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Death and Rebirth
The Bell Jar is shaped to resemble a myth of death and rebirth. Esther will go through experiences that suggest, and in one case almost literally is, death, and emerge anew. The theme might also be called renewal through suffering. Even Esther's last name, Greenwood, is suggestive of renewal through the coming of spring.
The theme is announced early, in Chapter 2. After she walks home from Lenny Shepherd's apartment, Esther feels downcast, and she seems to have death on her mind. She decides to take a long hot bath, and this restores her spirit. The experience of being immersed in water is almost a religious one for her, and the longer she stays in the bath, the more pure she feels. She has washed off the dispiriting experience of her evening with Lenny and Doreen and feels pure again. When she finally steps out of the bath, she reports, "I felt pure and sweet as a new baby."
The theme is repeated in the food poisoning episode, when Esther is sick, falls unconscious, and then sleeps for a long time. Doreen says to her when she wakes, "Well, you almost died," and Esther says as she recovers, "I felt purged and holy and ready for a new life."
The theme of death and rebirth comes to its fullest expression in the episode in which Esther tries to commit suicide. She goes underground into the cellar and is almost buried alive. She stays there, unconscious, for several days before being rescued. The remainder of the novel is the story of how, painfully and little by little, she is reborn. At the end, as she is about to go into the meeting of the board of directors who will permit her to leave the asylum, she explicitly mentions the rebirth theme as she thinks, "There ought to be a ritual for being born twice-patched, retreaded and approved for the road."
There is still a dark shadow present in this rebirth, however. Esther knows that there may always be a possibility that she will regress, and that the "bell jar" will descend on her again and distort her mind.
Role of Women in Society
The novel is a critique, from the point of view of a highly gifted young woman, of the 1950s American family, with its clearly defined roles for men and women. As Esther presents the issue, the men hold all the interesting jobs, and the women have no choice but to stay at home and cook, clean and have children. They are supposed to provide emotional warmth and security while the men fulfil their ambitions in the world. Esther cannot bear the thought of such a life, which she would have if she married the conventional Buddy Willard. She would have no better prospects if she married Constantin, the interpreter, or any other man of her acquaintance. As she puts it, "This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A's." Buddy, who has no patience with the fact that Esther wants to write poetry, tells her that after she is married with children she won't want to write poems any more. This prompts Esther to think, "[M]aybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state." Esther thus fears marriage as a kind of living death trap, but almost everywhere she looks she is reminded of a woman's lot. On her first day back at her home in the Boston suburbs, for example, the first person she sees walking by is her neighbor, Dodo Conway, pushing her baby carriage, with several young children accompanying her. Dodo already with six children and is pregnant with another.
The problem is compounded for Esther by the fact that many women have internalized the rules that men have made for them, so she is left with no role models on which to base her life. The few successful career women she knows, such as Jay Cee and Philomena Guinea, are not presented as attractive alternatives. Joan's lesbianism presents another possible model, but Esther rejects it outright. She does not see what women see in other women.
Esther is thus in the difficult position of having to build up an identity for herself regardless of what society expects of her. This is not an easy task, and Esther has no support from anyone who understands her dilemmas. It must be remembered that the story takes place in 1953, before the women's movement in the 1960s began to challenge stereotypical gender roles.
It is especially unfortunate for Esther that there are no role models to follow, because she herself lacks a strong sense of who she is. When she is an intern, she sometimes feels she is really like the extrovert and daring Doreen, and at other times more like Betsy, the "good girl" from Kansas. When meeting people, she will sometimes create a double, a kind of phantom self, named Elly Higginbottom, who is everything Esther is not. So even when she is in New York, she already seems like a fractured personality, struggling to put up a united front to the world. This is obviously not the type of woman who is suited to courageously forging her own path in life. The fact that Esther is not grounded in a stable sense of self-identity contributes to her confusion, depression and eventual disintegration.
But she does recover, and she manages to take steps toward creating a life that is more free and less dependent on societal norms. This applies in particular to sexual behavior. Esther well knows that society has double standards when it comes to sex, extending more license to men than to women. But when she acquires a diaphragm, she is able to assert her sexual independence in the sense that she is no longer inhibited by the fear of pregnancy.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Growth Through Pain and Rebirth
The Bell Jar tells the story of a young woman’s coming-of-age, but it does not follow the usual trajectory of adolescent development into adulthood. Instead of undergoing a progressive education in the ways of the world, culminating in an entrance into adulthood, Esther regresses into madness. Experiences intended to be life-changing in a positive sense—Esther’s first time in New York City, her first marriage proposal, her success in college—are upsetting and disorienting to her. Instead of finding new meaning in living, Esther wants to die. As she slowly recovers from her suicide attempt, she aspires simply to survive.
