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The Book Club

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

1. Why “The Bell Jar”? “If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat … I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air”. This is the first time the symbol of the glass bell jar is introduced in the novel; with Esther using it to explain that she feels trapped within herself – this imaginary glass bell jar – that separates herself from the people around her. She does not fully comprehend how or why this bell jar has descended, but this glass wall stifles herself, allows her isolation to manifest, and renders her thoughts a convoluted mess. She seems to have no control over when or where this bell jar – or cloak of insanity – would descend upon her again. The reader can assert that it is probably this sense of helplessness and insecurity that drives Esther’s consistent suicide attempts; in a bid to escape this unpredictability and potentially dangerous occurrences. Interestingly, the novel is not that concerned over the causes of this madness and insanity, and focuses more on its ramifications.

2. Would Esther really be cured; would she really be completely free from this bell jar? That is the final thought that the reader is left with; left to ponder whether Esther would ever completely recover from her mental illness and madness. Even though at the end, with all the normalised treatment and her preparation to possibly head back to the outside world and back to college, the “recovery” might not necessarily represent a permanent change in her life. The suicide tendencies might have gone, and she is beginning to establish connections with her loved ones and people of the outside world; but to her this might only be a temporary transition. She asserts “How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again”? Joan’s death also adds to this unpredictability, and opens the possibility of that bell jar descending upon Esther anytime, anywhere.

3. Not in control of their madness. Also in the closing chapters of the novel, Esther likens her experience with insanity to being trapped in a bad dream; more importantly, these are nightmares that the victim or patient cannot voluntarily free himself or herself from. Madness is beyond their realm of control, even during or after the treatment processes; yet this is something that Esther believes other individuals cannot comprehend. Esther’s mother constantly expects her daughter to wake up and shake away the remnants of this “bad dream”; and Esther laments the fact that her doctors and psychiatrists seem to know how experiencing madness and the corresponding treatments feels like, even though none of them have actually gone through the process themselves.

4. Esther’s desire to break free from the status quo and traditional concepts on the submissiveness of the woman in the household. “What a man wants is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from” and “The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket”.

5. The advantages of proper shock treatments, administered responsibly. After Esther’s mental state worsens due to poorly administered shock treatments, she makes considerable attempts to end her own life; though she is promptly sent to different asylum-hospital, where shock treatments are used in conjunction with insulin treatments and proper facilitation of activities. Esther does admit that she feels better after these specific treatments with her new psychiatrist, and metaphorically refers to the experience as having the bell jar temporarily suspended over her, allowing her to feel freer and more at ease. Although the permanent effects of the treatment cannot be determined, it serves the symbolic purpose of contrasting against laissez-faire attitudes adopted by some doctors; whilst at the same time charging exorbitant fees for irresponsible commitment.

6. Detriments of psychiatric medicine and treatment. Dr. Gordon epitomises this theme, particularly with his callous and uncaring attitudes, and also routine prescription of shock treatment upon Esther that yields no considerable benefits to help her condition. Instead of taking upon a more friendly and approachable persona, Esther feels alienated and distanced from many of her doctors; which can be attributed to insensitivity and the fact that many psychiatrists are unsure of what to do. Dr. Nolan notably makes use of conversational therapy, getting Esther to voice her fears and emotions, which acts as a positive complement for the insulin and shock therapy adopted simultaneously.

7. Causes of Esther’s insanity? Only subtle references are made to the possible causes for her insanity; though the plot is premised primarily upon her present treatment and experiences. The reader does glean some insights from her flashbacks and journeys to an assortment of settings, including her father’s grave, her negative interactions in New York et cetera. Some of the explanations may include: great expectations heaved on her shoulders, given that she has been given a huge scholarship and thus set upon a pedestal; incompatibility of her dreams and the reality of work; losing her father when she was a child; contradictions in American culture, with particular focus on motherhood and marriage; emptiness of her aspirations (and emptiness of convention expectations); or struggling to fit in at work and in college. Inadvertently, her intellect and intelligence indirectly allows her condition to worsen, as she grapples with a potpourri of conflicting ideas and perspectives within her head.

8. Esther and Buddy. Buddy is the representation of the kind of future that Esther consciously dismisses. Buddy (and his mother) expects his future wife to be submissive and perhaps docile; but Esther is turned off by their lack of chemistry, his lack of understanding for her passions, his monotonous perspectives towards sex, and his casual attitudes and treatment of Esther (not apologising for sleeping with a waitress in the summer whilst he was dating Esther, wondering aloud who will marry Esther when he visited her at the asylum). Even though Buddy is heralded as the ideal American alpha-male – with good looks, appreciative of his parents, athletic and doing well in his studies – there are deficiencies in his character and personality that Esther denounces. Esther believes that her union with Buddy would only stifle her true dreams and ambitions; and her freedom curtailed by his insensitivity and lack of tact.

9. Esther’s perspectives on marriage and giving birth. “So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state”.

10. A unique growth process. Even though the future is uncertain, it feels as if Esther has succeeded in her own right: she has managed to (temporarily) shake off her mental illness, heading back to college, no longer frets over a potential engagement to Buddy, and seemingly living her own life. It has been a tumultuous process of struggle and treatment, but the novel does end with a slight note of positivity.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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