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From Bell Jars To Fresh Breaths

1722 words - 7 pages

Young adults in high school and college face a constant bombardment of questions and opinions about their plans for the future, which only makes it harder to choose between multiple possibilties. Sylvia Plath weaves these confused, lost feelings into her autobiographical fictional novel The Bell Jar. The highly motivated main character, Esther Greenwood, wins a scholarship to work at a magazine over the summer, but during the internship, she realizes that she does not know who she wants to be anymore. Rapidly descending into suicidal depression, the empty Esther travels to a mental hospital and eventually recovers, reborn as a confident, independent woman. Esther initially plays many roles ...view middle of the document...

This false identity makes clear Esther’s feelings that she has melted into the shadows of her old life. The more Doreen refers to her as Elly, the more Esther feels herself “shrinking,” becoming a “small black dot” and a “hole in the ground” (Plath 16). On her walk home that night, Esther notices her reflection in the elevator after mistakenly seeing herself as an unfamiliar Chinese woman. She discovers that her hotel room is full of smoke. The windows in the room of her hotel can circulate air, but Esther cannot lean out and experience fresh air, which represents Esther’s slow descent into her bell jar. She can still breathe while balancing the “roles others want her to play,” but it seems to be getting harder (Perloff). She must be a perfect good girl, an ideal student, a passive girlfriend. She envies other independent and successful women she meets, attempting to model herself after them. Using a fig tree as a metaphor for her future, Esther sees many ripe figs, all carrying a “wonderful future,” but she cannot “make up her mind” on which future she will choose (Plath 77). Instead of choosing one future, she despairs as her potential lifestyles slowly fall off the fig tree and die. Esther’s increasing “fracture between inner self and false self” can be seen when her friend Doreen arrives at Esther’s hotel room during the night (Perloff). One voice calls for Miss Greenwood, but the other calls for Elly. Forced to put on a smile for a photoshoot, Esther’s false self finally crumbles. Who Esther used to be dies when Esther throws her sumptuous New York clothes to the winds on the last night of her internship. [SP 17] The collision of conflicting identities and roles proves too much for Esther, for she loses sight of who she is and wants to be.
This collision of contrasting identities leaves Esther trapped in her bell jar with no identity at all. After her internship ends, Esther takes a train ride back home. Looking in her compact mirror, she sees the face of a stranger, an Indian, staring back at her. She is no longer able to recognize herself, and her descriptions make it seem that she has grown more disconnected from her body. At this point, the bell jar has descended around Esther. No matter what she does, she sees no way out, no altneratives, no escape. A prestigious Harvard writing course rejects her application, causing Esther to lose any self-image she had had left. For years, she has aspired to write, but when she gets rejected, she even loses her faith in this. Disconnected from her real identity, she tries to write a novel in which the heroine is herself, but it soon comes to an end when she realizes she has experienced nothing in life. Spending her time hiding away from others, Esther watches her neighbor Dodo, who totes around her six children constantly. Dodo brings “images of childbirth and female responsibility to a climax” (Wagner). With nowhere left to turn, the only role left for Esther is motherhood, but she sees this path...

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