CliffsNotes on Plath's The Bell Jar

By Jeanne Inness | Go to book overview

About The Bell Jar

Until the 1970s, American literature did not have a great many female heroines in its works of fiction, and too few of them had been created by women authors. We had Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Faulkner’s and Sherwood Anderson’s young girls and women; Hemingway left us the unforgettable Bret Ashley, but none of these characters came from the pens of women. Cather gave us Ántonia, but this heroine seemed to be an idealized romantic “other” of Cather herself. Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers gave us memorable figures, but who were they in relation to their authors? Perhaps the most personal, intimate insights to come from an American woman author had come from the poetry of Emily Dickinson and from Kate Chopin in her novel The Awakening, a piece relegated to obscurity until recently. But there were no women counterparts to Huck Finn; there were no women Gatsbys or Holden Caulfields, or Christopher Newmans.

There were, in short, no women writers creating women characters who spoke their minds; we had no parallels to Jane Austen’s Elizabeth; no American women were telling their readers what it is/was like to grow up in this vast and complex culture. If we are to understand the American female, using the idea that women themselves tell us what their lives are like and how they think and feel, we certainly need more fictional characters with more candor and insight and the courage to reveal themselves.

It is probably this vacuum in American literature that made The Bell Jar’s protagonist so popular. Esther Greenwood: she is a college girl, a good student, a talented writer, and a fashion magazine contest winner; she is the well-bred oldest child in a typical family with two children, a clever games player, a semi-liberated budding intellectual, and a sexually confused late adolescent. Finally, she is a mental patient.

Esther lives in New England; she grows up in the 1930s and 40s, arrives in New York City just before her last year in college, and works on an apprenticeship for a fashion magazine. The year is 1953, before the popularity of the birth control pill, before women’s liberation, and before all the major social movements of the 1960s. Esther Greenwood has achieved success in her academic endeavors and has won prizes for her writing. But her future and her female role are not clearly laid out for her. Indeed, how is she supposed to fuse her scholastic success with being a truly “feminine” creature of her era? That is a very real problem for Esther. She is plagued by her “fig-tree” metaphor/concept, in which each “ripe fig” represents a different female role, and Esther cannot pick just one. As a result, she is afraid that they will all shrivel and drop off the tree before she can decide which one to choose.

Esther reaches maturity in the early 1950s in an America where women’s roles were rigidly assigned. Basically, American women fell into two groups: the good girls and the bad girls. Good girls married well and had 2.5 children, possibly more but not too many more. They kept nice houses, cooked proper, nutritious, and economical meals, went to PTA meetings, and, in general, were dutiful “wives.” If they were successful in life, they became very much like Mrs. Eisenhower, or Mrs. Nixon, or Doris Day. The bad girls, in contrast, were sexy, bosomy, probably blonde, and they did not marry proper lawyers and doctors and politicians. They might, if they were clever, become lesser Marilyn Monroe types. Then there were also a group of women who were not really considered women. These were the spinsters and librarians and social workers and old maid school teachers. These intelligent women, these Ethel Rosenbergs (cited by Esther in the first paragraph of the novel), were doomed in society. They were not classified as good or bad because they did not “play the game” for male attention.

Thus, the good girls and the bad girls were classified and identified in terms of their relationship to men and society; they were not given value in terms of their own personalities, talents, and endeavors. Esther Greenwood is terribly aware of this problem of being shoved by society into an “either/or” situation. This dilemma is portrayed in New York City through the characters of Doreen (the “bad” girl) and Betsy (the “good” girl). The one startling characteristic that Esther has is that she intends to defy any role or life path that will pigeonhole her into being one kind of woman or another. Esther Greenwood wants to be herself, and to be an individual. She wants her American birthright, which is why she keeps saying over and over, “I Am I Am I Am.”

But this task she has set for herself is overwhelming. How can she integrate the good girl, the “A” student, with the fashion-conscious, man-teasing young lady? How can she integrate the innocent, pure young woman who loves cleanliness with the young woman who has intense sexual desires? How can she integrate the person who wants to be a poet with the person who wants to be a mother? How can she integrate the young woman who wants to travel and have many lovers with the one who wants to be a wife? And as Esther proceeds, at a rapid pace, first through her terms at college, then on to New York City, the center of the sophisticated chic world, she becomes more and more frightened that she will not be able to pick only one role, one “fig.” This is tragic because there are no successful, interesting whole women to encourage Esther to pick all the “figs” she can.

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CliffsNotes on Plath's The Bell Jar
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Table of Contents 1
  • Book Summary 2
  • About the Bell Jar 4
  • Character List 6
  • Summary and Analysis 8
  • Character Analysis 26
  • Critical Essays 39
  • Study Help 50
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