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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath-Free Study Guide-MonkeyNotes Online BookNotes
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Plath plots The Bell Jar based on the moves that her protagonist makes. She first travels to New York, where she enters a world which from home seemed glamourous and wonderful, but from New York seems empty and exploitative. Next, she travels back home to her motherís house, located in a suburb of Boston. There she is situated squarely in the middle of normative American life in all its boredom and constrictions. Then, she travels to Walton for her outpatient electric shock treatment. This experience sends her on a series of wandering expeditions, one of which is to the seaside town where her family had lived when her father was still alive. After she attempts suicide, she travels first to the city hospital and then to the private psychiatric hospital in the suburbs of New England. Even there, she travels. The hospital is organized on an ascending scheme from illness to health, from Wymark to Caplan to Belsize and then back to the world. Esther never goes to Wymark, but she always fears having to. Last, she will travel to her college.

In organizing her novel on a series of journeys, Plath is able to show her protagonistís society and how she is placed in it.


The primary theme of the novel is a feminist one, but it is closely related to the theme of madness and sanity. The Bell Jar focuses on the crazy making society of its protagonist. If a woman is ambitious and talented, she will find no place in the society of the 1950s. The norm is tyrannical. The norm is represented by Mrs. Willard, a woman who preaches the idea that a womanís place is in service to a man. Since the narrator can find no man suitable to her in sentiment or goals, she begins to feel as if she has no place in her society. She begins to question her goal of being a poet and she has an emotional breakdown. Plath links the two Themes--womenís self-determination and sanity--in Estherís steady work on regaining her emotional health.

There are many kinds of feminism. Plath is writing at the beginning of whatís called the second wave of feminism, the first wave being during the struggle for the vote in the early 1900s. Itís hard for people today to realize what kinds of things were normal back in the 50s. For instance, women were not allowed to get a loan at a bank without a father or husband co-signing. Unmarried women were not allowed to get birth control. Many universities were not open to them. If they went to college, it was expected that they were only going to find a husband and that after college, they would become housewives.

Hence, when Esther takes her college education seriously and studies hard, her colleagues in the dorm ostracize her and say she is wasting her "golden college years." Hence, the women who live at the Amazon in New York are working as secretaries only so long as it takes to find a husband. Estherís mother cannot imagine a higher goal for her than secretary, able in both shorthand and English. She completely discounts Estherís plans to become a poet. Women were also expected to be the guardians of chastity. Massive amounts of propaganda made them believe that if they had sexual feelings-- especially if they acted on them--they were bad, and were called fallen women, and they would never experience marital bliss.

Men, on the other hand, enjoyed the double standard which gave them the task of being experienced with sex. There was some talk of menís chastity, but it was not the dominant voice. Esther feels ambivalently about this double standard. She thinks Buddy should be a virgin if he acts innocent as if he were, and she gets very angry when she finds out he is not. On the other hand, when she decides to have sex with Erwin, she is glad that he is promiscuous since it makes him experienced. She never re-examines this logic in light of her unsatisfying experience with him. Plathís feminism, then, is one for middle-class European-American women. Its goals are self-determination of body, mind, and financial state. It doesnít take into account the special concerns of women of color or poor women. This would come with the feminism of the 1980s.

The second theme of the novel concerns madness. Because of the gender segregation of patients, all the images of madness in the novel are of women. Moreover, they are all middle-class women, either bored, frustrated housewives or college women. This has been the primary clientele of psychiatry from its founding. Women placed in dysfunctional roles often go crazy. The role of housewife for many is dysfunctional. It provides no societal status, it provides no pay, it isolates women inside their houses, it makes for a huge divide between women and their husbands as concerns education, goals, and interests, and little support is available to women working in their homes. Esther has not yet been placed in that dysfunctional role, but she is being pushed hard to enter it by almost everyone in her society.

Even in the private hospital, Esther doesnít fit in with the other women. As an intellectual, she thinks differently from these women. While they are still concerned with their cheating husbands and debutante daughters, Esther is concerned with learning to practice birth control so she can have sex without the burden of worry over pregnancy. Esther is lucky in getting a feminist psychiatrist in Doctor Nolan. Doctor Nolan is the most positive character in the novel aside from Esther. She nurtures Esther, gives her time away from her mother, is honest and forthright with Esther, and helps her get birth control.

Thus, Plath skillfully connects the theme of feminism and mental health in her novel The Bell Jar. Even the title can relate to both themes. Women being placed in a constricted role in society live as if in a bell jar, able to see the outside world of exciting work and self-determined men, but unable to live it. People suffering from emotional illness are also living as if under a bell jar. Isolated from others and unable to escape the distortions of their view of the world.

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