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.