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Plot Summary of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath hounds Esther Greenwood who spends the summer of 1953, “the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs” away from hometown Massachusetts, sent off to intern in New York at a reputable fashion magazine with eleven other lucky girls. She is meant to have the time of her life, be the envy of thousands of college girls just like her all over America but just feels that all her accomplishments she has totted up fizzle into nothing. Esther befriends cynical Doreen, a girl with bright white hair like cotton candy fluff and a bemused sneer, but quickly grows tired of her when Doreen arrives drunk and half-asleep at Esther’s doorstep. Esther resolves to have “nothing at all to do with her. Deep down, she would be loyal to Betsy and her innocent friends”. Like this, Esther remains always split by indecision.

At first, Esther imagines her college boyfriend Buddy Willard “would fall in love with her… and then she wouldn’t have to worry about what she was doing on any more Saturday nights”. However, when Buddy Willard admits he’s had an affair with a waitress at the hotel he worked at Esther grows furious at him for being made to feel sexy and more experienced than him when all the while he has been having an illicit affair with this “tarty” waitress. Suddenly, she detests all of Buddy’s rhetoric about men wanting a mate and women wanting infinite security when before she would have “taken everything Buddy Willard told her as honest-to-God truth”. She immediately resolves to lose her virginity as well and leave Buddy once and for all. When Buddy Willard contracts TB and invites her to visit him at his sanitorium, he proposes marriage, but the idea is preposterous to Esther now, so she rejects the offer and exclaims she will never get married, she is too neurotic to ever settle down.

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As Esther’s internship closes to an end, she feels ever-more disjointed; she fails to seduce Constantin, she weeps openly at the company photoshoot, and on her final night in New York she goes on a date with Marco who later assaults her. Esther makes the trip home to Massachusetts and is picked up by her mother who decides to tell Esther right away that she has not made the writing course she applied for. Like air has been punched from Esther’s stomach, she comes to dread spending her summer in the suburbs for the first time.

Over the next several weeks, unstimulated by excitement and change, Esther slides into depression. She buries her head under her pillow and pretends it is nighttime, refusing to bathe or change or sleep even though she has spent most of her time in bed. When Esther requests for more sleeping pills after being given a very strong prescription the previous week, the doctor refers Esther to a psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon. Dr. Gordon, he suggests to Esther’s mother, Mrs. Greenwood, that Esther would benefit from electroshock therapy. Esther undergoes one treatment without anesthetics which leaves her unable to concentrate, her mind gliding off like a skater into a large empty space and leaving her afraid of the procedure. At this point, Esther’s becomes obsessed with suicide. After several unsuccessful or aborted attempts — slitting wrists, hanging, drowning — she wedges herself into the crawlspace of her house and takes sleeping pills, one after the other until she approached the bottom of the bottle. She is missing for several days and wakes up in a hospital. Later, she is moved to a state mental hospital where she meets many people including Joan, another student from Esther’s college and once romantic interest of Buddy Willard too and Dr. Nolan, a female psychiatrist who understands Esther far better than Dr. Gordon did and Esther treats as her mother. For example, Dr. Nolan is aware of Esther’s terror of electroshock treatments but promises to administer the treatment properly, and Esther wakes up only as if from a deep, drenched sleep and that her “bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above her head, she was open to the circulating air”.

Since the shock treatments ended, Joan hung about Esther like she was trying to suck up the sweetness of recovery. Joan eventually moves into an apartment and hopes Esther will come visit her there, and Esther agrees even though she has no intention of following through. With Dr. Nolan’s help however, Esther can purchase a diaphragm should she decide to lose her virginity, so she could be freed from the fear of having sex and ending up unhappy and pregnant. She soon meets a twenty-sixyear-old mathematics professor named Irwin whom she has sex with before she starts to badly hemorrhage. Irwin takes Esther to Joan’s apartment, wherefrom she is driven to an emergency room. Esther is then roused from her bedrest by Joan’s psychiatrist, Doctor Quinn who asks where Joan might be, which Esther is clueless of. Later, another tap on Esther’s door wakes her and Doctor Quinn has returned with news, Joan has been found in the woods, and she has hung herself. Esther reels from Joan’s suicide, she speaks with Doctor Nolan about feeling responsible, meets with Buddy Willard who asks if something about him “drives women crazy” and must witness the six-foot-deep gap hacked in the ground when she attends Joan’s funeral. The novel ends at a forked road, she steps into a room where the decision which determines whether she must remain in the hospital or can return to college meets her.

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Plot Summary of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 4, 2023, from
“Plot Summary of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
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