The Bell Jar Summary

Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar

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The Bell Jar Summary

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The Bell Jar is a 1963 novel written by American poet Sylvia Plath. The novel, which tells the story of a depressed young woman named Esther Greenwood, is semi-autobiographical and contains many details from Plath’s own life and struggle with mental illness. Originally published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas,” it was released under Plath’s name for the first time in 1967. The novel received mostly positive reviews at the time of its publication, but is widely seen as one of Plath’s darker works since she committed suicide a month after its 1963 release.

The novel takes place in the early 1950s. Esther Greenwood, a talented young college student, has just landed a prestigious writing internship at a fashion magazine in New York. Although Esther should be having the time of her life, she feels a lot of anxiety and keeps thinking about the Rosenbergs, who will be executed that summer for espionage. Esther frets about how terrible death by electrocution must be.

Esther is staying at the Amazon, an all-female hotel, along with the twelve other magazine interns. Her coworkers include Doreen, a sarcastic society girl from the South, and Betsy, a Kansas girl whom Esther nicknames “Polyanna Cowgirl” due to her wholesome demeanor. Esther and Doreen go out for drinks with two young men, and Doreen begins to date one of them. The interns attend a Ladies Day banquet thrown in their honor, but many of them get food poisoning and end up in the hospital.

Esther thinks about her former boyfriend, Buddy Willard, and how she used to love him but now thinks he is a hypocrite. Esther remembers how she asked Buddy, a medical student, to show her videos of babies being born and was horrified at the gory reality of childbirth. She also reminisces about the two of them undressing for each other.After catching tuberculosis, Buddy is sent away to a sanatorium in the Adirondacks. When Esther goes to visit him in the hospital ward, he proposes to her. However, Esther turns down his proposal because she does not wish to get married.

At the magazine, the interns are asked to pose for photographs holding props that show what career they would like to pursue. Esther says that she doesn’t know what she wants to be, to which her boss, Jay Cee, remarks that she wants to be everything. Esther finally decides that she wants to be a poet and is given a long-stemmed paper rose to hold. Before the photographer can take her picture, however, she bursts into tears and starts crying on the couch. Jay Cee brings her some story manuscripts to try to cheer her up.

Just before leaving New York, Esther goes on a date with a Peruvian man named Marco who tries to rape her. When Esther returns to her mother’s house in the Boston suburbs, her mother tells her that she has not been accepted to a writing course at Harvard. Esther’s mother is a single parent who worked long hours to support her. Esther was able to go to college thanks to a scholarship funded by Philomena Guinea, a wealthy older woman. Esther receives a letter from Buddy telling her that he is falling in love with a nurse at the sanatorium, and she writes back that she is engaged to someone else and never wants to see him again.

Due to her worsening depression, Esther decides to start seeing Dr. Gordon, a psychiatrist. However, she does not connect well with Dr. Gordon and stops seeing him after he begins to give her electroshock treatments. Esther’s depression consumes her, and she makes several half-hearted attempts at suicide. She finally makes a serious attempt by taking hundreds of sleeping pills and crawling into the laundry room beneath her house to die. The newspapers speculate about her possible kidnapping before she is eventually found and sent to a private mental institution with the help of her benefactress, Philomena Guinea.

In the hospital, Esther begins psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Nolan, a female psychiatrist who seems to understand her. Dr. Nolan suggests the possibility of electroshock treatment, but reassures Esther that the shocks are peaceful and will not be anything like what she had experienced before. Esther blurts out in a session with Dr. Nolan that she hates her mother, beginning to realize that some of her problems stem from her mother not giving her the space she needs to find herself.

As she begins to improve, Esther is moved to a different ward and given more privileges. One morning, her breakfast is withheld and the nurse tells her that she is scheduled to receive shock therapy that day. Esther feels betrayed by Dr. Nolan, who had promised to tell her beforehand if she were to receive shock treatments. Dr. Nolan tells her that she did not want to keep her up all night worrying, and reassures her that the treatments will be fine. Esther eventually comes to accept the shock treatments, which she receives three times a week.

Dr. Nolan helps Esther schedule an appointment to get birth control pills to relieve her anxiety over having to settle for the wrong man due to an unplanned pregnancy. Exalted by her newfound sexual liberation, Esther decides to lose her virginity. She goes out with Irwin, a man she meets on the steps of the Widener Library at Harvard, and has sex with him. However, her first sexual experience does not go as she envisioned, as she begins to hemorrhage badly from the encounter and ends up going to the hospital. The doctor tells her that she is a one in a million case.

Esther gets ready for her interview before the hospital’s board of directors to determine whether she is well enough to be discharged. She learns that Joan, another patient that she befriended, hanged herself shortly after being released from the hospital. Esther attends Joan’s funeral. She wonders whether her depression will return someday and what her future will be like now that she has spent time in a mental asylum. She prepares for her interview by dressing in “something old, something new” as if she were getting ready to be married.

The main themes of The Bell Jar are mental illness, identity, female sexuality and sexual liberation, women’s roles in society, freedom, and confinement. Esther describes the depression she experiences as a bell jar from which she cannot escape. Her depression stems from anxiety over her future and the limited choices that women have in life. Esther finds all of these choices, including marriage, motherhood, and careers, too confining and wishes to be free. Due to her experiences, she has also come to associate romantic relationships with male oppression and finally begins to feel free when she reclaims her own sexuality.