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