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The Bell Jar is a novel written by Sylvia Plath.

Characters

  • Esther Greenwood - The protagonist and narrator of the novel, she has just finished her junior year of college. Esther grew up in the Boston suburbs with her mother and brother. Her father died when she was nine years old. Esther is attractive, talented, and lucky, but uncertainty plagues her, and she feels a disturbing sense of unreality.
  • Mrs. Greenwood - Esther's mother, she has had a difficult life. Mrs. Greenwood lost her husband when her children were still young. Because her husband had inadequate life insurance, she struggles to make a living by teaching typing and shorthand. Practical and traditional, she loves Esther and worries about her future, but cannot understand her.
  • Buddy Willard - Esther's college boyfriend, he is an athletic, intelligent, good-looking man who graduated from Yale and went to medical school. Buddy cares for Esther but has conventional ideas about women's roles and fails to understand Esther's interest in poetry. He represents everything that, according to society, Esther should want but does not.
  • Doctor Nolan - Esther's psychiatrist at the private mental hospital. Esther comes to trust and love Dr. Nolan, who acts as a kind and understanding surrogate mother. Progressive and unconventional, Dr. Nolan encourages Esther's unusual thinking.
  • Doreen - Esther's companion in New York, a blond, beautiful southern girl with a sharp tongue. Esther envies Doreen's nonchalance in social situations, and the two share a witty, cynical perspective on their position as guest editors for a fashion magazine. Doreen represents a rebellion against societal convention that Esther admires but cannot entirely embrace.
  • Joan Gilling - Esther's companion in the mental hospital. A large, horsy woman, Joan was a year ahead of Esther in college, and Esther envied her social and athletic success. Joan once dated Buddy, Esther's boyfriend. In the mental ward, Esther comes to think of Joan as her double, someone with similar experiences to Esther's whom Esther does not particularly like, but with whom she feels an affinity.
  • Jay Cee - Esther's boss at the magazine, an ambitious career woman who encourages Esther to be ambitious. She is physically unattractive, but moves self-confidently in her world. She treats Esther brusquely but kindly.
  • Betsy - A pretty, wholesome girl from Kansas who becomes Esther's friend when they both work at the magazine. Esther feels she is more like Betsy than she is like Doreen, but she cannot relate to Betsy's cheerfulness and optimism.
  • Constantin - A UN simultaneous interpreter who takes Esther on a date. Handsome, thoughtful, and accomplished, he seems sexually uninterested in Esther, who is willing to let him seduce her.
  • Marco - A tall, dark, well-dressed Peruvian who takes Esther on a date to a country club. Marco expresses dashing self-confidence, but also a hatred of women. Violent and sadistic, he believes that all women are sluts.
  • Irwin - Esther's first lover, he is a tall, intelligent, homely math professor at Harvard. Irwin is charming and seductive but not particularly responsible or caring.
  • Doctor Gordon - Esther's first psychiatrist, whom she distrusts. He is good-looking and has an attractive family, and Esther thinks him conceited. He does not know how to help Esther, and ends up doing her more harm than good.
  • Philomena Guinea - A famous, wealthy novelist who gives Esther a scholarship to attend college and pays for Esther's stay in the private mental hospital. She is elderly, generous, and successful.
  • Mrs. Willard - A friend of Esther's mother and the mother of Esther's sometime-boyfriend, Buddy Willard. Mrs. Willard, who feels protective of her son, has traditional ideas about the roles men and women should play.
  • Lenny Shepherd - Doreen's love interest, Lenny is a New York DJ and smooth older man. He wears cowboy-style clothes and has a cowboy-style home.
  • Eric - A past acquaintance of Esther's with whom she had her most open conversation about sex. He is a southern prep school boy who lost his virginity with a prostitute and now associates love with chastity and sex with behaving like an animal.
  • Dodo Conway - The Greenwoods' neighbor, Dodo is a Catholic woman with six children and a seventh on the way. She lives unconventionally, but everyone likes her.
  • Jody - A friend of Esther's, with whom she is supposed to live while she takes a summer writing course. Jody is friendly and tries to be helpful, but cannot reach Esther.
  • Valerie - A friend of Esther's in the private mental hospital. Valerie has had a lobotomy, and is friendly and relaxed.

Plot

Symbolism

The Bell Jar

The bell jar is an inverted glass jar, generally used to display an object of scientific curiosity, contain a certain kind of gas, or maintain a vacuum. For Esther, the bell jar symbolizes madness. When gripped by insanity, she feels as if she is inside an airless jar that distorts her perspective on the world and prevents her from connecting with the people around her. At the end of the novel, the bell jar has lifted, but she can sense that it still hovers over her, waiting to drop at any moment.

The Fig Tree-

Early in the novel, Esther reads a story about a Jewish man and a nun who meet under a fig tree. Their relationship is doomed, just as she feels her relationship with Buddy is doomed. Later, the tree becomes a symbol of the life choices that face Esther. She imagines that each fig represents a different life. She can only choose one fig, but because she wants all of them, she sits paralyzed with indecision, and the figs rot and fall to the ground.

Headlines

Chapter 16 marks one of Esther's most debilitating bouts with her illness. In this chapter, headlines are reprinted in the text of the novel. Joan gives Esther actual headlines from articles reporting Esther's disappearance and attempted suicide. These headlines symbolize Esther's exposure, her effect on others, and the gap between Esther's interpretation of experiences and the world's interpretation of them. First, they show Esther that the public knows about her behavior—she does not act in a vacuum, but in the interested eye of the world. The headlines also demonstrate the power Esther's behavior has on people who are almost strangers to her. Joan, for example, says the headlines inspired her to move to New York and attempt suicide. Finally, the headlines represent the dissonance between Esther's experience of herself and others' experience of her. While Esther sees only pain and swallowing pills in the darkness, the world sees a sensational story of a missing girl, a hunt in the woods, and the shocking discovery of Esther in her own house.

The Beating Heart

When Esther tries to kill herself, she finds that her body seems determined to live. Esther remarks that if it were up to her, she could kill herself in no time, but she must outwit the tricks and ruses of her body. The beating heart symbolizes this bodily desire for life. When she tries to drown herself, her heart beats, “I am I am I am.” It repeats the same phrase when Esther attends Joan's funeral.

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