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The Bell Jar Notes on Characters

This section contains 1,750 word
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)

The Bell Jar Major Characters

Esther Greenwood: The heroine of the novel. Esther Greenwood is an autobiographical portrait of Sylvia Plath. The novel chronicles her descent into madness and her struggle to escape from it. Its title, the bell jar, is a metaphorical explanation for what her insanity felt like. It is suffocating; It closes her off from the world. When it descends, she cannot see or hear clearly and she is trapped alone. This madness comes from Esther’s personal struggle with many things. Her maternal relationships - Her mother and Jay Cee - are dominating. She has trouble relating to men and becomes very sexually frustrated and confused. Her friendships with women disappoint her. She cannot decide what to do with her life, and feels the world is looming in on her. When everything crashes, suicide seems to be the most painless escape. It is not until she has her first (though frightening) sexual experience, and learns to deal with other women, including her mother, that Esther begins to breathe. Her experiences in different mental institutions expose some of the failings of early psychiatric treatments: Shock therapy and lobotomies. The book ends with her ascending from despair, in hopes of leaving her madness behind forever.

Doreen: Esther’s first female friend in the novel. Doreen is both similar and dissimilar to the other ten girls. She is beautiful and very into her looks, but she doesn’t want to do the boring activities with the others. She is interested in making her own itinerary. Esther gets pulled along, until Doreen meets Lenny Shepherd. The pair immediately click and exclude the rest of the world from their happiness. This leaves Esther to stew in her own sorrow, even though she had considered leaving Doreen alone before that. It is through Doreen, that Esther meets Marco, a man with whom she has the most harrowing and violent experience in the novel.

Buddy Willard: Buddy is Esther’s boyfriend, to a certain extent, for the greater part of the novel. There is no point in the novel, however, when she is happy about this. She recounts when she first got together with Buddy, he seemed like a god to her. This facade was broken after he told Esther that he slept with a waitress on many occasions during the summer. She had decided to break up with him soon after this, but Buddy contracted TB and was sent away to a sanatorium. Esther waits until she gets home from New York to abruptly break up with him. It is because of him that she broke her leg. The last time we see Buddy is at the end of the novel when he goes to visit Esther at the asylum. His reason for visiting her is a selfish one--he wants to know if he drove Esther and Joan crazy. Buddy represents both Esther’s struggle with men and their weaknesses, and her accomplishment in overcoming his influence.

Mother: Esther’s mother is both a symptom and a cause of her problems. Her mother is constantly nagging her about what she is going to do with her life. She never leaves her alone. She also avoids problems. She doesn’t want to admit that her daughter needs to be in an asylum and wants to pretend that it never happened. She did not cry when her husband died, and lives in a fantasy world that may be as damaging as Esther’s ‘bell jar.’ Esther heals the most when her mother is not allowed to see her. Her mother is burdened with financial concerns and sees her daughter’s lack of concern for her future as a liability.

Joan: Joan is Esther’s second female associate in the novel. She is not like Doreen, because she is more of a follower than a leader. Joan is easily influenced and very fragile. She comes to the asylum after feigning suicide because she read articles about Esther. It is through Joan that Esther learns to help herself. She never really loves Joan but likes her as a companion. She goes to Joan when her first sexual experience goes badly. Joan’s suicide is an example to Esther of a life wasted. It is only after dealing with this that she is ready to leave the asylum.

Minor Characters

Jay Cee: Esther’s boss at her editorial internship. Jay Cee is one of Esther’s many maternal relationships. She is harsh to Esther when she doesn’t know what she is going to do with her life, but empathizes with her and tries to give her advice. Esther likes Jay Cee and is hurt badly by her.

Betsy: One of the other girls. Betsy is from the west. She is always trying to get Doreen and Esther to go out with the rest of them. Esther is with Betsy when she gets food poisoning from eating crab. Betsy also gives Esther clothing to wear on the train home after she had thrown all of hers off the hotel roof. Betsy is a ‘normal’ girl that Esther doesn’t really like, but she gets along with.

Frankie : The shorter friend of Lenny Shepherd. Frankie comes along with Lenny, Doreen, and Esther as Esther’s date. When she refuses to dance with him, he leaves. Esther is left alone with the new couple.

