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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Bell Jar!