The Bell Jar (1963) follows the story of Esther Greenwood, a talented young woman who secures a coveted internship at a New York fashion magazine during the summer of 1953. But Esther feels trapped by the gender roles and societal expectations of the time, and soon spirals into a deep depression from which there seems to be no escape.
Introduction: Look under the bell jar of 1950’s womanhood.
Table of Contents
The Bell Jar is the only novel Sylvia Plath ever wrote. But that’s not the only thing that makes it special. Published just one month before Plath’s tragic suicide, the novel was heavily inspired by its author’s own life.
Protagonist Esther Greenwood is a talented young writer who has just secured an internship at a New York fashion magazine. But despite her best efforts, she finds herself adrift in the big city, unable to fit into the limiting gender roles of her time.
The Bell Jar’s confessional exploration of social norms and mental health were groundbreaking at the time. The story endures as a modern literary classic – in this summary, we’ll find out why.
A quick note before we begin: This summary contains descriptions of sexual violence, depression, and suicide, so please proceed with care. For a very short summary, you can skip right to the end.
A queer, 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.”
So begins The Bell Jar – narrated by its protagonist, Esther Greenwood.
Esther is a young, talented writer spending the summer of 1953 in New York City. Along with eleven other college-age girls, she’s won a coveted internship at fashion magazine Ladies’ Day. As an aspiring poet from the suburbs of Boston, this should be an exciting opportunity.
Yet Esther can’t seem to feel the excitement. The other girls appear to have it all figured out, and Esther feels increasingly alienated from them.
She’s fascinated and appalled by Doreen, a cynical society girl who prefers partying over studying. One night, Esther tags along when Doreen is picked up by a DJ at a bar. But she ends up alone and depressed in her empty hotel room. When Doreen comes knocking late at night and blacks out in her room, Esther resolves to stick to girls like Betsy.
Betsy is Doreen’s wholesome antithesis. She’s a cheerful, innocent Midwestern sweetheart. Betsy seeks out Esther’s friendship; ambivalent, Esther keeps finding excuses to avoid her.
She finds temporary solace in the fancy gifts and dinners paid for by the magazine. After one of these dinners, she and the other girls end up suffering from terrible food poisoning. Now it’s Doreen who ends up taking care of Esther by feeding her soup.
The first chapters of The Bell Jar delve into Esther’s inner conflicts and her strained relationship with the world around her. The story closely follows Plath’s own experience as an undergraduate in 1953, when she won the chance to be a guest editor at New York fashion magazine Mademoiselle.
Plath draws on this context to paint a vivid picture of New York City, its people, and the fashion scene. The theme of fashion as a costume is a potent metaphor for Esther’s quest for identity.
Unlike cynical, sexy Doreen and sweet, innocent Betsy, Esther does not readily fit into the female archetypes of the time – which is reflected in her mixed feelings toward the two girls.
In her quest to find out who she’s supposed to be, Esther often resorts to lying. For instance, she tells men who try to flirt with her that her name is “Elly Higginbottom” from Chicago.
Esther’s detachment will become a growing obstacle over the course of the novel. Her frequent mention of the Rosenbergs – the first Americans to be executed for treason during peacetime – is the beginning of a morbid obsession with death.
Buddy Willard, the hypocrite
While she’s recovering from food poisoning, Esther receives a phone call from Constantin, a UN interpreter she’s been set up with on a blind date. Esther is immediately annoyed by Constantin’s mannerisms – they remind her of her former romantic interest, Buddy Willard. Nonetheless, she agrees to go on a date with him.
They visit the UN, have dinner, and then end up at Constantin’s apartment. Esther decides to let him seduce her to “get back” at Buddy, but Constantin fails to make a move. Esther once again ends up lonely and depressed in her hotel room, where she reflects on her conflicted relationship with Buddy.
Esther adored Buddy for years before they began dating. But once they started going out, her interest almost immediately evaporated.
First, she discovered that Buddy had also dated her classmate Joan. Then, during a visit to Yale medical school, where Esther helped Buddy dissect cadavers and deliver a baby, she learned that he’d had sex with another woman before. Esther was shocked at this “hypocrisy,” as Buddy and most other men at the time expected pureness from their female companions.
