Going Under the Bell Jar

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
An essay on themes and styles in Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar.' Written for my 365 day challenge and HELA class.

Submitted: January 06, 2011

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Submitted: January 06, 2011

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Abigail Kahl
January 5, 2011
HELA 10 3
Mrs. Shea
Going Under the Bell Jar
For Esther Greenwood, New York City is a fabulous kingdom complete with flamboyant dresses and delicate cuisine, and she is its princess. After slaving thru her school years- as indecisive about her future as she was diligent in earning one- she is having the world handed to her. After writing her way to the Big Apple for the month, our protagonist is given an array of opportunities, from modeling projects to journaling experiences. Buried in good fortune, Esther finds herself hemorrhaging self-confidence and is in danger of her losses becoming fatal. Rapidly growing numb with apathy, she finds comfort only in the memories that prove she was once capable of feeling. Second-guessing herself replaces her passion for poetry, and her return to a middle-class life only enforces her feelings of inferiority and deepens the wound in her ego. Esther gradually removes herself from the world she can no longer feel for until even eating and sleeping cannot fit under her bell jar. Life has become foreign to her, and her intent is to separate herself from it completely. Only her vehement resolve to end her life remained with her in her glass prison, but the means to fulfill this wish inhabited the outside, as did her courage. As friends and family observed her in her bell jar, gazing out- sometimes with a lust for the end, but usually with an equally frightening indifference, they make their way into the still shrinking space in an attempt to force the girl they once knew back out from under her delusional container. Hospitals served as no asylum for the heroine, nor did an actual asylum. For Esther, the jar was unbreakable.
 
Yet Sylvia Plath, the admitted self-inserting author, somehow managed to craft an engaging story from a time in her life when she felt nothing. She molded an engrossing narrative from complete lack of emotion, carving witty perspective and heart-breaking hopelessness into the tale. Esther’s passive, cynical outlook on everything from losing her hairpiece to losing her virginity make the world seem like a different place- like a scene you can only view thru a window. A world one would only want to view thru a window, as the thought of actually experiencing the harshness of that world is chilling. The reader looks at the world thru Esther’s eyes the way she looked at the world thru her bell jar; with both fear and gratefulness for the inevitable detachment from it.
 
One aspect of life that remained with Esther under her bell jar longer than others was her fascination with sex- specifically with just getting it over with. Her obsession with and her candor when speaking about her sexual activity both show that she did not find the actual act appealing, but rather that her innocence was a burden to her that she wished to release herself from. Perhaps she wondered if the loss of innocence would make her feel again, or else maybe she had to strip herself of that innocence, as she did everything else that made her who she was, before she could fully strip herself of her life.
Esther’s fear of the electric shock therapy she endured was another piece of her humanity that she managed to retain for the majority of the book. This fear and simultaneous hatred might have been influenced not only by the pain the machine caused, but by the fact that acknowledging that pain made her a feeling human being. It is as though Esther has embraced her depression and is encouraging the expulsion of emotion, but the barbaric therapy does not allow her to do so.
 
Likewise, Modernism embraced the differences in humanity, while society was rioting against the changes in our ideas of equality. Esther’s condition confused and disturbed those uninformed, as so many differences have throughout history. Race, beliefs, sexual orientation, and mental state have- and still are- weapons of the ignorant. While the book hardly preached equality, it allowed insight to the world of someone who was, for better or for worse, different. A better understanding of the lives of those with Esther’s disorder can lead, not only to acceptance and eventual equality, but to new ways to rise above the cruel illness we call depression. Whether or not the uses of her perspective were intended as such, or were meant to serve as an outlet- a way to be heard- by Sylvia cannot be known.
 
As someone who has suffered the same ailment, and has defeated it with pride, I admire Esther’s prolonged struggle and Sylvia’s flawless description. 
 
The author’s clever articulation and thought-provoking themes are as captivating as a bell jar, itself. 


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