Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Bell Jar tells the story of a young woman’s coming-of-age, but it does not follow the usual trajectory of adolescent development into adulthood. Instead of undergoing a progressive education in the ways of the world, culminating in an entrance into adulthood, Esther regresses into madness. Experiences intended to be life-changing in a positive sense—Esther’s first time in New York City, her first marriage proposal, her success in college—are upsetting and disorienting to her. Instead of finding new meaning in living, Esther wants to die. As she slowly recovers from her suicide attempt, she aspires simply to survive.
Esther’s struggles and triumphs seem more heroic than conventional achievements. Her desire to die rather than live a false life can be interpreted as noble, and the gradual steps she takes back to sanity seem dignified. Esther does not mark maturity in the traditional way of fictional heroines, by marrying and beginning a family, but by finding the strength to reject the conventional model of womanhood. Esther emerges from her trials with a clear understanding of her own mental health, the strength that she summoned to help her survive, and increased confidence in her skepticism of society’s mores. She describes herself, with characteristic humor, as newly “patched, retreaded and approved for the road.”
Esther observes a gap between what society says she should experience and what she does experience, and this gap intensifies her madness. Society expects women of Esther’s age and station to act cheerful, flexible, and confident, and Esther feels she must repress her natural gloom, cynicism, and dark humor. She feels she cannot discuss or think about the dark spots in life that plague her: personal failure, suffering, and death. She knows the world of fashion she inhabits in New York should make her feel glamorous and happy, but she finds it filled with poison, drunkenness, and violence. Her relationships with men are supposed to be romantic and meaningful, but they are marked by misunderstanding, distrust, and brutality. Esther almost continuously feels that her reactions are wrong, or that she is the only one to view the world as she does, and eventually she begins to feel a sense of unreality. This sense of unreality grows until it becomes unbearable, and attempted suicide and madness follow.
Esther’s sense of alienation from the world around her comes from the expectations placed upon her as a young woman living in 1950s America. Esther feels pulled between her desire to write and the pressure she feels to settle down and start a family. While Esther’s intellectual talents earn her prizes, scholarships, and respect, many people assume that she most wants to become a wife and mother. The girls at her college mock her studiousness and only show her respect when she begins dating a handsome and well-liked boy. Her relationship with Buddy earns her mother’s approval, and everyone expects Esther to marry him. Buddy assumes that Esther will drop her poetic ambitions as soon as she becomes a mother, and Esther also assumes that she cannot be both mother and poet.
Esther longs to have adventures that society denies her, particularly sexual adventures. She decides to reject Buddy for good when she realizes he represents a sexual double standard. He has an affair with a waitress while dating Esther, but expects Esther to remain a virgin until she marries him. Esther understands her first sexual experience as a crucial step toward independence and adulthood, but she seeks this experience not for her own pleasure but rather to relieve herself of her burdensome virginity. Esther feels anxiety about her future because she can see only mutually exclusive choices: virgin or whore, submissive married woman or successful but lonely career woman. She dreams of a larger life, but the stress even of dreaming such a thing worsens her madness.
The Bell Jar takes a critical view of the medical profession, in particular psychiatric medicine. This critique begins with Esther’s visit to Buddy’s medical school. There, Esther is troubled by the arrogance of the doctors and their lack of sympathy for the pain suffered by a woman in labor. When Esther meets her first psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon, she finds him self-satisfied and unsympathetic. He does not listen to her, and prescribes a traumatic and unhelpful shock therapy treatment. Joan, Esther’s acquaintance in the mental hospital, tells a similar tale of the insensitivity of male psychiatrists. Some of the hospitals in which Esther stays are frighteningly sanitized and authoritarian. The novel does not paint an entirely negative picture of psychiatric care, however. When Esther goes to a more enlightened, luxurious institution, she begins to heal under the care of Dr. Nolan, a progressive female psychiatrist. The three methods of 1950s psychiatric treatment—talk therapy, insulin injections, and electroshock therapy—work for Esther under the proper and attentive care of Dr. Nolan. Even properly administered therapy does not receive unmitigated praise, however. Shock therapy, for example, works by clearing the mind entirely. After one treatment, Esther finds herself unable to think about knives. This inability comes as a relief, but it also suggests that the therapy works by the dubious method of blunting Esther’s sharp intelligence.
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.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The bell jar is an inverted glass jar, generally used to display an object of scientific curiosity, contain a certain kind of gas, or maintain a vacuum. For Esther, the bell jar symbolizes madness. When gripped by insanity, she feels as if she is inside an airless jar that distorts her perspective on the world and prevents her from connecting with the people around her. At the end of the novel, the bell jar has lifted, but she can sense that it still hovers over her, waiting to drop at any moment.
Early in the novel, Esther reads a story about a Jewish man and a nun who meet under a fig tree. Their relationship is doomed, just as she feels her relationship with Buddy is doomed. Later, the tree becomes a symbol of the life choices that face Esther. She imagines that each fig represents a different life. She can only choose one fig, but because she wants all of them, she sits paralyzed with indecision, and the figs rot and fall to the ground.
Chapter 16 marks one of Esther’s most debilitating bouts with her illness. In this chapter, headlines are reprinted in the text of the novel. Joan gives Esther actual headlines from articles reporting Esther’s disappearance and attempted suicide. These headlines symbolize Esther’s exposure, her effect on others, and the gap between Esther’s interpretation of experiences and the world’s interpretation of them. First, they show Esther that the public knows about her behavior—she does not act in a vacuum, but in the interested eye of the world. The headlines also demonstrate the power Esther’s behavior has on people who are almost strangers to her. Joan, for example, says the headlines inspired her to move to New York and attempt suicide. Finally, the headlines represent the dissonance between Esther’s experience of herself and others’ experience of her. While Esther sees only pain and swallowing pills in the darkness, the world sees a sensational story of a missing girl, a hunt in the woods, and the shocking discovery of Esther in her own house.
When Esther tries to kill herself, she finds that her body seems determined to live. Esther remarks that if it were up to her, she could kill herself in no time, but she must outwit the tricks and ruses of her body. The beating heart symbolizes this bodily desire for life. When she tries to drown herself, her heart beats, “I am I am I am.” It repeats the same phrase when Esther attends Joan’s funeral.