But before she could break up with him, Buddy contracted tuberculosis and was sent off to a sanatorium. Esther stayed with him, partly out of pity and partly so she wouldn’t have to explain their breakup to others. Buddy glossed over Esther’s mixed feelings. And then, when she visited him at the TB sanatorium, he asked her to marry him – to which she retorted that she never wanted to get married.
Esther thinks about a ski trip they took together, where Buddy coerced her into going down a steep slope and she ended up breaking her leg. With bitterness, she also 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 part of the novel dives into Esther’s relationship with men. She has difficulties forming genuine connections and often feels trapped between societal pressures and her personal desires.
Above all, she’s disillusioned by the double standards of patriarchal society. Buddy and other men expect virginal “pureness” from their female partners, but freely sleep around themselves.
On top of that, Buddy regards Esther’s literary ambitions as nothing but a hobby before her real jobs in life: marriage and motherhood. To Esther, the idea of either is terrifying. When she visits Buddy at med school, she finds little difference between dissecting cadavers and delivering a baby.
Unsurprisingly, Sylvia Plath didn’t have the best experience with men herself. In 1956, she married British poet Ted Hughes, who turned out to be unfaithful as well as emotionally and physically abusive. The couple separated in 1962, just a year before Plath’s suicide.
A diamond in the dirt
After one month in New York, Esther’s internship comes to a close. As a last goodbye, the magazine arranges a photoshoot for the girls. Each of them is supposed to hold an object representing their ambitions. But Esther is so unsure about her future, she can’t decide what to pose with. Her boss, Jay Cee, finally hands her a paper rose – it’s meant to represent her future as a poet. But when the photographer takes her picture, Esther begins to cry.
On this final night in New York, Esther goes on another blind date. Doreen has arranged for her to meet a Peruvian man named Marco. At first, Esther is pleasantly surprised by Marco, who hands her a diamond stickpin to hold on to for the night. But the date quickly turns into a nightmare.
First, Marco forces Esther to dance with him. Later outside, he assaults her, pushing her to the ground and tearing her dress. Esther manages to fight back and leaves Marco crawling for his diamond stickpin in the mud.
Back at her hotel, Esther goes to the roof and throws her expensive clothes off the building: “Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the nightwind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off […]” She takes the train home in borrowed clothes, with the dried blood from the assault still on her cheek.
Her mom picks her up at the train station with bad news: Esther didn’t get into the summer writing program she’d applied to. Esther is devastated. She fantasizes about alternative summer plans but is unable to follow through with any of them.
Spending her summer trapped in the suburbs, her depression only deepens. She has trouble sleeping, eating, and reading – and nurses a fascination with death. Her mother fails to offer much guidance or understanding. Finally, a family doctor refers Esther to a psychiatrist.
Esther’s stay in New York ends dramatically. Strangely, she describes her sexual assault as cooly and distantly as all her other date experiences. In her apathetic state, it seems like just another escalation in a series of disappointments. The diamond stickpin that Marco gives her is like a false promise of the beautiful life she could have – if only she conformed to the will of the men around her.
But she doesn’t take the bait. Instead, she feeds her clothes to the nightwind, throwing out all the versions of womanhood she tried on in New York. She actually seems excited to leave the city. But there’s little solace to be found back home in the suburbs – in fact, her sense of alienation and listlessness only increases.
Esther’s deteriorating mental state doesn’t garner sympathy from those around her – just condescension, invalidation, and a lack of understanding. Her family doctor is the one who recognizes the urgency of her despair and advises her to seek professional help.
In one sweeping tide
Esther visits psychiatrist Dr. Gordon, hoping for a diagnosis that will explain her condition. At this point, she exhibits symptoms of extreme depression, including sleeplessness, bad personal hygiene, and a morbid fixation on death.
Esther immediately dislikes the suave Dr. Gordon, but she’s too weak to oppose him. After her second visit, Dr. Gordon suggests electroshock treatments as an outpatient, and Esther reluctantly agrees. The treatments prove to be brutal. During her first session, Esther finds herself grappling with her fate: “I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.”
As the treatments continue, Esther’s narrative becomes dreamlike and disjointed. She seems to slip in and out of conscious experience. She thinks about running away. She tries to volunteer at a hospital to fill her time, but quits almost immediately. She begins contemplating different methods of suicide, collecting information from conversations and newspaper clippings.