Lenny Shepherd: A recording engineer with whom Doreen falls in love. He beckons to them when they are in a taxi cab and takes them to a bar. After the bar, they go to his apartment and Esther watches the two kiss for the first time. She leaves the apartment. After this, Doreen spends almost all her time with Lenny. This makes Esther lonely. Near the end of their stay in New York, Lenny introduces Esther to his friend Marco.

Mrs. Willard: Buddy Willard’s mother. She grew up with Esther’s mother and went to college with her. She wants Esther and Buddy to be together even though she introduces Esther to Constantin. She doesn’t work because she takes care of her son and husband. She is “the model of woman” and this frightens Esther.

Hilda: One of the other girls. Hilda is a hatmaker and she is always wearing some new and fashionable hat. Doreen and Esther frequently make fun of her.

Philomena Guinea: The financial backer of Esther’s scholarship. Esther meets her after she writes her a thank-you letter for the scholarship. It is Mrs. Guinea who makes it possible for Esther to go to the better private hospital instead of the state institution. She is interested in Esther’s writing. It is at her house that Esther sees her first fingerbowl.

Constantin: The simultaneous interpreter to whom Mrs. Willard gave Esther’s number. He takes her out to eat and although he is not exactly handsome, Esther decides that she wants to have sex with him. He does not seem to be interested. When Esther lies down on his bed, he lies down next to her and they both go to sleep. When Esther writes the letter saying that she wants nothing more to do with Buddy, she tells him that she is engaged to a simultaneous interpreter.

Eric: The law student with whom Esther has a conversation about sex. She is interested in him, but sex doesn’t interest him because he had a terrible experience with a prostitute when he was in high school.

Mr. Willard: Buddy’s father. He drives Esther up to Buddy’s sanatorium. He tells her that he wants her to be his daughter. She is surprised when he leaves her with Buddy.

Marco: The woman-hater introduced to Esther by Lenny Shepherd. He forces Esther to dance and gives her a diamond pin when he first meets her. Outside, he tells her that he is in love with his cousin but cannot be with her because she is going to become a nun. He pushes her on the ground and tries to force himself on her, but she punches him in the nose. He demands the pin back.

Dodo Conway: The Catholic woman in Esther’s home neighborhood who is on her seventh child. She drives Esther and her mother to the hospital when Esther needs her first shock treatment.

Teresa: The family doctor who refuses to give Esther stronger sleeping pills and advises that she go see a psychiatrist.

Dr. Gordon: The first psychiatrist Esther sees. He is young and nothing what she expected him to be. He doesn’t really listen to her or take her seriously. After her second visit, he thinks she should have electroshock therapy. He administers this and it goes quite badly. He is so oblivious to her that he gives the same anecdote about his college days whenever she mentions where she goes to school. After her first shock treatment, Esther refuses to go back to him.

Jody: Esther’s friend from school. Esther was supposed to stay with Jody in Cambridge, but cannot when she doesn’t get into the writing class she wanted. Jody takes Esther to a lake with her boyfriend and a boy named Cal. This is the lake where Esther tries to drown herself. Jody is another reasonably normal girl.

Cal: The boy introduced to Esther by Jody. Cal is a nice and intelligent guy that Esther admits she would like if she were her normal self.

George Blakewell: The roommate of a guy Esther once dated at Amherst. George comes to see Esther when she is first in the private psychiatric ward. His appearance and interest in her insanity upsets Esther.

Dr. Nolan: The doctor at the private hospital. Dr. Nolan is one of Esther’s maternal figures. She gains Esther’s trust and gets her to start talking about her problems. She deceives Esther about electroshock therapy, but Esther forgives her. Dr. Nolan’s therapy and influence helps Esther recover.

Valerie: The normal looking girl Esther first encounters in the asylum. Valerie seems normal but is actual a lobotomy patient. She will most likely never leave the asylum. This frightens Esther.

Mrs. Norris: The silent woman to whom Esther attaches herself in her first few weeks at the asylum. Mrs. Norris never talks and is eventually moved down to another part of the hospital.

DeeDee: The piano playing woman who has a romantic relationship with Joan. This relationship both intrigues and disgusts Esther. After Joan’s suicide, DeeDee gets worse.

Irwin: The young professor who Esther meets and with whom she loses her virginity. Esther has difficulty, however, and hemorrhages badly. He doesn’t take it too seriously, but she ends up in the emergency room. She calls him only to get him to pay the emergency room bill. He represents her liberation from sexual ideas that had haunted her.

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