An aspect of The Bell Jar we didn’t really discuss in class was the theme of coming of age. Throughout the novel, Plath uses a first-person point of view to describe Esther’s experiences in a variety of settings (e.g. New York), and in each of these settings, Esther experiences something entirely new (her “firsts”). She visits New York for the first time, where she lives a completely different lifestyle than she is accustomed to. At school, she becomes not the smartest and brightest student for the first time. Other “firsts” for her include both wanting to and having sex, and being proposed to. Many of these “firsts” occur in the first ten chapters of the novel, prior to Esther’s visit at a psychiatrist’s, and I feel as though these experiences of Esther’s play a large role to her character. They are also what makes the novel appealing to many young adults who read the novel, including myself, who found Esther’s character quite relatable.
Esther’s coming-of-age experiences are bound with excitement, disappointment, and confusion all together. Her inability to make proper, definite decisions (more towards the first half of the novel) are in many ways because of her lack of maturity. Lack of maturity not in the way she presents herself, as of course she is a proper “lady” of her time and knew the appropriate etiquette and table manners required to be one of New York’s finest young adult women of her time, but in her solidarity and confidence she has in herself as a woman. She questions whether or not her choices and her wants are proper and the right thing to do over and over again, and her uncertainty mixed with her mental illness causes her to make a series of life-changing decisions (leaving New York in a very dramatic fashion, dropping out of university, and choosing to live with her mother).
The lack of confidence Esther has in herself is one way for me to interpret the bell jar metaphor used in the novel. Of course, Esther’s mental illness is definitely one way to interpret the bell jar metaphor, which limits her ability and her scope to see things the way that they are. However, Esther’s youthfulness and lack of maturity brings another interpretation of the bell jar as well. Esther’s decisions, thoughts, and actions are guided by her past experiences, which can be deduced to be limited as it is during the novel where she has so many of her “firsts”. As a result, she doesn’t have a lot of history to work off of as she goes through life in New York and at home. Thus, she is unable to see many of the perspectives that others might be able to in many of her own experiences, and has a clouded judgement in interpreting life. And that is another way to interpret the bell jar metaphor.
Esther’s clouded judgement makes her uncertain about many decisions in her life, and that aspect of her made me very attracted to her character. Sure, she rambled a lot, and sure, many times the rambling didn’t make a lot of sense. But that’s what made her character so real to me. Other girls, women, and female characters in other novels (even in most media types, really), are portrayed to be “perfectly normal”. They smile, laugh, cry… they do all sorts of things that “perfectly normal” girls and women are supposed to do. They laugh at jokes, put make up on every day (or swear to never wear any), and cry when boys break up with them. Girls and women are portrayed in the same way in so many of today’s media. But not Esther Greenwood. Sylvia Plath jumps right into Esther’s self-consciousness despite being an extremely bright woman with her clouded judgement and ramblings. Plath then quickly dives into Esther’s mental illness, and her experiences from coping with that. These are aspects of being a woman, and frankly being human, that are quite typical in today’s world (including the part about the mental illnesses, as one in four people in the world suffer from mental illnesses). That’s what I enjoyed the most from reading The Bell Jar – the practicality behind Sylvia Plath’s portrayal of a coming-of-age woman in Esther Greenwood.
“Mental Disorders Affect One in Four People.” World Health Report. World Health Organization, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. Print.