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Esther Greenwood, a talented and sensitive young woman who is living in a world in which talented and sensitive women are urged to be wives, mothers, fashion hounds, and experts at taking short hand.
Esther Greenwood’s society is the clearest protagonist, specifically in its parceling out of so few fulfilling roles for women like Esther.
Esther attempts suicide. She is discovered and put in a psychiatric hospital where she must work on resolving her issues in order to heal herself.
Esther finds a way to exist as a writer in her society. She writes her autobiography.
SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The Bell Jar begins at the Amazon, a women’s hotel in New York. Esther Greenwood is one of twelve young women who has won a prize to live in New York and write for a women’s fashion magazine. Esther does not fit into the world of high fashion. She is from a small town in the suburbs of Boston and her family has been relatively poor. She becomes friends with another outcast sort named Doreen. She and Doreen exist on the fringes of the fashion magazine activities. One night, Esther and Doreen go to a bar with a man who is attracted to Doreen. Esther ends up getting drunk and walking home alone. When Doreen comes home, Esther realizes she does not want to be her friend any more. Esther’s supervisor, the fiction editor of the magazine, tries to encourage Esther to apply more energy to her career, but Esther finds it impossible to do very much. She begins to feel as if she does not have a direction in her life. What she has always wanted to do, go to graduate school and then become a professor who also writes poetry, is no longer attractive to her. She knows she wants to be a writer, but she can see no way to do it in her society.
Esther is also in conflict over her relation to men. She has been dating one man from her home town, Buddy Willard, but no longer even likes him. She feels the need to be with men, but gets little pleasure out of their company and feels as if no one really sees her for who she is. On the last night of her New York stay, Esther goes on another of a series of blind dates. Her date attempts to rape her. She gets away from him and gets back to the hotel. She takes all the clothes that have been given to her as promotional advertisements for the magazine and throws them off the roof of the Amazon hotel.
Back home with her mother, Esther faces a summer with nothing to do. She had been hoping to get into a writing seminar with a famous writing, but was rejected. She thinks of writing a novel, but cannot stick to it. Her mother urges her to learn shorthand, but Esther hates the idea of serving a man in any capacity. Esther becomes more and more depressed as the days go by. She stops sleeping and finds that she can neither read nor write. Her family doctor sends her to a psychiatrist who gives her outpatient shock therapy. The session is botched, traumatizing Esther and pushing her further into a search for a solution.
She constantly thinks of suicide, fascinated with the sensational newspaper accounts of suicides, murders, and sex crimes. She can only read this kind of newspaper and books on abnormal psychology. She decides to commit suicide by slitting her wrists, but her thinking is so distorted by the lack of sleep that she keeps failing in her calculations of how to go about it. She goes to her old home town, where her family lived when her father was still alive. She visits his grave and realizes she never mourned his death. She weeps intensely over his grave. The next morning, she takes an overdose of sleeping pills and hides herself in a hole in her mother’s basement.
She wakes up in a hospital. She is severely physically damaged in a number of ways from the overdose and the days spent in the hole in the basement. She feels completely paranoid about the doctors in the hospital. Her mother manages to get her to a private hospital. Her benefactor is the same woman who sponsored her scholarship in college, a writer of romance fiction. In the private psychiatric hospital, she is treated by a competent woman doctor and gradually recovers. She undergoes insulin shock treatment and then electroshock treatment, this time, done properly and effectively. She learns how to deal with her issues around her mother and her issues around being a woman in a patriarchal society. When the new term for college begins, Esther is released from the hospital.