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The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

What is the significance of the Rosenbergs’ execution in the novel?

Esther’s summer in New York is supposed to be one of carefree pleasure, but newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts keep the execution of the Rosenbergs at the forefront of her mind. Esther does not see 1950s America as a reasonable, moral place, but a façade hiding darkness and suffering such as the impending execution of the Rosenbergs. The Rosenberg case was controversial for political reasons. Some felt that the Rosenbergs’ guilt was questionable and their sentence too harsh, others that in order to combat Communism, spies must receive harsh punishment. However, Esther does not mention the politics of their case. Instead, the machinery and physical process of their deaths fascinates and horrifies her. Esther’s obsession with the Rosenbergs represents her general obsession with death.

2.

What reasons does the novel give for Esther’s madness?

The novel avoids attributing Esther’s mental illness to external factors, and blames it on a mysterious and powerful inward force. A number of factors exacerbate Esther’s condition: she lost her father when she was a child, her mother fails to understand her, she comes from a poor family, and she feels great and crushing pressure to succeed. Contradictions in the culture that surrounds her also aggravate Esther’s madness. As a young, talented woman in 1950s America, she is encouraged to be independent and self-sufficient, but is also expected to become a submissive wife and mother. Along with identifying marriage and motherhood as signs of achievement, society also defines female success by physical attractiveness and a home filled with lovely possessions, but Esther feels the emptiness of the fashion magazine world she inhabits in New York. Both personal difficulties and the problems of being an intelligent, sensitive woman plague Esther and fan the flames of her mental illness.

3.

In what way is The Bell Jar a coming-of-age story?

The Bell Jar revolves around Esther’s journey of self-discovery. She experiences some of the typical milestones of young womanhood: her first wedding proposal, her first sexual experience, and her first time in a big city. Esther becomes acutely aware that the college phase of her life is about to end and that she must make decisions about her future lifestyle and career. But Esther’s journey does not smoothly progress toward positive self-knowledge and a growing exercise of her own abilities. Instead, she suffers a breakdown, and madness disrupts her coming-of-age. By the end of the novel, Esther feels as if she has been put back together to face the world, but she must live from now on with the memory of her insanity, and with the threat of its return. In this sense, The Bell Jar could be understood as an anti-coming-of-age story.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. What role does Esther’s memory of her father play in the story?

2. Choose a poem by Sylvia Plath and relate its imagery to the imagery of The Bell Jar.

3. The Bell Jar is both a true story and a novel. Describe the ways in which Plath selects and presents the episodes that she describes to give her narrative dramatic shape.

4. There are several recurring images in the novel, such as the bell jar, the dead baby, and the fig tree. Select one of these images and trace its occurrence from the beginning of the novel to the end, describing how its meaning evolves.

5. How does Esther’s attitude toward men change over the course of the novel? What role does this attitude play in her madness and recovery?

6. When Esther tells Dr. Nolan that she hates her mother, Dr. Nolan interprets this statement as a breakthrough in Esther’s recovery. What role does Esther’s mother play in her insanity? What does Esther’s attitude toward her mother tell us about Esther herself?

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