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A Gaze into the Bell Jar of Female Existence in the 50s.
**The Bell Jar** remains Sylvia Plath’s lone novel. It’s her signature, made extraordinary due to its release barely a month prior to Plath’s tragic end. The narrative resonates deeply with Plath’s life events.
The protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a promising young writer who’s just bagged an internship at a New York fashion magazine. Yet, she struggles to find her place in the metropolis, failing to conform to the restrictive gender roles of her era.
The Bell Jar marked a significant turning point in its confession-style exploration of societal norms and mental health. Its standing as a modern literary classic remains unshaken – and through this Summary, we’ll explore why.
Before we proceed, bear in mind that this Summary contains descriptions of sexual violence, depression, and suicide, so proceed with caution. To get a concise summary, feel free to skip to the conclusion.
A Strange, Sultry Summer in New York
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
Thus begins The Bell Jar, a story voiced by its protagonist, Esther Greenwood.
Esther, a young, talented writer, spends her summer of ’53 in New York City. She’s among the select group of college girls who have secured an internship at the Ladies’ Day fashion magazine. For a budding poet from Boston’s suburbs, it should be exhilarating.
But Esther can’t seem to tap into the joy. She feels more and more distant from the other girls, who seem to have their paths well defined.
Esther is both attracted and repelled by Doreen, a jaded society girl with a fondness for partying over studying. Following Doreen to a bar one night, Esther ends up alone and desolate in her empty hotel room. After Doreen comes knocking late and passes out in her room, Esther decides to gravitate towards girls like Betsy.
Betsy, Doreen’s complete opposite, is a cheerful, naive Midwestern darling. Betsy seeks friendship with Esther; ambivalent, Esther keeps finding reasons to avoid her.
Esther finds temporary comfort in the lavish gifts and dinners sponsored by the magazine. After one such dinner, she and the other girls suffer terrible food poisoning. Doreen takes care of Esther, nursing her back with soup.
The initial chapters of The Bell Jar delve into Esther’s internal conflict and her tense relationship with the world. The story shadows Plath’s own experience in 1953 as an undergraduate when she secured a guest editor’s role at the New York fashion magazine, Mademoiselle.
Plath employs this background to portray a vibrant image of New York City, its inhabitants, and the fashion scene. The fashion motif serves as a powerful metaphor for Esther’s search for identity.
Esther doesn’t fit neatly into the female archetypes of the time, mirrored in her ambivalent feelings toward Doreen and Betsy.
In her pursuit of self-definition, Esther resorts to lying. For example, she tells men who try to charm her that she’s “Elly Higginbottom” from Chicago.
Esther’s disconnection grows over the narrative. Her repeated references to the Rosenbergs – the first Americans executed for treason during peacetime – signals the start of a grim fascination with death.
Buddy Willard, the Pretender
While recuperating from food poisoning, Esther receives a call from Constantin, a UN interpreter she’s been matched with for a blind date. Constantin’s mannerisms, reminiscent of her former flame, Buddy Willard, instantly irk Esther. Regardless, she agrees to the date.
They visit the UN, dine together, and eventually land at Constantin’s apartment. Esther decides to let him seduce her as a sort of “revenge” against Buddy, but Constantin fails to take the bait. Esther once again winds up alone and dejected in her hotel room, where she reflects on her tumultuous relationship with Buddy.
Esther idolized Buddy for years before they began dating. But her interest dissipated almost as soon as they started going out.
Firstly, she found out Buddy had also dated her classmate Joan. Then, during a visit to Yale’s medical school, where Esther assisted Buddy in dissecting cadavers and delivering a baby, she discovered he’d had sex with another woman before her. The revelation of this “hypocrisy,” given that Buddy and most men of the era demanded purity from their female companions, shocked Esther.
However, before she could break up with him, Buddy fell ill with tuberculosis and was admitted to a sanatorium. Esther stayed with him, partially out of sympathy and partly to avoid explaining their breakup to others. Despite her mixed feelings, Buddy glossed over Esther’s reservations. When she visited him at the TB sanatorium, he proposed, to which she declared she never intended to get married.
Esther recollects a ski trip they had taken together, where Buddy coerced her into tackling a steep slope, resulting in a broken leg. She bitterly recalls Buddy’s dismissive attitude toward poetry:
“‘Do you know what a poem is, Esther?’‘No, what?’ I would say. ‘A piece of dust.’”
This segment of the novel dives into Esther’s relationship with men. She struggles to form genuine connections, often finding herself caught between societal pressures and personal desires.
She’s disillusioned by the double standards of a patriarchal society, where men like Buddy expect their female partners to be pure while they casually indulge in sexual exploits.
