Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Bell Jar tells the story of a young woman’s coming-of-age, but it does not follow the usual trajectory of adolescent development into adulthood. Instead of undergoing a progressive education in the ways of the world, culminating in an entrance into adulthood, Esther regresses into madness. Experiences intended to be life-changing in a positive sense—Esther’s first time in New York City, her first marriage proposal, her success in college—are upsetting and disorienting to her. Instead of finding new meaning in living, Esther wants to die. As she slowly recovers from her suicide attempt, she aspires simply to survive.
Esther’s struggles and triumphs seem more heroic than conventional achievements. Her desire to die rather than live a false life can be interpreted as noble, and the gradual steps she takes back to sanity seem dignified. Esther does not mark maturity in the traditional way of fictional heroines, by marrying and beginning a family, but by finding the strength to reject the conventional model of womanhood. Esther emerges from her trials with a clear understanding of her own mental health, the strength that she summoned to help her survive, and increased confidence in her skepticism of society’s mores. She describes herself, with characteristic humor, as newly “patched, retreaded and approved for the road.”
Esther observes a gap between what society says she should experience and what she does experience, and this gap intensifies her madness. Society expects women of Esther’s age and station to act cheerful, flexible, and confident, and Esther feels she must repress her natural gloom, cynicism, and dark humor. She feels she cannot discuss or think about the dark spots in life that plague her: personal failure, suffering, and death. She knows the world of fashion she inhabits in New York should make her feel glamorous and happy, but she finds it filled with poison, drunkenness, and violence. Her relationships with men are supposed to be romantic and meaningful, but they are marked by misunderstanding, distrust, and brutality. Esther almost continuously feels that her reactions are wrong, or that she is the only one to view the world as she does, and eventually she begins to feel a sense of unreality. This sense of unreality grows until it becomes unbearable, and attempted suicide and madness follow.
Esther’s sense of alienation from the world around her comes from the expectations placed upon her as a young woman living in 1950s America. Esther feels pulled between her desire to write and the pressure she feels to settle down and start a family. While Esther’s intellectual talents earn her prizes, scholarships, and respect, many people assume that she most wants to become a wife and mother. The girls at her college mock her studiousness and only show her respect when she begins dating a handsome and well-liked boy. Her relationship with Buddy earns her mother’s approval, and everyone expects Esther to marry him. Buddy assumes that Esther will drop her poetic ambitions as soon as she becomes a mother, and Esther also assumes that she cannot be both mother and poet.
Esther longs to have adventures that society denies her, particularly sexual adventures. She decides to reject Buddy for good when she realizes he represents a sexual double standard. He has an affair with a waitress while dating Esther, but expects Esther to remain a virgin until she marries him. Esther understands her first sexual experience as a crucial step toward independence and adulthood, but she seeks this experience not for her own pleasure but rather to relieve herself of her burdensome virginity. Esther feels anxiety about her future because she can see only mutually exclusive choices: virgin or whore, submissive married woman or successful but lonely career woman. She dreams of a larger life, but the stress even of dreaming such a thing worsens her madness.
The Bell Jar takes a critical view of the medical profession, in particular psychiatric medicine. This critique begins with Esther’s visit to Buddy’s medical school. There, Esther is troubled by the arrogance of the doctors and their lack of sympathy for the pain suffered by a woman in labor. When Esther meets her first psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon, she finds him self-satisfied and unsympathetic. He does not listen to her, and prescribes a traumatic and unhelpful shock therapy treatment. Joan, Esther’s acquaintance in the mental hospital, tells a similar tale of the insensitivity of male psychiatrists. Some of the hospitals in which Esther stays are frighteningly sanitized and authoritarian. The novel does not paint an entirely negative picture of psychiatric care, however. When Esther goes to a more enlightened, luxurious institution, she begins to heal under the care of Dr. Nolan, a progressive female psychiatrist. The three methods of 1950s psychiatric treatment—talk therapy, insulin injections, and electroshock therapy—work for Esther under the proper and attentive care of Dr. Nolan. Even properly administered therapy does not receive unmitigated praise, however. Shock therapy, for example, works by clearing the mind entirely. After one treatment, Esther finds herself unable to think about knives. This inability comes as a relief, but it also suggests that the therapy works by the dubious method of blunting Esther’s sharp intelligence.