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The Bell Jar: Critical Analysis

Nowadays, many literary critics tend to discuss the semantic meaning of Sylvia Plath’s novel “The Bell Jar” from strictly environmentalist perspective – that is, they refer to Esther Greenwood’s mental inadequateness as the result of novel’s protagonist being exposed to America’s “male chauvinistic” socio-political realities in time when women’s ability to gain social prominence used to be limited by their gender affiliation. And, in support of such their claim they usually quote Esther’s following remark: “I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not” (Plath 66). Moreover, some critics go as far as suggesting that Esther’s mental problems have arisen out of her realization that male and female psyches are not only different, but that the particularities of men’s perception of surrounding reality inevitably force women into submission. In its turn, this brings them to the conclusion that Esther’s suicidal leanings were nothing but a form of protagonist’s conscious protest against male “sexism”. For example, in her article “The Feminist Discourse of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar”, Emily Miller Budick refers to Esther’s inability to come to terms with objective reality as something that should deserve our admiration, simply because in author’s eyes, feminine concepts of “spirituality” and sappy “emotionalism” represent much bigger existential value, as compared to the notions that we traditionally associate with manliness – logic and rationality: “Esther retreats from the language that abbreviates and shrinks and kills, to a language that, like the language of botany, breathes fascination and sustains life. She immerses herself in villanelles and sonnets which, in their complex metaphoricity, represent retreat from the concrete, abbreviated world of physics and chemistry” (Budick 885). While agreeing with suggestions that Esther’s mental inadequacy represents a rather complicated psychiatric case, we nevertheless do not agree with those critics who think of Plath novel’s main character as “feminist martyr”. And the reason for this is simple – Esther herself refers to her psychological anxieties as being of clearly pathological nature: “The sickness rolled through me in great waves. After each wave it would fade away and leave me limp as a wet leaf and shivering all over and then I would feel it rising up in me again” (Plath 150). Therefore, “The Bell Jar” cannot really be discussed as a literary work that contains clearly defined socio-political statements, but rather as a literary account of one’s descent into madness. The fact that, while growing ever-more mentally unstable, Esther philosophizes on the subjects of art, poetry and gender equality, does not give us a right to think of her as being a particularly progressive individual.

The close reading of Plath’s novel reveals the fact that Esther is not being emotionally alienated from such socially defined constructs as marriage or family. In fact, she subconsciously strives to achieve conventional happiness by continuing to remain in relationship with Buddy Willard, even though she becomes increasingly detached from him, as time goes by. It is turn, this provides us with the insight onto the very essence of feminism as a social phenomenon – the reason why feminists ridicule the idea that women are biologically predestined to give birth to children, as their foremost priority, is because while being females, in physiological sense of this word, they possess masculine mindset. Therefore, such feminist concepts as “women’s liberation” or “gender egalitarianism” cannot be thought of as being rationally objective. By promoting these concepts, feminists simply try to conceal their biologically defined mental abnormality, which is being caused by excessive amounts of testosterone running through their veins, and also to gain what they feel they lack the most – a sense of existential identity. In her article “The Deathly Paradise of Sylvia Plath”, Constance Scheerer suggests that Plath’s obsessively suicidal thoughts were nothing but extrapolation of author’s inability to assess surrounding reality from gender-based perspective: “The deathly paradise is deathly not only because it affirms death instead of life but also because it swallows up purpose and individuality. Its ultimate affirmation is a negation. Thus, Plath’s search for an identity means the search for non-identity. The discovery of purpose discloses that there is no purpose” (Scheerer 470). Whatever the sexist following suggestion might sound, it does not deprive it of its validity – it is namely the fact that Esther has been doing little too much thinking on subjects she could not possibly comprehend, due to her age, which speeded up her descend into madness, instead of allowing her to gain a fame of writer, as she originally hoped.

Therefore, it was not simply by an accident that the time when Esther had attained “freedom from marrying the wrong person”, coincided with the time when she realized that she could neither read nor write anymore: “When I took up my pen, my hand made big, jerky letters like those of a child, and the lines sloped down the page from left to right almost diagonally, as if they were loops of string lying on the paper” (Plath 106). Apparently, the fact that she decided to break off with Willard, who was ridiculing her poetic aspirations, did not help Esther a whole lot, on the way of becoming literator. Therefore, it will only be logical on our part, to refer to the feminist idea of “women’s liberation from male oppression” as not being necessarily productive, simply because – as Esther’s story suggests, there are no objective preconditions for mentally disturbed women, who nevertheless believe in their individualistic exclusivity (“I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters”), to be able to leave a mark in history.

Despite the fact that Esther tried to justify her unwillingness to consider the “mediocre” life of a wife and mother by resorting to a variety of different excuses, her intellectual stance, in regards to the concept of marriage, signified Esther’s disrespect of fundamental laws of nature. And, as we are all aware of, there is only one price for violating such laws – sickness, death and destruction. This is exactly the reason why the theme of death and sickness is being featured in “The Bell Jar” with such prominence. In her article “A Ritual for Being Born Twice: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar”, Marjorie Perlof makes a perfectly good point when stating: “The plot of The Bell Jar moves from physical sickness (the ptomaine poisoning) to mental illness and back to the physical, culminating in Esther’s hemorrhage. The arrangement of incidents implies that all illness is to be viewed as part of the same spectrum: disease, whether mental or physical, is an index to the human inability to cope with an unlivable situation” (Perlof 520). The problem is – Esther had consciously created such an “unlivable situation”, by running into assumptions about men, in general, simply because she was unlucky enough to meet Willard and Marco. It is very ironic that, as it appears from Plath novel’s context, had Esther been brought up in normal family, she would never experience any unhealthy psychological anxieties, later in her life.

Therefore, we can say that “The Bell Jar” may very well serve as another proof as to the fact that it is quite impossible to expect children that are being brought up in incomplete families, to grow into psychologically stable individuals. Thus, while recognizing the problematic subtleties of Esther interaction’s with men, we are far from referring to her as some kind of “tragic heroine”. Suicidal people should be allowed to do just about anything they want with their lives; however, under no circumstances should they be idealized as “tragic figures” who were being misunderstood by “wicked” society – after all, there is only some much oil, gas and food on the planet, but so-called “human resources” are fully renewable.


Budick, Emily “The Feminist Discourse of Sylvia Plath’s the Bell Jar”. College English. 49. 8 (1987): 872-885.

Perloff, Marjorie “A Ritual for Being Born Twice: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar” Contemporary Literature. 13.4 (1972): 507-522.

Plath, Sylvia “The Bell Jar”. London: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2000.

Scheerer, Constance “The Deathly Paradise of Sylvia Plath”. The Antioch Review. 34. 4 (1976): 469-480.


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