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.