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Free Study Guide for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath BookNotes

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OVERALL ANALYSIS


CHARACTER ANALYSIS


Esther Greenwood

Plath signals her protagonistís problems with her sense of identity in her several roles and names. She renames herself Ellie Higginbottom when she wants to be worldly and grown-up and relocates herself as a native of Chicago and detaches herself from all family by saying sheís an orphan. She fantasizes that she is Ee Gee, sharp-witted editor of New York. Her novel of two sentences features herself in disguise as Elaine. Esther Greenwood is a woman of great talent who has many painful issues to deal with before she can continue with her life.

These issues seem to have their roots in her relationship to her parents. She realizes the day before her suicide attempt that she never cried for her father who died when she was a child. Itís clear that she resents her mother for treating the death so practically and un-emotionally, saying only that her husband was better off dead than suffering a painful disease. The bulk of Estherís issues seem to concern her mother, a woman of her time, who is ashamed of anything out of the suburban ordinary and canít imagine a higher goal for her daughter than marriage with a handy back-up plan of shorthand expertise.

Plath never shows any depth to the relationship between Esther and her mother. The reader must guess at their history from witnessing the present relationship of timid reserve, subterranean anger, and martyred endurance.

Estherís relationships with other people in her life also reveal a good deal about her. If anyone ever chose a boyfriend who was totally opposed in spirit and inclination to her own personality, it was Esther. Buddy is the kind of man Estherís mother would be thrilled for her to marry. Esther is infatuated with him when he does not notice her. When he does, she takes a good amount of time in a power struggle with him. With Doreen, Esther is the follower, the side-kick. Doreenís sardonic wit matches Estherís distance from the tyrannical and inane norm, but Doreen allows Esther no room to speak on her own. Esther is self-effacing when she is around Doreen.

Estherís sense of her own lack of importance is poignantly presented in several instances. When Buddy kisses her for the first time, she experiences no pleasure, but says nothing about this. When she has sex with Erwin, she is not even sure if she has had sex, it is so fast. Her tendency to be self-effacing is evident in her relationships with men. She seems to have no sense of her own agency as a sexual person. With Constantin, she decides to let him seduce her. With Erwin, she remains passive the entire time, not even telling him that she is hemorrhaging.

Despite her training in feminine learned helplessness, Esther is a very determined and strong person. She opposes an entire society in its insistence on the subservience and secondariness of women. She decides not to marry, not to have children, not to be a secretary, to have sexual freedom, to write poetry, and to be a different kind of woman than what her mother would wish for. Her strength can be witnessed as she walks into the electrotherapy room at the private hospital.

The outpatient electrotherapy she received at the hands of Doctor Gordon was so horrible an experience, she chose death to avoid it. Yet, she trusts Doctor Nolan and wishes for her own recovery enough to walk into the room and submit to shock treatment.


The reader can only gather a little of what this fictional artist would produce if she were healthy enough to write. Plath gives the reader some evidence. The few sentences she writes when she tries to start her novel are quite good prose. Her sense of herself as an artist is never in question. Her self-doubts arise only from the rejection of her work by others. As an artist figure, Esther is very important in the history of literature. Unlike the many depictions of the artist as a young man, the young woman artist has rarely been depicted. Her concerns are different as are her obstacles, especially in 1950s America. Plath taps into the common theme of the isolated artist to treat that isolation when it surrounds a woman writer.

Mrs. Greenwood

Plath doesnít draw out this character very fully. She is quite disempowered when it comes to expressing her emotions. She is angry at her daughter for getting sick in such a public way. Yet she cannot be directly angry with her since anger is an unacceptable and indecorous emotion. Instead, she plays the martyr and hints quietly that things should return to normal as soon as possible. Itís clear that the depiction of this mother figure was itself inspired by anger. Mrs. Greenwood doesnít have any good moments. She is unrelievedly passive aggressive, stifling, conventional, and priggish.

Buddy Willard

He is a sort of caricature. He is not fully drawn, but perhaps there are people like Buddy who just donít have much depth to them. He is Mr. Ambition until he gets TB. Then he realizes the weakness his body and the arbitrariness of his fate and gets a little humility. Buddy is probably drawn to his opposite in Esther because that part of his own life has been so thoroughly stifled.

In Buddyís parents, Plath gives Buddyís reason for being. Mr. Willard is of the opinion that sickness is a failure of spirit. No wonder Buddy wants to become a doctor. Mrs. Willard thinks women should have no ambition other than to be a jumping off place for their men. She seems to revel in her submissiveness as is evidenced in her rug. Buddy admires his mother with the devotion of an Oedipus and wants his wife to be exactly like her. However, when he chooses sexual partners, he doesnít choose Mrs. Willard look-alikes.

Esther is Mrs. Willardís antithesis. Moreover, the waitress Gladys, a woman who knows what she wants and asks for it frankly, seems to have escaped the puritanism that so saturates Mrs. Willard in regard to sexual life. Buddy changes in the end of the novel, but he becomes pitiful with his humility instead of more fully human.


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