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The Bell Jar | Themes

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Though Esther is a very disturbed young woman, Plath thematically suggests that Esther's sickness is not unique to her but rather is rampant among women her age in 1950s America. Esther's symptoms are caused as much by the society in which she lives as by her brain chemistry or her specific upbringing.

Birth and Death

In The Bell Jar, birth and death are interwoven. Although repelled by the actual fact of human birth, which she witnesses with Buddy, Esther is strongly drawn to the idea of rebirth—a way to avoid the state of the cadaver she also sees with Buddy. One of the first things readers learn about Esther is that whenever she wants to feel purified, she takes a hot bath and emerges feeling like a newborn baby. Unfortunately, many of the methods she uses to try to recreate herself are destructive. Throwing all of her clothes out the window in New York City is one such example. Esther means to shed the failures of her trip, but, of course, she ends up with nothing to wear and has to trade her bathrobe for an outfit of Betsy's, assuming a kind of new identity rather than creating her own.

As day after day passes without Esther being able to sleep, she begins to crave darkness and shadow, both symbols of death. Mixed with her sleeplessness is Esther's realization that she has never been allowed to mourn her dead father. When she finally breaks down at his grave, it is as if she is acknowledging his death for the first time. She plans to kill herself after the graveside visit, and it is telling that when she makes a serious suicide attempt, she buries herself in the darkest part of the house and seals the entrance with logs. When light breaks in as she is rescued, the glare tortures her and she cries out, "Mother!" The death scene becomes a strange rebirth, and Esther's subsequent recovery will further this idea.

Esther's final rebirth is her reentry to the world as symbolized by her impending discharge from the hospital. But before this rebirth can take place, Joan Giling dies. Esther has long felt that Joan is her alter ego, and at Joan's funeral, she wonders exactly what she is burying—perhaps her shame over her shadow self.

Gender

Like many women in the 1950s, Esther is extremely conflicted about what is expected of her as a female and how she should deal with these expectations. She knows that everyone expects her to marry suitable Buddy Willard, but Buddy has told her that once she has children, her writing will cease to matter—and Esther cannot bear that possibility.

Interestingly, Esther's mother works full time at a city college in order to keep the family afloat financially. Yet, Esther does not view Mrs. Greenwood as a role model but as a drudge, though Esther knows that the English majors at the college where Mrs. Greenwood works have far more rigorous course requirements than does Esther herself. Esther is still young enough that the economics of adult life do not interest her; self-fulfillment is what she cares about, not supporting herself.

Esther also worries about her lack of interest in babies. She knows why she is ambivalent about marrying: domestic life may interfere with her profession. However, she cannot understand why she is not drawn to babies and worries that she may be "unnatural." It may be that Esther, in her search for mother figures who are able to serve as role models, is still a kind of baby herself, not ready for motherhood.

Regardless, Esther's redemption will not come when she falls in line with social expectations, but rather when she finds a way to free herself of them in a nondestructive way.

Identity

Esther is perhaps more worried about her personal identity than her professional one. What is happening to her ability to think clearly? Why do the letters on a page seem to wriggle and slide as she looks at them? Is she unhappy because she is a failure, or is her unhappiness causing her to fail?

A brilliant and competitive student, Esther has always defined herself by her grades and the honors she has won since childhood. Her perfectionism is partly innate and partly caused by her illness. In either case, she has never learned how to fail, and she panics when she cannot live up to her own high standards.

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