Then, timidly at first, she begins to act out her suicidal ideations. One day at the beach with her old friend Jody, she swims as far out as possible. At home, she tries to strangle herself on her mother’s bed frame. In the bathtub, she cuts herself with razors to see what it feels like.
Eventually, she feels ready to make a serious attempt. She locks herself in a crawlspace in the cellar of her home and consumes a full bottle of sleeping pills. As the pills begin to take effect, red and blue lights flash before her eyes. As she passes out, Esther feels like she’s being swept away by a great tide.
Although there’s a spark of hope when Esther seeks professional help, Dr. Gordon’s brutal treatments only exacerbate her sense of desperation. Death begins to seem like a natural solution to her inner pain.
Like Esther, Plath made her first suicide attempt when she was only 20 years old – with several others to follow. In her famous poem Lady Lazarus, she writes about having to die nine times, like a cat.
Esther’s detached description of her suicide attempts are some of the most gut-wrenching parts of The Bell Jar – especially in light of Plath’s own death involving sleeping pills just a month after the novel’s release.
The bell jar
Esther awakens in darkness, confused and unable to see. She believes she’s gone blind, but the doctor assures her that she’ll recover. Her mental state hasn’t seemed to improve. Upon seeing her disfigured face, she breaks a hospital mirror.
As a result, she’s transferred to a state medical hospital with a special ward for violent patients. Esther finds some humor in the bizarre interactions between the patients and the staff there. But she continues to resist the doctors’ treatments.
Her escape arrives in the form of Philomena Guinea, the wealthy writer paying for Esther’s college scholarship. Philomena is worried about Esther, and arranges for a transfer to a private psychiatric hospital. During the car ride 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, Esther quickly takes a liking to Dr. Nolan, the female hospital director. This time, she receives insulin shock therapy – a common psychiatric treatment during the 1950s, where patients were injected with excess insulin to produce a temporary coma. The treatments leave Esther disoriented and struggling with weight gain.
Esther is taken by surprise when Joan, her classmate and Buddy’s former fling, is admitted to the hospital. Joan tells Esther she tried to commit suicide too. She also shares newspaper clippings chronicling Esther’s dramatic suicide attempt.
Esther and Joan become hospital buddies. But, as usual, Joan is more enthusiastic about the friendship than Esther. At one point, she even hints that she has romantic feelings for Esther. In disgust, Esther rejects her.
Eventually, Esther and Joan are both allowed to move to the Belsize facility – the fanciest and least restrictive of the hospital buildings. Esther pays the price by undergoing another round of electroshock therapy. Despite feeling betrayed by Dr. Nolan, the electroshock treatments don’t seem as cruel to her as before. She also uses her town privileges to visit a gynecologist and buy a diaphragm.
In this section, the shortcomings of psychiatric care in the 1950s become apparent. Esther undergoes several fancy treatments, but they do little to address the underlying causes of her struggle.
Instead, they’re meant to alleviate symptoms and mold her into societal norms. The female characters surrounding Esther – including Philomena Guinea and Dr. Nolan – ultimately lack the wisdom to advise her on how to live a life outside of society’s expectations.
This part of the story reflects Sylvia Plath’s experience in the psychiatric system. After her first suicide attempt, Plath was institutionalized and received electric and insulin shock treatments. While they seemed to alleviate her symptoms temporarily, Plath suffered several other major depressive episodes throughout her life.
Trapped and released
Esther’s relationship with Joan deteriorates further when Joan is allowed to move into an apartment with one of the nurses. Esther, on the other hand, has to stay at the hospital as she waits for the winter term of her college to begin.
To distract herself, she visits Irwin, a mathematics professor she recently met. She decides to finally lose her virginity and sleep with him, using her new diaphragm. The experience turns out to be incredibly painful. Esther starts bleeding heavily, and Irwin has to drive her to Joan’s apartment. The nurse living with Joan eventually takes Esther to the emergency room.
The doctor explains that the type of hemorrhage Esther has suffered is a “one in a million” occurrence. Shortly after this trauma, Esther learns that Joan has hanged herself near a frozen pond.
Buddy then visits Esther at the hospital; he wants to know if there’s something about him that drives women crazy. Esther assures him that he had nothing to do with Joan’s suicide. At Joan’s funeral, Esther finds herself affirming her own life: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am I am I am.”
