The Bell Jar deals with complex issues surrounding mental illness and personal struggle. One of the overarching themes that jumped out to me throughout the book was “the self”.
Esther is obsessed with purity and cleanliness. She associates cleanliness with safety: “The clean bed bobbed before me like a safe boat”, but even her idea of safety is warped – why would you want to be in a safe boat if you’re still stuck in the ocean? Why does she create situations of pseudo-safety for herself? This is shown again in the book when she states: “At first I wondered why the room felt so safe. Then I realized it was because there were no windows”. This brings us to the question of why this would make someone feel safe? Does she feel safe because no one can see her and vice versa? Going back to the idea of purity, maybe she is so obsessed with cleanliness in a literal outward sense maybe because there is so much chaos caused by self-doubt in her own mind, that structure, purity and safety on the outside makes her feel safe. What we can observe for sure, however, is that what Esther considers to be safe seems to be rooted in isolation, and being left alone all by herself: the boat, the windowless room.
The concept of the self also comes into play later on in the novel when we observe a shift in Esther’s idea of her mind and body. She begins to have a disconnect between different elements of her being. She talks about trying to commit suicide and this disconnect is apparent: “Then I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash”. She doesn’t feel responsible for her body trying to “save itself”.
The concept of self in The Bell Jar, to me is what the entire book is about. Although society plays a role in the story, it seems to be about how the individual deals with societal pressures all while battling her own demons.