I knew the mirror had nothing to do with it," thinks Esther. She is convinced that the mirrors reveal her true self—warped and hideous—and she believes that not even a hospital wants someone like this around.

Fig Tree

In Chapter 5 Esther and the other contest winners are each given a short-story collection by Ladies' Day magazine. One story Esther particularly likes is about a fig tree. In the story, a Jewish man and a nun meet at the tree to pick figs until the arousal of sexual desire keeps the nun from returning. Esther identifies herself with the nun, meeting Buddy Willard "under our own imaginary fig tree"—a fig tree she sees in the birth of a baby, Buddy's naked body, and Buddy's admission to an affair with a waitress (Chapter 6).

Later, in Chapter 7, Esther imagines that her life branches out ahead of her, like the fig tree: "From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked." All she has to do is reach out and pick the future she wants. The problem, Esther believes, is that she wants all the figs, and "choosing one meant losing all the rest." She does not realize that not all futures are mutually exclusive.

She goes on to imagine that because she is unable to decide, all the figs will wrinkle and fall—the result of her paralyzing indecision.

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