Read Between the Lines: The Bell Jar

Emily Nash

In high school, teenagers frequently feel as though it’s impossible to uphold a perfect life. They look at each other and wonder how some teens can have it all together, considering how tough high school is. What they may not realize is that things aren’t always perfect beneath the surface. An autobiography about a fictional character by Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, is a perfect illustration of what it is to live with self-inflicting problems while still appearing to have everything under control.

The main character of The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, seems to have a perfect life – she’s attending a well-known women’s college on a scholarship, she’s gotten numerous awards for her poetry and writing pieces, and wins a job for a women’s magazine in New York for an entire month. While it may seem like Esther is living in a perfect world, inside she’s trapped in her own dissatisfaction. Nothing seems to make her happy – she doesn’t like New York, she’s not impressed with the people she’s met, and she doesn’t want to become what the world expects of her and of every other woman in America.

After her month-long trip to New York, Esther returns home to her mother’s house only to find out she has been rejected from a summer school writing course. Not only that, but she also finds out that her boyfriend is having an affair with another woman and isn’t exactly the type of guy that she thought he was. While Esther is trying her hardest to fit in, she always wishes she were elsewhere, and this makes her fall into a deep, dark depression where she is unable to sleep, eat, or write for days.

Although it may not seem like Esther has very many problems, Plath does a magnificent job of portraying how mentally unstable Esther truly is. While Esther seems to be functioning like anyone else, she is still very dissatisfied with her life. While we all want to fit in with what’s going on around us, it may not be what makes some people happy. Having to live in a world that isn’t what you want it to be can definitely be a challenge, especially when you’re pressured into living up to certain expectations. We all have obstacles to overcome at some point in our lives, and Esther tells the reader, “to the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

When Esther’s mother realizes how depressed she’s become, she decides to make her seek psychiatric help. Eventually, her psychiatrist puts Esther in a mental institution where she is given shock therapy that wasn’t administered correctly. Esther tells her mother she refuses to go back, to which her mother says, “I knew you’d decide to be alright again.”

Esther becomes more depressed, even after seeking psychiatric help. She attempts suicide several, first by crawling under her house and taking 50 sleeping pills, then by trying to drown herself in the sea. Esther is sent to a different mental ward and has regular sessions with a different doctor, and is given large amounts of insulin with more electroshock therapy. Her doctor gives her an antidepressant, where she feels as though bell jar is being lifted and setting her free. The novel ends with Esther having an interview with doctors in the hospital to determine whether or not she is prepared to leave the psychiatric ward.

The Bell Jar is a fantastic portrayal of what it is to live with depression for a young woman who doesn’t necessarily want to be a housewife in the 1950’s. Plath does an excellent job getting the reader into the life of Esther Greenwood and making her character relatable, despite her mental problems. Aside from her dealing with depression, Esther is witty, sarcastic, and is genuinely an ethical person. Esther seeks hope at the end of the novel and thinks, “There ought to be a ritual for being born twice–patched, retreaded and approved for the road.”