The Bell Jar ends with Esther leafing through magazines, waiting to be called into an interview that will determine her release from the hospital. Dr. Nolan comes to get her, and Esther steps into her uncertain future with a sense of refreshed hope.
In this final section, Esther appears to find some stability as she embraces the path toward normalcy advocated by Dr. Nolan. This new direction at least offers her a chance at sexual freedom, which she explores by using contraception and losing her virginity. Sleeping with Irwin becomes a means for Esther to assert control over her sexuality and defy societal constraints – even if it comes with a bloody sacrifice.
Joan’s suicide becomes a stand-in for Esther’s own death. In a strange way, it’s a kind of catharsis for her own pain. As Esther enters the interview room, there’s a sense of potential liberation. And yet it’s hard to fully believe in her miraculous transformation.
Given how Plath’s life ended, Esther’s relief may just be temporary. She has more options now, but she still has to walk the paths of a prescriptive, patriarchal society. Faced with the pressures and expectations of the time, it’s uncertain whether Esther will be able to prevail.
Set in the 1950s, it follows the story of Esther Greenwood, a talented young woman who descends into mental illness. During a summer internship at a fashion magazine in New York, Esther begins to struggle heavily with her identity, societal pressures, and gendered expectations.
She finds herself trapped in a figurative bell jar, isolated from the outside world and grappling with existential crises. After a suicide attempt, she’s placed in psychiatric care, undergoing several rounds of experimental treatments.
Esther eventually gains some stability and accepts the path toward normalcy outlined by her psychiatrist. And yet her recovery seems fragile – the figurative bell jar is as much a product of her depression as of the restrictive society around her.
About the Author
Psychology, Society, Culture
“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath is a semi-autobiographical novel that explores the mental and emotional breakdown of its protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Set in the 1950s, the book delves into Esther’s experiences as a young woman struggling with her identity, societal pressures, and her descent into mental illness. Plath’s poignant and introspective writing offers a raw and honest portrayal of the challenges faced by women in that era, as well as the complexities of mental health.
“The Bell Jar,” written by Sylvia Plath, is a remarkable and deeply affecting novel that provides a gripping account of a young woman’s journey through the labyrinth of her own mind. Plath’s semi-autobiographical narrative draws heavily from her own experiences, infusing the story with an authenticity that lingers long after the final page.
The book introduces us to Esther Greenwood, a talented and ambitious college student who wins a summer internship at a prestigious magazine in New York City. However, as Esther immerses herself in the glamorous world of the city, she begins to feel increasingly disconnected from her true self. Plath’s vivid descriptions and evocative language paint a vivid picture of Esther’s internal struggles and her growing sense of alienation.
Esther’s descent into mental illness is portrayed with remarkable clarity and sensitivity. Plath masterfully captures the gradual unraveling of Esther’s mind, as the weight of societal expectations, gender roles, and personal insecurities bear down on her. The titular “bell jar” becomes a powerful metaphor for Esther’s suffocating sense of confinement and isolation, as she feels trapped beneath an invisible barrier, unable to escape the oppressive forces that surround her.
Plath’s prose is both poetic and unflinchingly honest. Her writing style is characterized by a keen attention to detail and a profound insight into the human psyche. Through Esther’s narrative, Plath explores themes of identity, sexuality, mental health, and the constraints imposed on women in the 1950s. The book serves as a poignant critique of the prevailing societal norms and the limited options available to women during that time.
One of the most remarkable aspects of “The Bell Jar” is Plath’s ability to create a deeply empathetic and relatable protagonist. Esther’s struggles resonate with readers on a profound level, as she grapples with feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and the overwhelming pressure to conform. Plath’s unflinching portrayal of Esther’s inner turmoil allows readers to empathize with her experiences and reflect on their own struggles with identity and societal expectations.
“The Bell Jar” is not an easy read, as it confronts difficult themes and explores the depths of human suffering. However, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece of literature that offers a profound and thought-provoking exploration of the human condition. Plath’s ability to blend her personal experiences with her poetic talent creates a narrative that is both haunting and beautiful.
In conclusion, “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath is a powerful and emotionally charged novel that leaves a lasting impact on its readers. Through Esther Greenwood’s journey, Plath tackles important societal issues while delving into the complexities of mental illness and the quest for self-identity. This book is a must-read for those seeking a deep and introspective exploration of the human psyche, as well as an appreciation for Plath’s exceptional literary talent.