Look what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can’t afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.
This quotation, which concludes the first section of Chapter 1, describes the disconnect Esther feels between the way other people view her life and the way she experiences her life. By all external measures, Esther should feel happy and excited. She has overcome her middle-class, small town background with luck, talent, and hard work, and her reward is a glamorous month in New York. Although she recognizes these objective facts, Esther feels uncertain both about her own abilities and about the rewards that these abilities have garnered her. To her own puzzlement, she does not find New York thrilling and romantic. Instead, she finds it dizzying and depressing, and she finds the fashion world she inhabits superficial and disorienting. The feeling of numbness that Esther describes here is the kernel of the madness that will soon overtake her. Eventually, the gap between societal expectations and her own feelings and experiences becomes so large that she feels she can no longer survive.
When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue. Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another. I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.
This quotation from Chapter 7 shows that Esther inhabits a world of limited sexual choices. Convention dictates that she will remain a virgin until she marries. If she chooses to have sex before marriage, she risks pregnancy, displeasing her future husband, and ruining her own name. Esther sets out to defy conventional expectations by losing her virginity with someone she does not expect to marry. Despite this firm goal, she finds it difficult to gain an independent sexual identity. The men in her life provide little help: Buddy has traditional ideas about male and female roles even though he has mildly transgressed by having an affair with a waitress; an acquaintance named Eric thinks sex disgusting, and will not have sex with a woman he loves; and Marco calls Esther a slut as he attempts to rape her. When Esther finally loses her virginity, she does not experience the “spectacular change” that she expects, although the experience does satisfy her in some says. Esther only partially escapes the repressive ideas about sexuality that surround her. By losing her virginity, she frees herself of the oppressive mandate to remain pure, but she fails to find sexual pleasure or independence.
[W]herever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.
This quotation, from the beginning of Chapter 15, introduces the symbol of the bell jar. Esther explains that no matter where she goes, she exists in the hell of her own mind. She is trapped inside herself, and no external stimulation, no matter how new and exciting, can ameliorate this condition. The bell jar of Esther’s madness separates her from the people she should care about. Esther’s association of her illness with a bell jar suggests her feeling that madness descends on her without her control or assent—it is as if an unseen scientist traps her. Esther’s suicidal urges come from this sense of suffocating isolation.
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.
This quotation comes from the last chapter of the novel, in which Esther attempts to draw some conclusions about the experiences she has undergone. Her mother suggests that they treat Esther’s madness as if it were a bad dream that can be forgotten. This quotation records Esther’s inward response; she feels that madness is like being trapped in a bad dream, but it is a bad dream from which one cannot awake. Esther likens the person who suffers from mental illness to the pickled fetuses she saw at Buddy’s medical school, a morbid connection that illustrates the terror of madness.
How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?
This quotation, also from the last chapter of the novel, provides the final word on Esther’s supposed cure. The bell jar has lifted enough that Esther can function more or less normally. She has relinquished her desire to kill herself, and she begins to form tenuous connections with other people and with the outside world. But Esther still feels the bell jar hovering above her, and worries that it will trap her again. Her madness does not obey reason, and though she feels grateful to have escaped from it, she does not believe that this escape represents a fundamental or permanent change in her situation. If we read The Bell Jar as partly autobiographical, Plath’s own life story confirms that the bell jar can descend again. Just as the pressures that culminated in her late teens drove Plath to attempt suicide, the pressures that culminated in her early thirties drove her to commit suicide.