Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Esther frequently reads newspaper headings and thumbs through magazines. The information that she absorbs from these sources tells us what interests her most: the papers fascinate her with their stories of the execution of the Rosenbergs and a man’s suicide attempt. Periodicals also reinforce the values of mainstream 1950s America. Esther’s mother sends her a pamphlet defending chastity, and in the doctor’s waiting room Esther reads magazines about young motherhood. The power of magazine images to distort and alienate is most obvious when Esther sees a picture of herself in a fashion magazine in the mental hospital and feels the distance between her actual life and the image of glamour and happiness she sees in the magazine.
Esther continually confronts reflections of herself, reflections she often fails to recognize. After her evening with Doreen and Lenny, Esther fails to recognize her own reflection in the elevator doors. After her first shock treatment with Dr. Nolan, she thinks her reflection is another woman in the room. Most dramatically, after her suicide attempt Esther fails to recognize her bruised and discolored face in a mirror, and cannot even tell if the creature she sees is a man or a woman. Esther increasingly struggles to keep the outward self she presents to the world united with the inner self that she experiences. Her failure to recognize her own reflection stands for the difficulty she has understanding herself.
The shedding of blood marks major transitions in Esther’s life. When Marco attempts to rape her, she gives him a bloody nose, and he smears his blood on her like war paint. When she decides to kill herself, she slashes her calf to practice slashing her wrists. When she loses her virginity, she bleeds so copiously that she must seek medical attention. The presence of blood suggests a ritual sacrifice: Esther will sacrifice her body for peace of mind, and sacrifice her virginity for the sake of experience. The presence of blood also indicates the frightening violence of Esther’s experiences. For her, transformations involve pain and suffering, not joy.
More main ideas from The Bell Jar
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