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The Bell Jar Themes & Motifs

This Study Guide consists of approximately 41 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Bell Jar.
This section contains 1,337 words
(approx. 4 pages at 400 words per page)

Role of Women in 1950s America

One of the themes in The Bell Jar is the role of women in 1950s America. This was a time when women were expected to marry and take care of the home. A young girl of Esther’s age was meant to be interested in making a suitable match by choosing a husband who could take care of her and provide for a family.

Esther, however, is not sure of what she wants. She is unable to make any kind of decision as to whether she wants to marry and have children or if she wants a career. Her unstable mental state does not allow her to hold much interest in which direction her life turns. Esther contemplates the possibility of becoming a well-known author such as her benefactress, Philomena Guinea or an important and successful editor such as her boss in New York, Jay Cee. When asked what she wants to do in life Esther is filled with misery and can only cry.

Esther’s peers find her constant studying unnatural for a young woman of her age. They ridicule and ignore her for her studious habits. There are also those who believe she needs to have a boyfriend instead of studying so much; so, they set her up on numerous blind dates. The men are not ones which she would ordinarily find attractive, but the women who set Esther up seem to be under the impression that anyone is better than no one at all. The dates usually end badly, and she never gets a second date. It is on her own that she finds and dates Buddy Willard. He is a perfect husband prospect since he is a good looking athlete who is studying to become a doctor. He will be able to take care of Esther should they marry. Esther, however, grows indifferent to Buddy’s attentions and decides to break up with him. She does not have any interest in having him for a husband.

Esther’s mother also tries to make her conform to certain conventions of the time. She does not see Esther’s English degree as something that will allow her to obtain a job appropriate for a woman. Instead, she encourages her daughter to learn shorthand so that she can become a secretary, which Mrs. Greenwood sees as an appropriate job for her daughter. Esther does not have any interest in learning shorthand so she refuses to conform to that particular role just as she does to others that people have tried to force her into.

Perception of Mental Illness

Another theme of The Bell Jar is society’s perception of people with mental illness. After Esther tries to kill herself and is subsequently is placed in a mental hospital, she is viewed by society with fear and unease, not compassion. Even those close to her have difficulty dealing with and understanding her illness.

Esther’s first encounter with this perception is in the mental hospital after she tries to kill herself. After learning about Esther's attempted suicide, the woman in the bed next to her, Mrs. Tomolillo, refers to the patients in the hospital as ‘nuts’ and quickly turns away from Esther, immersing herself in a magazine. Later on, Mrs. Tomolillo has the doctors draw the curtain around her bed so that she is completely cut off from Esther and does not have to have any contact with her.

Esther’s mother, Mrs. Greenwood, regards her illness as an embarrassment and an inconvenience. She is sure that Esther can get better if she would only try to do so. She does not have any sympathy or empathy for her daughter’s condition. She seems to desire a quick fix for her daughter and appears to have the expectation that visiting Dr. Gordon one time will bring Esther back to normalcy.

She is disappointed when Dr. Gordon requests to see Esther the following week. After her shock treatment at Dr. Gordon’s private hospital, Esther refuses to go back to him. Mrs. Greenwood see this as her daughter deciding to be all right again, rather than being like the other people at the hospital whom her mother describes as ‘the awful dead people.’ After Esther is sent to the city mental hospital, Mrs. Greenwood tells Esther that she would not be going to the mental hospital if she had only behaved herself at the other hospital. She believes Esther’s condition is entirely under her control, and it is entirely her own willfulness that caused her to be sent away from the hospital.

Even when she is not in love with Buddy any longer, Esther supports him through his battle with tuberculosis. However, he is not prepared to do the same for her. His physical illness is seen as acceptable; whereas, Esther’s illness which affects her mental state is not something Buddy can understand or overlook. He visits Esther while she is in the mental hospital, making his feelings clear when he inquires about whom is she going to marry now. He seems to feel that due to her bout with mental illness no one will be willing to take her as a wife.

Esther tries to hide her condition from her friends and act as normal as she possibly can, knowing that they would not understand the truth of her feelings. When she leaves the mental hospital, she is allowed to return to college and finish her studies. Esther dreads going back since she knows that some of the girls at college will know that she tried to commit suicide and then was put in a mental hospital to recover. She knows that the tale will spread and she will be looked at differently and subsequently avoided.

Maternal relationships

Maternal relationships are a theme of the novel. Esther has a horrible relationship with her mother. They do not get along at all. This makes Esther look at the women in her life as mother substitutes. She looks up to Jay Cee, her boss at the fashion magazine in New York, because she sees her as a strong independent woman. This is something Esther would like to be. Esther wishes that Jay Cee was her mother.

Esther looks at Dr. Nolan as a mother figure. She is more like her mother than Jay Cee, but she is also a professional. Esther looks up to these women. She would like to be like them, but she fears she will be like her mother. She sees her mother as weak and unemotional. This makes her look at herself as a person and how she wants to be viewed by others. Esther wants to be independent and strong, and she strives to become this woman.

Sexuality

Sexuality is a theme of the novel. Esther views sex as something to be scorned. She hangs onto her virginity as a way to protect herself. Esther views the world as those who have had sex and those who have not. This is apparent when she is in New York and she looks at the group of girls she is with as innocent or as in Doreen’s case as a slut. She tries to be friends with Doreen, but she cannot embrace the sexual intensity that surrounds her. Doreen is very sexual and this scares Esther.

Esther views Doreen with fascination and with scorn. She wants to be sexually free, but she is scared to be like Doreen. This makes her upset, and she blames Doreen for it. Esther holds onto her virginity for most of the novel. When she does finally feel free, it is when she is fitted for a type of birth control. Sexuality is seen as empowerment. When she loses her virginity, it is seen as the beginning of her healing from her mental illness. It seems that Esther always held the key to her well being and just needed to fully accept who she is and what she wants.

This section contains 1,337 words
(approx. 4 pages at 400 words per page)
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