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Theme Of Mental Disorder And Symbolism In The Bell Jar

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Published in London one year before the author committed suicide, The Bell Jar, is a semi-autobiographical look inside a year in the life of a young women dealing with depression. With some of the names of places and people changed, the author, Sylvia Plath chronicles her life at age twenty through the character Esther. Esther is a poet who tries to end her life when she should’ve been having the time of her life. In The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, the deterioration of the main character, Esther’s, mental health is a theme presented throughout the story and best illustrated in relation to her change in location throughout the novel. The symbolism used to show a characters change as a parallel to their literal change in location is a theme Thomas C. Foster explains in chapter 19 of How To Read Literature Like A Professional.

The Bell Jar, begins in New York with an ominous lightness. Esther has won a writing contest and along with 11 other “lucky girls” is gifted a luxurious paid for experience that anyone would envy. Much like how Foster said “when writers send characters south, it's so they can run amok,” it is safe to assume that sending Esther north to New York was symbolic of improved life and higher class. Esther details the positive experiences she is having and the abundance of free gifts she is receiving. Enough to please anyone. This should all be a dream come true, except Esther can't seem to feel happy. She does things to try and escape reality. In these moments she tells herself “New York is dissolving, they [the girls] are all dissolving away and none of them matter any more.” She understands her yearning to escape is not normal and she longs to be like the other girls who are not battling these heavy thoughts. Esther understands that she is “supposed to be having the time of [her] life” however she can not escape the dark. Things were not great for Esther in New York, however the worst parts of New York for her were nothing compared to the lows she experienced when she left.

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The story grows darker with Esther’s move back home to Massachusetts from New York to live with her mother. In How To Read Literature As A Professor, it is explained that characters often “see their home as can be magnetic, elusive, or suffocating, and many characters travel to either find it or escape it” which was a part of what led Ester to pursue the contest in New York. Ester’s home life is most accurately described by Foster as “suffocating.” New York was an escape from the bleakness realty of life at her home with her mother. When Ester reluctantly returns to her home, the reader can understand her dread when Esther says “as the houses grew more familiar I slunk still lower”. Esther progressively slips into madness as time progresses when we see her find it difficult to complete everyday tasks. She reaches an all time low when her depression leads her to a suicide attempt. The lightness she experienced a few times in New York completely disappeared from the narrative at this point when “the silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life.” Esther hit the bottom and it was apparent that a change in location was necessary.

The Bell Jar closes just as Esther enters her exit interview at the psychiatric institution where she has spent the past few months recovering. This location was a catalyst for positive change in Esther’s mental health, as Foster pointed out in How To Read Literature Like A Professor, “geography can also define or develop a character” which is exactly what the change in location to the institution did for Esther. The story ends without telling the reader outright what is in store for the characters. However a hint the reader gets about Esther's life after the end of the story is that for a 'long time afterward,' she couldn't bear to look at the free stuff she got at her summer internship, but when she was 'all right again' she brought the stuff back out, used the free lipstick still and 'last week' gave a plastic starfish from a free gift “to the baby to play with”.

The change in Esther ́s location was a symbolic way for Sylvia Plath to chronilize and tell the change in the state of Esther’s mental health. Depression and mental health is a recurring theme presented throughout the novel and best illustrated in relation to her change in location from New York, when things are okay on the surface but clearly something is going on beneath. To her home when her mental state really deteriorates and she reaches the low point in her life (attempting suicide). Then finally the mental institution where she is able to pick up the pieces and regain some hope. Underneath Esther’s sarcastic shell, as she narrates this story of her past self, you can still feel young Esther's pain and agony, especially as she deals with her suicidal depression all throughout the novel.

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Theme Of Mental Disorder And Symbolism In The Bell Jar. (2021, September 30). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 3, 2024, from
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