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

MayaReinholdz, March 29, 2012

The novel, The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath is a fictional autobiography that in many ways mirrors the life of Plath. The main character of the book, Ester Greenwood undergoes similar struggles and feelings that Plath experienced during her lifetime. The setting of the novel is also key in understanding the similarities between Plath and Ester’s character. In the novel, Ester grows up in Boston, as does Plath, both attended prestigious women’s colleges and both want to purse a career in poetry and writing. Both Ester and Plath experience a gradual decent into depression and multiple attempts of suicide due to the experience of failure, oppression of women, and the pressures of society.
The novel is set in the mid 1950’s, a time when women did not have an equal place in society to men. The book begins in New York, where Ester is living for the summer, working on a scholarship as an intern for a fashion magazine. She is living every girl’s dream, yet she isn’t showing it. She doesn’t take in the experience as the other interns do, and instead of helping her grow, it sets her back into her first stages and signs of depression. After New York, Ester moves back home and encounters her first major setback, the denial into a summer writing program. After this, Esters life tailspins downward, and she falls deeper into depression and mental instability. Ester’s physiatrist refers her to a mental institution where she is given shock treatments, traumatizing her and only making her condition worse. After multiple suicide attempts Ester is admitted into the city’s mental hospital. After failing to recover there, she is admitted into a private mental hospital where she is eventually able to slowly make progress towards recovery.
Sylvia Plath uses literary elements such as diction, symbolism and foreshadowing to convey the novels theme. Plath’s writing helps to convey the tone of the novel through her casual, yet intricate style. In the beginning of the book, Ester describes her feelings as “the way a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (3). This interesting diction depicts exactly how Ester feels about her life. She feels as though the world is passing her by, while she is helplessly being tossed along by life’s twist and turns, never grasping ahold of what she really wants for herself. The book’s symbolism comes alive as she falls further into depression and a state of mental instability. Plath uses a bell jar to symbolize Sylvia’s feeling and belief that she is trapped by her mind “under the same glass bell jar” (185). The bell jar is Sylvia’s madness and mental illness trapping her “in the bell jar, blank and stopped as dead as a baby, the world itself is a bad dream” (237), and keeping her from living a normal life. Ester feels trapped by her own emotions, causing her to feel suffocated, leading to her depression and almost successful suicide attempts. Plath also uses foreshadowing to convey the novels major themes and tone. In the beginning of the novel Plath mentions multiple times Ester’s fascination with the Rosenberg’s case and how she “couldn’t get them out of [her] mind” (1). Her curiosity and slight obsession over the details of the Rosenberg case represent her own decent into depression and attempts of suicide. By Plath adding in allusions to the Rosenberg’s death, she is immediately alluding to Ester’s own later attempts to kill herself, and giving the reader insight into what is later to come in the novel. Plath uses all three literary elements of diction, symbolism, and foreshadowing to convey the novel’s tone, depict a larger meaning, and, most importantly, to convey the story’s overall theme.
The major theme that Plath emphasizes in this book is the realization of society’s expectations compared to Ester’s feelings toward her place in society. The novel is set in the 1950’s, a period in which women did not fully have the same place in society as men did. Society is trying to fit Ester into a particular mold of a married woman, whose job is to raise a family and care for the children and a husband. Ester doesn’t want the typical things a woman in the 1950’s is expected to have. Instead, Ester wants a career in writing and editorial, she wants to be independent and free from marriage. This causes her to see only her imperfections compared to “normal society and women”, and causes her to be singled out as different compared to the rest of the women. This theme is meant to recognize the oppression of women during this time. Plath uses Ester as a way to convey her ideas about the role of women in society. As Ester is one-by-one turning away marriage, college, and the “typical” role a woman should play, she is pushing against society even more, creating friction as her oppositions stand. The pressure society put on women to fill a certain role causes Ester to think “[she] had been inadequate all along, [she] simply hadn’t thought about it” (77). The pressure that is placed on Ester to fit into the typical woman role in society causes her to fall into depression, giving her the feeling that she does not fit into the molds of society, nor does she want to. Ester wants to follow her own path, but because of social restrictions and the oppression of women, she instead falls down a road of suicidal depression.
I would definitely recommend this book to all readers. The underlying themes and messages that Plath is conveying are understandable by both male and females from all ages. Sylvia Plath successfully captures the essence of the time period while highlighting the struggles that society was facing. Through diction, symbolism, and foreshadowing Play shows how the oppression of women in the 1950’s society forced some women into despair and depression because to the conforms of society. In this novel, Plath gets the reader to think more deeply of the influence of society’s expectations and the dramatic and deathly impact they can have on people such as Ester and herself.
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