Moreover, Buddy dismisses Esther’s literary ambitions as mere hobbies, something to pass time before her “real” duties of marriage and motherhood. The prospect of either horrifies Esther. Her experience at med school, assisting Buddy in dissecting cadavers and delivering a baby, leaves her with a grim view of both activities.
It’s worth noting that Sylvia Plath didn’t have the most favorable experience with men either. In 1956, she married British poet Ted Hughes, who later proved to be disloyal and both emotionally and physically abusive. The couple separated in 1962, a year before Plath’s suicide.
Unearthing the Gem
The time has come to bid farewell to her New York stint. To mark the end of their internship, the magazine arranges a thematic photoshoot, asking each girl to pick an object symbolizing their dreams. Esther, however, finds herself torn about what her future holds and can’t figure out what to choose. Eventually, her boss, Jay Cee, hands her a paper rose, signifying her potential future as a poet. Yet, as the camera clicks, Esther can’t hold back her tears.
On the last night in the city, Esther embarks on yet another blind date arranged by Doreen. She meets Marco, a gentleman from Peru. Initially, Marco charms Esther by offering her a diamond stickpin for the evening. However, the date turns sour quickly.
Marco forces Esther to dance and then later assaults her, pushing her to the ground and ripping her dress. Despite the trauma, Esther musters up the strength to resist and leaves Marco crawling in the mud, searching for his diamond stickpin.
In her hotel room, Esther goes to the rooftop and discards her high-end apparel into the night sky: “Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the nightwind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off […]”. Still in the borrowed clothes and the dried blood on her cheek, she returns home.
Her mother, waiting at the train station, delivers more heartache: Esther’s application to the summer writing program has been rejected. This devastating news paralyzes Esther’s decision-making ability, making her unable to execute any of her alternative summer plans.
Living in the suburb during the summer, her depression continues to deepen. Sleep, food, and reading seem impossible. The only thing keeping her occupied is her increasing obsession with death. As her mother fails to offer any meaningful support, finally, a family physician recommends her to consult a psychiatrist.
Esther’s New York adventure wraps up dramatically. Oddly, she recounts her assault in the same detached way she narrates her other dating experiences. The string of disappointments blurs her emotions. Marco’s diamond stickpin comes across as a mirage of a fantastic life she could lead if she were to bow to the men in her life.
She rejects the illusion. Instead, she decides to abandon the various masks of femininity she’s been trying on in New York. Despite her anticipation to escape the city, her suburban home offers no comfort. In fact, her feelings of isolation and aimlessness amplify.
The lack of empathy and understanding for Esther’s deteriorating mental health from those around her is alarming. They either belittle her or dismiss her condition. It is her family doctor who acknowledges the severity of her despair and advises her to seek professional help.
On the Crest of a Wave
Esther seeks help from psychiatrist Dr. Gordon, hoping to gain an understanding of her ailment. She exhibits severe symptoms of depression, including insomnia, poor hygiene, and a grim fixation on death.
Dr. Gordon, despite his sophistication, doesn’t win Esther’s favor, but her frailty leaves her no choice. After the second visit, Dr. Gordon suggests outpatient electroshock treatments. The suggestion fills Esther with dread, but she consents. The process is cruel and brutal. During the first session, she wonders, “I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.”
As she undergoes more treatments, her narrative turns surreal and fragmented. She feels like she is drifting between consciousness and a dreamlike state. Thoughts of escape frequent her mind. She even tries volunteering at a hospital to pass the time but quickly gives up. She begins researching different suicide methods, learning from conversations and newspaper excerpts.
Then, slowly, she starts to enact her suicidal thoughts. During a beach day with her old friend Jody, she swims out as far as she can. She attempts to strangle herself on her mother’s bed frame at home. She tries cutting herself with a razor in the bathtub, curious about the sensation.
Eventually, she feels prepared for a grave attempt. She locks herself in a basement crawlspace and swallows an entire bottle of sleeping pills. As the pills begin to work, red and blue lights flash in front of her. She feels like a powerful wave is sweeping her away as she loses consciousness.
Although Esther’s attempt to seek professional help creates a glimmer of hope, the harsh treatments by Dr. Gordon only deepen her desperation, making death appear like a logical escape from her anguish.
Esther’s indifferent narration of her suicide attempts shakes the reader’s core, especially considering Plath’s own demise just a month after the novel’s publication, involving sleeping pills.
Under the Glass Dome
Awakening in darkness and confusion, Esther can’t see and assumes she’s blind. The doctor reassures her that her vision will recover, but her mental state seems to remain the same. After breaking a hospital mirror upon seeing her disfigured face, she’s moved to a state medical hospital designed for violent patients. While she finds some humor in the peculiar interactions between the patients and the staff, she continues to resist treatments.
