Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors
used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Bell Jar
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.
The Fig Tree
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.
The Beating Heart
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.