Happiness: a complex limitation. Something Sylvia Plath struggled to achieve her entire life and incorporated into her novel The Bell Jar. As we read, we go into the depths of her life and how sexism, a lack of moral support, and her constant feelings of failure cause her to slowly fall into a deep state of depression that dominates her life as she knows it. Esther is a very unstable character which synches with this very unstable novel. Before and after Plath wrote the novel, she attempted suicide many times. It wasn’t until 1963 when the tragedy had finally happened. In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath uses the expectations of young women in the 1950s and further examines Esther Greenwood’s search for self through her first relationship with Buddy Willard and her struggles of depression and the renewal of suffering.
Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of The Bell Jar. She felt she never fit in with the people around her no matter how hard she tried. Yet, she is very intelligent and worked extremely hard. She had just graduated college and won a scholarship to a Ladies Day magazine in New York. Esther, a middle-class girl struggles to keep up with the people around her. She becomes preoccupied with the Rosenbergs, and always seems to have them in the back of her mind. The Rosenbergs were electrocuted but it is unknown why. This was her worst nightmare and couldn’t possibly imagine having that happened to herself. “The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick… I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves. I thought it might be the worst thing in the world.”(1) Esther always had an odd obsession with death. When she heard what had happened, the story was following her everywhere she went, as if it were a ghost. Esther didn’t care about who died as much as she cared how they died. The physical process of the Rosenbergs death is what horrified her the most. Esther had no one to blame for what went on in her mind but herself, but in reality many factors contributed to her madness. One major contribution was the fact that her father died when she was nine years old. The memory of esther’s father resurfaces many times throughout her life. She never got over the fact that her father was dead. Death possess a tight hold on esther which plays a big role in her mental illness.
Buddy Willard, the antagonist of the bell jar. He was Esther’s first and only boyfriend, someone she could finally see a future with. He was incredibly intelligent, outgoing, and attracted people left and right. Although he had all of these great qualities from afar, up close he was hypocritical and felt a sense of masculine superiority. He constantly made esther irrational, insecure, and ignorant. She always felt she had to keep up with Buddys confidence, but mentally and physically she couldn’t. As Esther is trying her best to live up to his expectations, he cheats on her.“What I couldn’t stand was buddy pretending i was sexy and he was pure when really all this time he’d been having an affair with that tarty waitressand must have felt like laughing in my face.” (79) Esther was already very unstable, but now buddy pushed her over the edge and she couldn’t get back up. He was her only hope at fitting in with society in the 1950s of having a husband. Esther had no hope left of herself because of him.
In the 1950s women’s expectations were exceedingly high and hard to accomplish. Esther struggles her whole life as an outcast trying to fit in with the so called “normal”. As she begins her internship, she soon realizes how different her life is compared to the people around her and gets caught up in the pressure. “So poor she can’t afford a magazine. Then she gets a scholarship to college and ends up steering New York in her own private car. Only i wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of the tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” (2, 3). Esther grew up in a small house with little money, not ready for the real world. As she enters the college life she was blessed to have overcome the middle class and received a scholarship. People that live in New York find it thrilling and exciting. Esther finds her new home as dizzying, tiring, and depressing no matter how hard she tries to adjust to her new life. In addition, Esther was a writer but knew she had an entire world waiting for her to explore, she just didn’t know where to start. Plath explains how Esther knew there was great opportunities for herself but could never take initiative because she was never clear on exactly what she was searching for. “When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know. ‘Oh, sure you know,’ the photographer said. ‘She wants,’ said Jay Cee wittily, ‘to be everything.” (24). It seems as if her peers have more faith in her than she does herself. Esther aspires to take on new skills and experiences that she wildly dreamt for. Yet she finds herself doubting her dreams and crippled by indecision which leads her nowhere but uncertainty.
As a woman growing up in Esther’s time period, there was sex roles and strict expectations for men and women. Women had a lot of pressure to get married, be a great wife and stay at home mom. Esther never felt that she was fit to meet these expectations no matter how hard she tried. “One of the causes of Esther’s depression is her worry that she would not make a good wife for all of the following reasons: She cannot cook, stands too tall, does not have the patience, and dances poorly and awkwardly. She feels as if she will never be the person everyone expects her to be.”(novels for students). When reading the novel esther continues to feel displaced in every thing she does. There isn’t simply one thing Esther can say she is good at because she doesn’t have the confidence and continually brings herself down. As the novel continues, Esther attempts to date and finally finds someone she could see herself with. She already has low self esteem and then finds out she had been cheated on.“What I couldn’t stand was buddy pretending i was sexy and he was pure when really all this time he’d been having an affair with that tarty waitress and must have felt like laughing in my face.” (79). Esther finally had the slightest hope that she was finally fitting in with society. When that was quickly taken away from her, she hit rock bottom and couldn’t get out. Esther had no hope left and was left with her questioning everything in her life more than before.
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Bell jar: a bell-shaped glass cover used for covering delicate objects. It symbolizes Esther’s depression and how she is the delicate object that needs to be protected. It distorts her view of life and keeps her isolated with nothing but her thoughts. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t seem to escape. “wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”(135)
Esther was surrounded in her negativity and dullness. She does electroshock therapy and though it cleans her mind, she still feels as if there is a bell jar hovering her, ready for her to fall at any moment.
The very first sentence of the novel explains Esther’s worst fear. The thought of being electrocuted made esther sick. When reading the novel, irony starts to appear when its least expected. As esther’s depression gets worse throughout the story she gets put in a mental institution. She has to face her fears when the people who work at the institution put her through electroshock therapy to help her. “Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like it was the end of the world.(49) Esther felt this was more a punishment than a cure to help her because it was painful and left her lost. She wasn’t intelligent anymore and could barely hold a thought together. “Everytime i tried to concentrate my mind glided off like a skater into a large empty space.” (202)
The irony in the bell jar is not only did Esther’s biggest fear happen to her, but she lost the few remains she had of herself.
Sylvia Plath goes in specific details of Ethers life and her struggles of search for self and sex roles in the 1950s. The time period that the book takes place in makes it harder for Esther to get the help she needs. Expectations of women were higher than ever. The entire book cover to cover is unstable and is unable to grasp a purpose much like esther.