Her salvation comes in the form of Philomena Guinea, the wealthy writer funding Esther’s college scholarship. Concerned for Esther, Philomena arranges her transfer to a private psychiatric hospital. During the drive there, Esther contemplates her depression, “[W]herever I sat – on the deck of a ship or a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
At the private hospital, she takes an immediate liking to Dr. Nolan, the female hospital director. She undergoes insulin shock therapy, a common psychiatric treatment in the 1950s involving an overdose of insulin to induce a temporary coma. The therapy leaves her disoriented and leads to weight gain.
Esther is taken aback when Joan, her classmate and Buddy’s ex-lover, is admitted to the hospital. Joan confesses that she, too, attempted suicide and shows Esther newspaper articles covering her own dramatic suicide attempt.
While Esther and Joan bond during their stay, Joan is far more excited about their friendship. She even hints at romantic feelings towards Esther, which Esther quickly rejects.
Eventually, both Esther and Joan are transferred to the Belsize facility, the most luxurious and least restrictive of the hospital buildings. In exchange for the privilege, Esther undergoes another round of electroshock therapy. Despite feeling betrayed by Dr. Nolan, these treatments are not as brutal as before. She also uses her town privileges to visit a gynecologist and secure a diaphragm.
This part underscores the shortcomings of psychiatric care in the 1950s. Esther is subjected to a variety of therapies that fail to tackle the root of her struggle.
The therapies seem more focused on reducing symptoms and molding her into societal norms. The female figures in Esther’s life – Philomena Guinea and Dr. Nolan – fail to provide any substantial advice on how to live outside society’s expectations.
Reflecting Sylvia Plath’s personal experiences with the psychiatric system, Esther’s journey through these treatments and therapies highlights the temporary alleviation of symptoms, while underlying issues remain unaddressed, leading to several depressive episodes in Plath’s life.
Cornered and Set Free
Esther’s bond with Joan worsens when Joan gets the privilege of moving into an apartment with a nurse, while Esther remains confined in the hospital awaiting the commencement of her college’s winter term.
In an attempt to divert her mind, she pays a visit to Irwin, a mathematician she recently came across. Resolving to finally part ways with her virginity, she decides to sleep with him, armed with her new diaphragm. The encounter proves agonizing. Severe bleeding starts and Irwin has no choice but to rush her to Joan’s apartment. Eventually, the nurse residing with Joan escorts Esther to the emergency room.
The doctor describes Esther’s hemorrhage as a “once in a blue moon” phenomenon. Soon after this distressing incident, Esther receives news of Joan’s suicide by hanging near a frozen lake.
Buddy shows up at the hospital to visit Esther, wanting to find out if there’s something in him that pushes women over the edge. Esther reassures him that he bears no responsibility for Joan’s demise. At Joan’s funeral, Esther experiences a reaffirmation of her will to live: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am I am I am.”
The narrative of The Bell Jar draws to a close with Esther flipping through magazines, awaiting her summon to an interview that will decide her release from the hospital. Dr. Nolan arrives to fetch her, and Esther embarks on her unforeseen future journey filled with newfound optimism.
In this concluding phase, Esther seems to locate some equilibrium as she aligns herself with Dr. Nolan’s advocated trajectory towards normality. This newfound direction at least presents her with an opportunity for sexual independence, which she investigates by adopting contraception and parting ways with her virginity. Her liaison with Irwin signifies Esther’s assertion of her sexual authority and rebellion against societal norms – albeit accompanied by a bloody ordeal.
Joan’s tragic end appears to symbolize Esther’s own demise. In an uncanny manner, it provides a form of emotional purgation for her personal anguish. As Esther walks into the interview room, there’s a glimmer of possible emancipation. Yet, it’s challenging to entirely trust in her sudden metamorphosis.
Given the tragic conclusion to Plath’s life, Esther’s respite could merely be ephemeral. While she now has a wider range of choices, she must still navigate through a dictated, male-dominated society. With the weight of the era’s expectations and pressures, Esther’s success remains an open question.
Unfolding in the 1950s, we follow Esther Greenwood, an accomplished young woman spiralling into the abyss of mental disorder. Amid her summer internship at a trendy New York magazine, Esther begins battling with her identity, societal strains, and gender-oriented anticipations.
She finds herself ensnared within a metaphorical bell jar, detached from the outside world and wrestling with existential dilemmas. After a suicide attempt, she’s committed to psychiatric care, going through multiple rounds of innovative treatments.
Eventually, Esther achieves some steadiness and accepts her psychiatrist’s outlined trajectory towards conventionality. Yet, her recovery seems precarious – the symbolic bell jar is as much a consequence of her depression as it is of the confining society around her.