Esther’s struggles and triumphs seem more heroic than conventional achievements. Her desire to die rather than live a false life can be interpreted as noble, and the gradual steps she takes back to sanity seem dignified. Esther does not mark maturity in the traditional way of fictional heroines, by marrying and beginning a family, but by finding the strength to reject the conventional model of womanhood. Esther emerges from her trials with a clear understanding of her own mental health, the strength that she summoned to help her survive, and increased confidence in her skepticism of society’s mores. She describes herself, with characteristic humor, as newly “patched, retreaded and approved for the road.”
The Emptiness of Conventional Expectations
Esther observes a gap between what society says she should experience and what she does experience, and this gap intensifies her madness. Society expects women of Esther’s age and station to act cheerful, flexible, and confident, and Esther feels she must repress her natural gloom, cynicism, and dark humor. She feels she cannot discuss or think about the dark spots in life that plague her: personal failure, suffering, and death. She knows the world of fashion she inhabits in New York should make her feel glamorous and happy, but she finds it filled with poison, drunkenness, and violence. Her relationships with men are supposed to be romantic and meaningful, but they are marked by misunderstanding, distrust, and brutality. Esther almost continuously feels that her reactions are wrong, or that she is the only one to view the world as she does, and eventually she begins to feel a sense of unreality. This sense of unreality grows until it becomes unbearable, and attempted suicide and madness follow.
The Restricted Role of Women in 1950s America
Esther’s sense of alienation from the world around her comes from the expectations placed upon her as a young woman living in 1950s America. Esther feels pulled between her desire to write and the pressure she feels to settle down and start a family. While Esther’s intellectual talents earn her prizes, scholarships, and respect, many people assume that she most wants to become a wife and mother. The girls at her college mock her studiousness and only show her respect when she begins dating a handsome and well-liked boy. Her relationship with Buddy earns her mother’s approval, and everyone expects Esther to marry him. Buddy assumes that Esther will drop her poetic ambitions as soon as she becomes a mother, and Esther also assumes that she cannot be both mother and poet.
Esther longs to have adventures that society denies her, particularly sexual adventures. She decides to reject Buddy for good when she realizes he represents a sexual double standard. He has an affair with a waitress while dating Esther, but expects Esther to remain a virgin until she marries him. Esther understands her first sexual experience as a crucial step toward independence and adulthood, but she seeks this experience not for her own pleasure but rather to relieve herself of her burdensome virginity. Esther feels anxiety about her future because she can see only mutually exclusive choices: virgin or whore, submissive married woman or successful but lonely career woman. She dreams of a larger life, but the stress even of dreaming such a thing worsens her madness.
The Perils of Psychiatric Medicine
The Bell Jar takes a critical view of the medical profession, in particular psychiatric medicine. This critique begins with Esther’s visit to Buddy’s medical school. There, Esther is troubled by the arrogance of the doctors and their lack of sympathy for the pain suffered by a woman in labor. When Esther meets her first psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon, she finds him self-satisfied and unsympathetic. He does not listen to her, and prescribes a traumatic and unhelpful shock therapy treatment. Joan, Esther’s acquaintance in the mental hospital, tells a similar tale of the insensitivity of male psychiatrists. Some of the hospitals in which Esther stays are frighteningly sanitized and authoritarian. The novel does not paint an entirely negative picture of psychiatric care, however. When Esther goes to a more enlightened, luxurious institution, she begins to heal under the care of Dr. Nolan, a progressive female psychiatrist. The three methods of 1950s psychiatric treatment—talk therapy, insulin injections, and electroshock therapy—work for Esther under the proper and attentive care of Dr. Nolan. Even properly administered therapy does not receive unmitigated praise, however. Shock therapy, for example, works by clearing the mind entirely. After one treatment, Esther finds herself unable to think about knives. This inability comes as a relief, but it also suggests that the therapy works by the dubious method of blunting Esther’s sharp intelligence.
More main ideas from The Bell Jar