The Bell Jar by Syliva Plath tells the story of Esther as she descends into the depths of mental illness. Esther starts her story during a stint as an intern at a popular woman’s magazine. She is a young and intelligent, but also a little lost. She doesn’t click with any of the women who are part of the intern group, nor does she seem to fit into the accepted boundaries of society in the 1960s. Esther doesn’t buy into the idea of marriage or the so-called “duties” that were expected of women at the time. The idea of being submissive clashes with her headstrong ideals and she refuses to play the game of accepted male/female roles. Most of her qualms concerning men and relationships has to do with the double standard that exists in terms of purity. The hypocrisy of the fact that men can go out and sleep with whoever with little consequence, while woman are expected to stay “clean” aggravates her.
Esther wants to be a career woman, but she has no idea what career path to follow. Her inability to fit anywhere in the private or public sectors triggers a deep depression that ultimately makes her suicidal. She refers to her mental illness as a “bell jar” that surrounds her and forces her to breathe in the sour air of her own mind. There is no fresh air or the possibility that things could be different. Interestingly, towards the end of her illness, she uses the bell jar analogy to describe young women everywhere. It’s all too easy for a young woman to find herself stifled by what is expected of her rather than entertain the notion that it’s okay to break out of the mold. In effect, society as a whole is a bell jar. It’s a fitting descriptor for a time period when so many women felt trapped by the societal expectation of marriage, motherhood, and housewife expectations, (there is nothing wrong with these roles, but social norms made the concept of choice in these matters almost non-existent).
Plath chooses to tell Esther’s story in a first person narrative which makes it a very personal and emotional journey for any reader. The writing is simple and clean, yet poignant and soulful. Once you know Esther, you will never forget her.