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The Bell Jar Summary

The Bell Jar Summary

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Setting

The novel is set in New York City; Boston and its surrounding suburbs.

Main Characters

Esther greenwood- she is an honors student, frequent prizewinner, and a talented poet. Esther develops serious mental illness while working in New York one summer and spends the next half year gradually working her way back to health with the help of multiple psychiatrists after attempting suicide.

Buddy Willard- he is Esther’s handsome boyfriend who is a self-congratulating, know-it-all doctor who grows subdued after contracting TB.

Mrs. Greenwood- she is Esther’s mother who is nervous and conservative. Mrs. Greenwood advises Esther to learn shorthand and stay abstinent while she is healthy and when Esther gets sick, worries that it is her own fault.

Doreen- she is Esther’s friend in New York and the sexiest, worldliest rule-breaker among the contest winners. Doreen is always trying to get Esther to abandon her responsibilities.

Joan Gilling- she is A horsy girl from Esther’s college who briefly dates Buddy, then emulates Esther’s suicide attempt and joins her at the private asylum.

Jay Cee- she is the fiction editor at the magazine Esther works for in New York and Esther’s boss.

Betsy- she is a wholesome Kansan and Esther’s fellow contest winner who looks out for her in New York.

Plot Summary

In the summer of 1953, Esther Greenwood, a brilliant college student, wins a month to work as a guest editor with eleven other girls at a New York magazine. Esther lives with the other girls at the Amazon, a woman’s hotel, and attends a steady stream of events and parties hosted by the magazine. Though Esther knows she should be enjoying herself, she feels only numb and detached from the old ambitious self that her boss, Editor Jay Cee, tries to motivate. Esther is indecisive between wanting to be wholesome, like her friend Betsy, and wanting to break all rules, like her friend Doreen. She worries about the rigid expectations of virginity, maternity, and wifeliness that society holds for young women and feels paralyzed by her contradictory desires for her own future.

Throughout her time in New York, Esther flashes back to her troubled relationship with Buddy Willard, a handsome, know-it-all medical student who Esther once admired and is now disgusted by after realizing Buddy is a hypocrite for projecting a virginal public image even after he has had a sexual affair. Buddy is currently suffering from TB, but Esther plans to break up with him as soon as he gets better. On her last visit to the sanatorium, she rejects Buddy’s marriage proposal and breaks her leg skiing.

Back at home near Boston, Esther is rejected from a writing course she had planned to spend the rest of the summer taking. Stuck at home in the suburbs, Esther’s mental illness turns into suicidal depression. She stops bathing or changing her clothes. She tries to write a novel and fails and loses the ability to sleep, read, write, or eat. She lies about her identity to every stranger she meets. She sees Dr. Gordon, an unsympathetic psychiatrist who prescribes and then incorrectly administers electric shock treatment. Esther tries to kill herself in a variety of unsuccessful ways before hiding in a crawlspace under her house and taking fifty sleeping pills.

Esther is found and rescued and wakes up in a hospital. Facing her own horrific reflection in a mirror, she does not recognize herself. Esther is soon moved to the psychiatric ward of the city hospital where she is paranoid, uncooperative, and still suicidal. Eventually, the wealthy novelist Philomena Guinea, who has sponsored Esther’s college scholarship, decides to sponsor her to move to a private asylum, where Esther is treated by the compassionate Dr. Nolan and enjoys comforts and freedoms that the city hospital lacked. The doctors arrange to cut off Esther’s steady stream of judgmental visitors who have been exhausting Esther with their advice and inaccurate theories about depression. Joan Gilling, Esther’s college friend, also ends up at the asylum after emulating Esther’s suicide attempt. Through a combination of analysis, insulin injections, and correctly administered electric shock therapy, Esther improves and begins to contemplate going back to her old life.

As her condition improves, Esther earns more freedom to come and go from the asylum and she uses these privileges to buy a diaphragm and to lose her virginity in a one-night stand with a math professor, Irwin. With the encouragement of Dr. Nolan, Esther has learned to embrace her independence as a woman and shake off the stifling social expectations she used to feel constrained by. Unfortunately, though Esther expects her loss of virginity to be a revelation, it results in painful hemorrhaging. Later, she discovers Joan having an affair with another patient, DeeDee, and thinks about lesbianism, which she has no attraction to. Soon afterward, Joan hangs herself. Buddy visits Esther at the asylum and Esther gets closure on their relationship. Esther feels stable and prepares to return to college, though she knows the bell jar of mental illness could descend on her again at any time.

Themes

  1. Personal Ambition. Throughout The novel, Esther struggles to determine her personal ambitions and much of her growth by the novel’s end owes to her clarified view of what she wants from herself and from her life. Esther has spent her life winning grants, scholarships, and prizes, and excelling in academia.
  2. Medicine. The Bell Jar surveys various medical practices in 1950s America and considers their effectiveness. Buddy embodies the ideals and attitudes of modern medicine at the time. He is active, physically fit, hardworking, committed to science, dismissive of the arts, and extremely unemotional.