Esther Greenwood is the protagonist and narrator of The Bell Jar. The plot of the novel follows her descent into and return from -madness. The Bell Jar tells an atypical coming-of-age story: instead of undergoing a positive, progressive education in the ways of the world, culminating in a graduation into adulthood, Esther learns from madness, and graduates not from school but from a mental institution.
Esther behaves unconventionally in reaction to the society in which she lives. Society expects Esther to be constantly cheerful and peppy, but her dark, melancholy nature resists perkiness. She becomes preoccupied with the execution of the Rosenbergs and the cadavers and pickled fetuses she sees at Buddy’s medical school, because her brooding nature can find no acceptable means of expression. Society expects Esther to remain a virgin until her marriage to a nice boy, but Esther sees the hypocrisy of this rule and decides that like Buddy, she wants to lose her virginity before marriage. She embarks on a loveless sexual encounter because society does not provide her with an outlet for healthy sexual experimentation. Plath distinguishes Esther’s understandably unconventional behavior from her madness. Even though society’s ills disturb Esther, they do not make her mad. Rather, madness descends on her, an illness as unpreventable and destructive as cancer.
Largely because of her mental illness, Esther behaves selfishly. She does not consider the effect her suicide attempts have on her mother, or on her friends. Her own terrifying world occupies her thoughts completely. Though inexperienced, Esther is also observant, poetic, and kind. Plath feels affection toward her protagonist, but she is unswerving in depicting Esther’s self-absorption, confusion, and naïveté.
Mrs. Greenwood remains in the background of the novel, for Esther makes little attempt to describe her. However, despite her relative invisibility, Mrs. Greenwood’s influence pervades Esther’s mind. Mrs. Greenwood subscribes to society’s notions about women. She sends Esther an article emphasizing the importance of guarding one’s virginity, and while she encourages Esther to pursue her ambition to write, she also encourages her to learn shorthand so that she can find work as a secretary. While Esther worries that her desire to be a poet or a professor will conflict with her probable role as wife and mother, her mother hopes that Esther’s ambitions will not interfere with her domestic duties.
Mrs. Greenwood clearly loves Esther and worries about her: she runs through her money paying for Esther’s stay in the hospital, and brings Esther roses on her birthday. Still, Esther partly faults her mother for her madness, and Plath represents this assigning of blame as an important breakthrough for Esther. When Esther tells Dr. Nolan that she hates her mother, Nolan reacts with satisfaction, as if this admission explains Esther’s condition and marks an important step in her recovery. The doctors decide that Esther should stay in the hospital until winter term at college begins rather than go home to live with her mother. Perhaps Esther hates her mother partly because she feels guilty about inflicting such vast pain on her.
A contemporary reviewer of The Bell Jar once observed that Buddy Willard is a perfect specimen of the ideal 1950s American male. By the standards of the time, Buddy is nearly flawless. Handsome and athletic, he attends church, loves his parents, thrives in school, and studies to become a doctor. Esther appreciates Buddy’s near perfection, and admires him for a long time from afar. But once she gets to know him, she sees his flaws. In what was considered natural behavior in men at that time, Buddy spends a summer sleeping with a waitress while dating Esther, and does not apologize for his behavior. Esther also realizes that while Buddy is intelligent, he is not particularly thoughtful. He does not understand Esther’s desire to write poetry, telling her that poems are like dust, and that her passion for poetry will change as soon as she becomes a mother. He accepts his mother’s conventional ideas about how he should organize his domestic and emotional life. Buddy’s sexuality proves boring—Esther finds his kisses uninspiring, and when he undresses before her, he does so in a clinical way, telling her she should get used to seeing him naked, and explaining that he wears net underwear because his “mother says they wash easily.” Finally, he seems unconsciously cruel. He tells Esther he slept with the waitress because she was “free, white, and twenty-one,” acts pleased when Esther breaks her leg on a ski slope, and, in their last meeting, wonders out loud who will marry her now that she has been in a mental institution.
In some ways, Buddy and Esther endure similar experiences. They both show great promise at the beginning of the novel, and at the novel’s end have become muted and worldly. Buddy’s time in the sanitarium during his bout with tuberculosis parallels Esther’s time in the mental institution. Both experiment with premarital sex. Still, they share few character traits, and Esther must reject Buddy because she rejects his way of life. She will not become a submissive wife and mother and shelve her artistic ambitions.