The Bell Jar

by Sylvia Plath

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It is believed that this novel is based largely on Sylvia Plath's life

Summary

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, was written in 1967 and set in that same time period. The story revolves around Esther Greenwood, a smart, successful senior at a prestigious women’s college. When we meet her, she is interning with a fashion magazine in New York and has no idea what she wants to do with her life after graduation. Once she returns home after her internship, she discovers that she is unable to eat, sleep, or write. Esther’s mother is a teacher at a local public college and Esther seems to feel smothered by her. Esther tries to kill herself because she can’t stand the thought of staying with her mother another day and her general unhappiness. However, Esther ends up in a psychiatric hospital when her suicide attempt is unsuccessful. After her suicide attempt and stay at the state psychiatric hospital, she is moved to a private mental institute where she meets her new doctor, Doctor Nolan. Doctor Nolan becomes a mother like figure for Esther and they grow to love each other. Esther’s own mother is seen as the reason for Esther’s mental state. She visits Esther in the hospital, but only makes Esther feel bad. Esther admits that she hates her mother to Doctor Nolan who believes that this realization is the answer to Esther’s recovery. Another step to recovery is Esther losing her virginity. Virginity is a big thing to Esther and she says that she feels like women have all this pressure to be a mother. Esther has no desire to be a mother and she also sees her virginity as something that is hanging over her head as a burden. Doctor Nolan tells her that women don’t have to have children and sends her be fitted for a diaphragm. Doctor Nolan encourages Esther’s strange and dark thoughts throughout the novel which strengthens the bond between the two. After Esther loses her virginity to a man she has no intention of ever seeing again, she decides she is ready to go back for her last year of school.

Motherhood Analysis

Throughout the novel, there were a few mother figures, but the most important are Esther’s biological mother and Doctor Nolan. Esther’s father died when he was nine and didn't have life insurance so her mother had a very hard time making ends meet. We only really see her through Esther’s eyes and Esther clearly despises her mother. Esther does not want to do things a woman is supposed to do like get married and learn shorthand; she wants to travel the world, write poetry, and have adventures. Esther’s mother represents everything Esther doesn't want, but everything she is faced with having. Doctor Nolan is the kind of mother Esther always wanted. Doctor Nolan is successful, has a job that is in a mostly all male profession, and is successful based off of her own ability. Doctor Nolan encourages Esther to be independent, to focus on what she really wants (instead of what the world wants), and encourages her to take chances. It seems that there are two types of women – women who have kids, but are never happy because they didn't reach the goals they had and women who are successful, independent, and single or childless. Esther clearly believes that you cannot be an independent and successful woman when you are unable to pursue your career dreams or have children tying you down which shows that she sees very little value in ever becoming a mother.