Places: The Bell Jar

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1963

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1953

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York City

*New Bell Jar, TheYork City. Approximately the first third of The Bell Jar is set in the urbane, cosmopolitan environs of Manhattan, where Esther Greenwood–a young, ambitious college junior from a sheltered Boston suburb–is a summer intern for Mademoiselle magazine after winning a writing contest. Filled with aspirations of entering a magazine publishing career after college, Esther welcomes the opportunity to get her feet wet in a major New York publishing house a full year before her graduation from college. However, shortly after she settles in New York, a host of disillusioning events tarnishes her view of the city and her romantic dreams of seeking fame and fortune there. Although painfully aware that she is “supposed to be having the time of [her] life” in Manhattan, Esther cannot cope with the intensely competitive, highly chauvinistic atmosphere of New York publishing in the 1950’s. She suffers an emotional and physical collapse that ends in her return to her mother’s home in suburban Boston weeks before the scheduled end of her internship. Esther likens her untimely breakdown and forced retreat from the city of her dreams to “watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction.”

*Boston suburbs

*Boston suburbs. Esther’s family home, to which she returns from New York. Rather than providing her with the peace and quiet she needs to regain her bearings before returning to college, Esther’s time in her mother’s home furthers her descent into a debilitating depression. Her unsympathetic mother offers little in the way of consolation, unable to see her daughter’s condition as anything more than a case of pre-graduation jitters. However, Esther regards her return home with even greater foreboding than she does her time in New York. Whereas most disillusioned city-dwellers might welcome the stability and familiarity of a retreat to the suburbs, Esther sees their “white, identical clapboard houses” as “one bar after another in a large but escape-proof cage.”

Not only is she uncomfortable at work, but similarly disillusioned in her relationships with men. After finding out that her fiancé has secretly been having an affair with another woman, she feels betrayed and finds it difficult to trust the other men she meets. Isolated from productive influences while cloistered in her mother’s home, Esther begins to obsess over what she sees as a fateful chain of personal failures. After only a few weeks there she attempts suicide.

Esther’s college

Esther’s college. Unnamed New England women’s college famous for its academic rigor that is modeled after Plath’s own alma mater, Smith College, in Massachusetts. None of the novel’s scenes are expressly set at this college, because Esther’s depression prevents her from returning there for her senior year; however, she repeatedly reflects on a number of things that happened there earlier that set the stage for her breakdown. She has maintained straight A’s at the college but regards her academic achievements as meaningless in the personal and professional world that beckons her after graduation.

Walton Hospital

Walton Hospital. Private asylum in which Esther is institutionalized after her emotional condition worsens. There she initially fails to respond positively to electroshock therapy–which she finds so violent and frightening she likens it to electrocution–but eventually begins to improve with the help of a sensitive, compassionate psychotherapist. At the end of the novel she stands at the threshold of gaining release from the institution. Although she remains emotionally fragile, Esther is confident that she has gained a reprieve from “the bell jar” her illness lowered mysteriously and unmercifully around her.

Suggested ReadingsAird, Eileen. Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Works. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.Alexander, Paul, ed. Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. The essays in this volume concentrate on Plath as a craftsman. The two essays “Esther Came Back Like a Retreaded Tire,” by Robert Scholes, and “Victoria Lucas and Elly Higginbottom,” by Vance Bourjaily, offer interpretations dealing solely with The Bell Jar.Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. As thorough a biography as one could wish.Allen, Mary. “Sylvia Plath’s Defiance: The Bell Jar.” In The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1976.Alvarez, Alfred. The Savage God. New York: Random House, 1971.Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. In the preface, the author describes his work as “a biography of the imagination.” The index indicates several references to The Bell Jar. The chapter “A Woman Famous Among Women,” proposing Virginia Woolf’s influence on Plath, offers an interesting contrast and comparison between Clarissa Dalloway, from Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, and Esther Greenwood. A portrait of Plath and an extensive bibliography are provided.Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath’s Incarnations: Women and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. Combines psychological and feminist criticism in a critical biography. Bundtzen traces Plath’s personal development as an artist and relates that development to the image of women in society and the world of art. The index provides topical guidance for information on The Bell Jar, and the chapter “The Bell Jar: The Past as Allegory” offers an interpretation of the novel as feminist allegory. A bibliography is included.Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. The index contains many extended references to The Bell Jar. A chronology is included.MacPherson, Pat. Reflecting on The Bell Jar. New York: Routledge, 1991. This study stresses the social context of The Bell Jar. The “Cold War Paranoia,” the repressive atmosphere of the 1950’s introduced in the novel by the execution of Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, affects the protagonist personally. Some specific social topics include life in the suburbs, hatred of one’s mother expressed in contemporary films, and homosexuality. The bibliography contains relevant sociological and political entries.Newman, Charles, ed. The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. A collection of essays mainly discussing Plath’s poetry. Mary Ellmann, in “The Bell Jar–An American Girlhood,” sees the work as a “poet’s novel” and proceeds to discuss it in terms of images and brief moments of pain. Contains a brief annotated bibliography for The Bell Jar ending with 1966. Pen drawings by Plath are included.Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. A psychoanalytical study focusing mainly on Plath’s poetry, with a detailed account of the film of The Bell Jar and the lawsuit against it.Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties. Boston: Twayne, 1992. An excellent analysis of the novel in the context of its times and of the author’s life.Wagner, Linda W., ed. Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1988. The select bibliography identifies two extended bibliographies, one containing all periodical publications. Offers mostly reviews of Plath’s work as it was published, including ten reviews and essays on The Bell Jar.
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