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Free Study Guide for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath BookNotes

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Main Theme

The main theme of The Bell Jar is a feminist one. Its protagonist suffers under the constricted roles available for the women of her time and the subordination of women to men. The novel is a protest of the expectations that women must fulfill to be cosidered normal and successful in the society.

Minor Theme

One of the minor themes of the novel is its treatment of the experience of being insane while surrounded by people who are sane. The protagonist begins to have her breakdown months before she begins to make her attempts at suicide. She is surrounded by people who seem to be conducting their lives in very odd ways, but who are sane by the societyís standards of sanity and normalcy. The reader notices the thin line between sanity and insanity. Estherís is a crazy-making society especially as it treats women.


The mood is often meditative. Esther is a very introspective character. However, she has a strongly sardonic humor. She is enough on the outside of her society that she can see its foibles with bemused irony. The people around her often come off as caricatures. For a novel about mental illness, very little of the pain of struggling through emotional troubles is given. Even the scenes of the hospitals are scenes filled with odd caricatures and bizarre actions.

Sylvia Plath - BIOGRAPHY

Sylvia Plath was born in 1932. Her mother, Aurelia Plath, and her father, Otto, were well-educated people. He was a professor of German and zoology at Boston University and was a well-known authority on bees. Plath lived in Winthrop, Massachusetts during her early childhood. Winthrop is a seaside town, the fictional equivalent of which is the town Esther visits when she walks along the beach and contemplates suicide by drowning. Plathís father died when she was eight years old in 1940. He had been ill for four years before his death from untreated diabetes mellitus. His leg was amputated. Her grandparents moved in with the Plaths to help take care of the children. They all moved to Wellesley, a suburb of Boston, so Aurelia could take a job as a teacher at Boston University. Sylviaís mother taught secretarial students at Boston University. Her grandmother took care of the children and the household and her grandfather worked as a maitre díhotel at a country club and lived there during the week.

By the age of seventeen, Plath was already serious about her writing. She wrote many short stories and poems and she also drew. In 1950, Plath went to Smith College on a scholarship endowed by Olive Higgins Prouty, who wrote the romance novel Stella Dallas. She was a dedicated writer and excelled in her studies. However, Plath was like many women of the 1950s. She found a great contradiction between the life of a writer and the life of a woman and felt that if she didnít marry and have children, her life would not be complete.

Like the Esther of The Bell Jar, she won an essay prize put on by a fashion magazine. She was invited to serve as guest editor for Mademoiselle. After the time in New York, Plath returned home to stay with her mother. The events of the novel follow the events of Plathís experience with psychiatry. First, she was given electric shock therapy, then she disappeared, then she reappeared to be hospitalized and treated. She describes this experience in her journal: "a time of darkness, despair, disillusion--so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be-symbolic death, and numb shock--then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration." Her tropes echo that of much literature of the ages from Dante to the Bible.

Plath returned to Smith College and succeeded in her studies and in publishing her works. She graduated in 1955 and went on a Fulbright to Cambridge University where she earned a masters degree. There met the poet Ted Hughes, who years later would become Poet Laureate of England. They were married in 1956. In 1957, Plath taught at Smith College. She gave up teaching in order to spend more time writing, but had a great deal of difficulty paying the bills and maintaining her optimism in the face of rejections from publications. In 1959, she moved back to London and had a child.

Her first book of poetry, Colossus and Other Poems was published. It was highly acclaimed by critics. The poetry was especially noted for its great care in style and its exquisite language. She wrote the Collosus poems with a great sense of discipline and a painstaking method that involved working with a thesaurus. She began working on her manuscript of The Bell Jar with the help of a small grant. In 1962, Plath had a second child. At the same time she was working on The Bell Jar, she was working on her next book of poems, Ariel. In writing this collection of poems, Plath discarded her earlier method and wrote, as she said, "at top speed, as one might write an urgent letter." These poems center around the themes of despair and chaos in living. In 1962, Sylvia separated from her husband. The Bell Jar was accepted for publication. In London it was published in 1963. The next month, Plath committed suicide. The Ariel collection was published posthumously in 1965. Three more books of poems were also published posthumously: Uncollected Poems (1965), Crossing the Water (1971), and Winter Trees (1972). In her poems, she broke silence on a number of subjects, especially anger and macabre humor. Her poetry influenced the direction of poetry for the next twenty years. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.

In the U.S. The Bell Jar was published in 1970. Her mother wrote to the publishers requesting that they not publish the book, saying that her daughter had intended to write a companion novel of this time in her life seen through a healthy perspective. Aurelia Plath wrote that alone, the book "represents the basest ingratitude." Plath had written to her brother telling him the "book must never be published in the U.S." She had written it under a pseudonym (Victoria Lucas) because she doubted its literary merit.


Plath opens the novel with Estherís obsession with the Rosenberg trials and the news of the impending execution. While this is clearly intended as a parallel to Estherís own eventual electroshock therapy, it is also a parallel to something more significant--the intolerance of the society and the danger one risks by going against the grain of the norm. Historians are still divided on whether the Rosenbergs were really spies for the Russians as they were accused of being. They were immigrants and they were Jewish and they were politically left wing. None of these things fit into the norm of 1950s America. The Rosenbergs, a couple, encountered the tyranny of the norm. They were executed amidst enormous media sensation. Their trial and execution were treated in the lurid detail of the raunchiest scandal magazine.

The parallel between the Rosenberg executions and the feminist movement is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first sight. The Rosenbergs encountered the brutality of the societyís backlash against anything different. Women in the 1950s who did not fit in with what was expected of them were left feeling inadequate, unattractive, unwanted, ugly, and crazy. There were very few role models visible of women who did not conform to the norm. Keep in mind that Plathís is a feminism for European-American middle-class women. The concerns of this feminism are with reconciling the demands of a career with that of a family. The private psychiatric hospital described in The Bell Jar is filled with bored, middle-class housewives and mothers of debutantes. The dysfunctional gender role assigned to women during the fifties--stay at home and get your satisfaction there alone--reached its logical conclusion in the boom in the psychiatric profession especially as it concentrated on the treatment of women.

The reader will perhaps be surprised in reading about the common use of shock therapy and lobotomy in the treatment of psychosis during the time the novel is set. Only a few years after this time, the discovery of psychotropic drugs (anti-psychotic drugs) made these procedures largely unnecessary. The medical explanation for these treatments is not appropriate for our purposes here. In brief, the idea behind shock treatment was that the patient suffered depression and mood swings as a result of an imbalance in her/his physical body. Shocking the brain waves sometimes pacified patients and sort of jolted them out of their depression or severe mood swings. Insulin shock was often preferred to electro-shock, having a similar though more subtle effect. The lobotomy was practiced in some places with great frequency. It was a surgical procedure in which holes were drilled into the side of the head at the area just above the temples. Needles were inserted into the brain. The effect was a flattening of affect (feeling). Patients who had undergone this operation lost all affect and were more passive patients. Plath clearly feels ambivalent about both shock treatment and lobotomy. However, it is clear that insulin and electroshock were important treatments in her own recovery.

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