You are on page 1of 5

Samantha Reichstein

Aaron Moore
ENG 314L
6November2014
Recovery or Defeat in The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plaths The Bell Jar focuses on the bildungsroman of Esther Greenwood, a
character that loses mental control of her life then eases back on the track of stability. However, a
more accurate perception of these events occurs through Esther experiencing not a recovery, but
a defeat. Refuting the idea of feminine independence, Esthers compliance towards a patriarchaldominated society proves the only option in achieving a state of normality. Plath achieves this
idea of defeat by revealing Esthers hatred towards the stereotyping of women, yet providing the
only acceptance from society through conforming to feminine ideals.
Esthers general perception of the female stereotype proves anything but pleasing.
Among the twelve other girls chosen for her summer internship, Esther finds no true personality
within any of them. The only aspirational connection towards a female character forms through
her boss, Jay Cee. Described as a contrast towards the fashion magazine gushers, Jay Cee, had
brains, so her plug ugly looks didnt seem to matter . . . she knew all the quality writers in the
business. 1 Esthers motivations in life prove very different than those of the women around her.
While she strives for brains and professional success such as Jay Cees, incongruity between
Esthers wants and societys needs introduce an overwhelming inner-conflict. This indifference
proves not something new, but is a pattern throughout different points of Esthers memories.
Esthers mothers projects wants of a feminine lifestyle onto Esther: She was always on me to
learn shorthand after college, so Id have a practical skill as well as a college degree. 2 Plaths
choice of the word practical in describing shorthand belittles the practicality of Esthers
1 Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (Great Britain: HarperCollins Publishers, 1971), p 6.

Reichstein

college degree altogether. Esthers mother sees Esthers intellectual ambitions as something
unrealistic to success. Shorthand however, a skill of secretarial sortsimplying a job fit for a
womanproves one in which Esther not only gains social approval, but a man as well. Though
seemingly a square peg in the round hole of her society, Esthers disregard for womens
inferiority may lack support, but nonetheless remains inside the mind of a collected person. She
earns herself an impressive summer internship, shows stellar academics, and receives numerous
scholarships and prizes. As long as Esther keeps a firm belief in what she wants, she remains in
control of the decisions her life chooses to take.
The moment of Esthers initial spiral begins once she realizes the harsh reality that her identity
can no longer exist. As her mother aggressively tells her she did not make the writing course,
Esthers narration mirrors the start of her mental and emotional downfall: All through June the
writing course had stretched before me like a bright, safe bridge . . . [now] a body in a white
blouse and green skirt plummet into the gap. 3 With the safe haven of academics and a writing
profession vanishing in an instant, Esther loses grasp of the one thing keeping her sane: a belief
in her feminine independence. For years the idea of inferiority controlled Esthers life, yet her
academic drive and professional ambitions pushed that belief out of her mind, allowing herself to
define her gender. Losing her standpoint on her own identity yet incapable of latching on to the
social norm, Esther Greenwoods overwhelming losses form, a slowly-sinking life preserver to
which she can only cling helplessly. 4 Esther begins to lose herself completely; she claims she

2 Plath, 40.
3 Plath, 115
4 Tsank, Stephanie. 2010. The Bell Jar: A Psychological Case Study. Plath Profiles Vol. 3 p.
166. EBSCOhost (accessed November 5, 2014).

Reichstein

cannot sleep, proves incapable of writing a simple letter, and even decides to drop her honors
program as her future hangs from its final strings. With no firm ideal to cling to, Esther cannot
function in society as a normal human being. Esthers depression proves certainly misunderstood
by her mother, who momentarily gloats, I knew youd decide to be alright again,5 after leaving
Dr. Gordons hospital. This lack of understanding continually leads Esther down deeper and
darker points of life, to where her darkest spiral, unsuccessfully committing suicide, lands her in
a mental hospital.
Esthers solution to her mental downfall proves to be not in making a recovery, but in accepting a
defeat she knows all too well. Throughout her time at both Caplan and Belsize, Esthers
conformity towards a hierarchy with women coming second provides the only example of
gaining acceptable mental clarity. After Esther complies with Dr. Nolans request for shock
therapy, the results of the treatment give her emotions society wants her to feel, versus the
unacceptable thoughts that flooded her mind before. Stuck in a haze of happiness, Esther loses
the wit of her mind, recalling, I tried to think of what I had loved knives for, but my mind
slipped from the noose of the thought and swung . . . in the center of empty air. 6 Esthers
general acceptance towards a treatment she originally found sickening begins to shape her
thought process into a more societally acceptable one. Her ability to let go of her preconceived
notions and conform to the environment around her brings positive attention to her, which she
rarely received beforehand. The therapeutic haze showcases the acceptable attributes of women
at this time: blissfully ignorant. Telling Esther shock therapy will continue dependent on actions,
Dr. Nolans motives blur the line between truly helping her and providing a treatment in which
5 Plath, 145.
6 Plath, 216.

Reichstein

Esther can live passively, yet acceptably. Awaiting her final consultation, Esthers conformity
towards societys attitude of women shines more clearly than ever before. Before entering,
Esther mutters to herself, Something old, something new . . . But I wasnt getting married.
There ought to be a ritual for being born twice. 7 Esthers final thoughts resemble an idea that
her actions do not prove herself recovered, but are simply indulging into patriarchal society to
please those around her. Relating her rebirth to marriage, Esther shapes herself into the woman
society has wanted her to become all along. Simply giving in to all the pressures she once
rejected8, Plath reinvents a character fitting societys norm, and therefore fits the acceptable
framework of mental stability. Esthers defeat of her independent ways and conformity towards
acceptable womanly attributespassivity and marriagecreate a character society claims is
truly recovered, yet proves truly defeated in her original beliefs.
The representation of recovery in Plaths The Bell Jar contradicts simply a change of heart.
Esther Greenwoods morals and beliefs turn towards what majority deems as acceptable,
therefore refutes true improvement. Showcasing the control society forces on its civilians, the
defeat of Esther Greenwoods true aspirations confirms a sad a sad truth that majority acceptance
outweighs individual representation.

7 Plath, 244.
8 Bonds, Diane S. 1990. The separative self in Sylvia Plaths The Bell Jar. Womens Studies
18, no. 1:49. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 23, 2014).

Reichstein