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The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath
Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title  The Bell Jar

author  Sylvia Plath

type of work  Novel

genre  Coming-of-age novel; autobiographical fiction

language  English

time and place written  First draft as early as 1957, Cambridge, England; completed in 1962, Devon, England

date of first publication  January 1963, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas

publisher  William Heinemann Limited (1963); Faber and Faber (first edition under Plath’s name, 1966); Harper and Row (first American edition, 1971)

narrator  Esther Greenwood

point of view  First person

tone  Matter-of-fact; cynical; terse; detached; girlish

tense  Past

setting (time)  June 1953–January 1954

setting (place)  New York City; the Boston suburbs; hospitals in and around Boston

protagonist  Esther Greenwood

major conflict  Esther struggles against her oppressive environment and encroaching madness.

rising action  Esther spends a month as a guest editor in New York. When she returns home, she finds herself unable to read, write, or sleep. She receives her first shock treatment, and contemplates methods of suicide.

climax  Esther almost succeeds in killing herself.

falling action  Esther recovers in a city hospital and then in a private mental hospital, where she finds a psychiatrist whom she can trust. After losing her virginity, she prepares to leave the hospital.

themes  Growth through pain and rebirth; the emptiness of conventional expectations; the restricted role of women in 1950s America; the perils of psychiatric medicine

motifs News and fashion media; mirrors; blood

symbols  The bell jar; the fig tree; headlines; the beating heart

foreshadowing  Esther’s semi-suicidal plunge down the ski slopes foreshadows her later, more systematic suicide attempts.