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The Bell Jar (P.S.) by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar (P.S.)

KatieEW27, May 1, 2009

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream”(237). Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar captivates readers with the story of a young woman’s unexpected spiral into depression. Esther Greenwood falls apart when she seems to have the whole world at her fingertips. The purpose of this work is to demonstrate the unexpectedness of psychological disorders and to prove they can affect even the most privileged people. Everyone can appreciate this work, but women may find it more intriguing as it comes from a female’s perspective and one of the triggers for her downfall is the relationships with and the expectations of men. Overall, this is a fascinating novel, but leaves the reader with unanswered questions.
The novel opens with Esther in New York City. “We had all won a fashion magazine contest by writing essays and stories and poems and fashion blurbs, and as prizes they gave us jobs in New York, expenses paid, and piles and piles of free bonuses”(3). As she seems to be living a fabulous life of a young socialite, moments of unhappiness are revealed. After talking to her boss one day she states, “I felt very low… and I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer”(29). She has multiple flashbacks about her “boyfriend” Buddy Willard and other men she encountered. While recalling Buddy she thinks, “I discovered quite by accident what an awful hypocrite he was, and now he wanted me to marry him and I hated his guts”(52). Her breakdown begins in New York but intensifies as she comes back home to the Boston suburbs for the summer. She is taken to an unfeeling and traumatizing psychiatrist where her depression only worsens. She is then sent to another psychiatric hospital where she is under the care of a kind female doctor, Dr, Nolan. Even with the loving understanding of the new doctor, Esther still feels like she is trapped, watching the world instead of joining it. “The air of the bell jar wadded round me and I couldn’t stir”(186). Throughout the novel she has flashbacks of Buddy, her family, and other instances that occurred during her life. These memories reveal some possible reasons for her psychological breakdown. The events that happen to Esther define the themes of the work.
The themes of this novel are particularly important because they are the reasons for Esther Greenwood’s depression. The major themes of this novel are the pressure of expectations of others, particularly pressures put upon women, and undefined depression. There was pressure put on Esther, a lot of it coming from herself, to be successful in school, to get the best grades, and to take the hardest courses. There was also a contrasting pressure to give it all up to become a wife and mother. At one point, she is talking to Buddy about how she did not want to have to choose just one thing, and he then calls her neurotic for her desire. She responds with, “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time then I’m neurotic as hell!”(94). She hated the double standard between men and women and was upset by the tendencies of men to do whatever they pleased while she was expected to remain pure until marriage. “Now I saw he had only been pretending all this time to be so innocent”(70). All of these expectations and pressures built up until she fell into a deep depression. This depression is undefined because there is no one singular event that triggers it. Her downfall is almost casual and it is only by looking into her past that some events could be seen as causes, such as the death of her father or her unpleasant experiences with men. Back home in Boston, she comes to a realization about her father’s passing. “Then I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death”(167). This adds to her already broken emotional state. Here was a girl that seemed to have everything, but was unhappy because she could not escape her past and was unsure about reality. These powerful themes create an extremely intriguing work.
Overall, this novel is very interesting. The nonchalant way she slips into depression is striking and addicting. This story is relatable because many people have been overwhelmed by pressures and expectations at some point in their lives. At one point she thinks about moving to Chicago and changing her name to shake her judgmental surroundings. “Nobody would know I had thrown up a scholarship at a big eastern women’s college and mucked up a month in New York and refused a perfectly solid medical student for a husband”(132). This is just one incident where it is obvious the pressure of expectations becomes overwhelming. However, this work can be hard to follow because the timeline jumps around a lot, and there are pieces of time that are missing altogether. The flashbacks reveal a lot of necessary background information, but can be confusing as to when they occurred. For example, Esther talks about how much she hates Buddy Willard, but then she is visiting him at his college.“I had kept begging Buddy to show me some really interesting hospital sights, so one Friday I cut all my classes and came down for a long weekend and he gave me the works”(63). The one drawback is that the ending leaves the reader wanting more. There are multiple questions raised in the final pages but there are no real answers. This novel suggests that psychological disorders can happen to anyone, even those with seemingly endless opportunities. The author’s use of a sympathetic tone throughout the text makes Esther seem not as crazy as her ideas are almost rationalized because the reader can see the pain she has experienced.
The idea of undefined depression that Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar exhibits is fascinating because a young woman with so much going for her completely breaks down. Though the book is at points confusing, it keeps the reader interested. The only disappointing part is the unfinished ending, but it should not stop someone from reading this profound work.
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