‘The Bell Jar’ offers nuanced portrayal of mental health, coming of age

Protagonist’s struggles relate to modern day youth issues


Fatimah Williamson, Arts Editor

The semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar” was written by Sylvia Plath and published in 1963. The story follows the young-adult life of Esther Greenwood, who is starting an internship in New York City, exploring the many facets of her life as she navigates depression, oppression, and personal struggles with identity and the expectations of her peers.

 As vintage aesthetics and trends come around, social media has seen many pictures of this novel featured in a stack of books, or references to people taking inspiration from the mood of this novel and its main character. More people are connecting with this heavily realistic novel, and the hype isn’t so difficult to understand once you look into its main themes and protagonist.

The main character is a passionate writer starting an internship. She is still figuring out her life, and she is overwhelmed with possibilities. She still has a limited world view and is immediately shocked by the new world she’s a part of. Growing up and blending into society and dealing with pressure from her peers, our main character, Esther, is relatable to many teens and young adults out there.

Though this book was written nearly 60 years ago, teenagers, especially young women, can still relate to and sympathize with its most hard-hitting themes. Through an in-depth analysis of the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, and her struggles throughout the novel, readers can find parallels and similarities between this semi-fictional portrayal of struggle and the modern problems youths face today.

Esther Greenwood is a 19-year old writer and journalist with an eye for poetry. She begins an internship in New York sponsored by Lakes Magazine, and starts living with many other women in a dorm suite. She notices that she feels isolated from the rest of the world, and her newfound group of friends enhances her loneliness. Her job as a guest editor for a fashion magazine is demanding, and she doesn’t fit in as she’d hoped she would. Throughout her internship, she begins questioning what her life is really meant for and what she will do in the future. 

Esther is pushed into uncomfortable situations with men by her peers, such as going to a party that she later regrets. After that final party, she returns home from the internship with more questions about her own life and experiences than answers.

At home, she sinks into a deeper depression. She participates in activities that are supposed to help her feel better, but she can’t seem to shake the feeling of disaster. When all her efforts fail to help her, she is consumed by this feeling which she calls the “bell jar.” The bell jar traps her and prevents her from truly living. It’s a metaphor for her intense depression and the obstacles in her life. The three main things that keep her inside this bell jar include the oppression she experiences as a woman, the anxiety she feels as she attempts to navigate “the real world,” and the depression that remains with her throughout the story. 

“Wherever I sat-on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok-I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

Anxiety and depression are struggles that relate to today’s youth. Whether you can or can’t relate to the fact that Esther Greenwood is a white woman with rich parents and peers, experiencing privileges that most people and minorities don’t have access to, most people can still empathize with her internal struggles. The ways that youth can connect with Esther are the same things that make the metaphorical bell jar a constant force in Esther’s life. 

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

Esther’s depression reflects the mental health issues facing today’s youths. Esther is pessimistic. Even in crowds of friends she feels alone, and she feels misunderstood by others. She seems to be surrounded by people who don’t think the same way as her, and they don’t attempt to understand her, either. She goes to parties and is immediately abandoned. Esther feels like she’s boring, even though she strives and hopes to have more that she can offer to the world. She loses hope in herself and in life as the story progresses, an experience that many depressed teenagers can unfortunately relate to.

Isolation and feeling estranged from peers are experiences that most teens go through, and feelings of loneliness can last for weeks, months, and even years. Struggling teenagers can easily relate with feeling hopeless, feeling like giving up, and expecting the worst. As young people grow, they become more sensitive to others and aware of themselves in ways that aren’t always comfortable. This aspect of depression that makes “The Bell Jar” so arresting is one of the strongest forces that works against Esther, further debilitating her and becoming an obstacle to her personal growth towards stability. 

“What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from…The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place the arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself.”

Womanhood is an aspect in the “Bell Jar” that is relayed as the external force of sexism and societal expectations. Esther is expected to marry Buddy Willard, (a doctor and “hypocrite,” as Esther calls him), though she doesn’t want to. Men in her life expect her to be this one idea of what a woman is, and they expect her to embody exactly what they want, with no regard to her interests, wants, or needs. 

Esther is eventually assaulted, narrowly escaping a worse situation at the turning point of the novel. Her womanhood and her experiences as a woman in a new environment shape her idea of what she can and can’t do. Esther finds it unfair that she can’t relate to or feel respected by certain people because of her gender. Even the women around her reinforce the gender roles that she can’t easily assimilate to. Her friends take her out and expect her to get along with men and act as many women were expected to act at parties. Esther, however, feels misplaced and isolates herself as a coping mechanism. She can’t relate to how women are expected to function in society, so she unfortunately suffers for it. 

“I could tell Marco was a woman-hater, because in spite of all the models and TV starlets in the room that night he payed attention to nobody but me. Not out of kindness or even curiosity, but because I’d happened to be dealt to him, like a playing card in a pack of identical cards.”

Sexism plays into the bell jar concept in that society limits Esther’s opportunities on a scale that she has no control over. The way she is treated by others and the opportunities Esther receives are decided based on her gender. 

She is given the internship partly because she is a woman, and it’s an all-women program. Though this is an opportunity given to her, the program expects her to be a certain “type” of woman, a mold that she can’t fit into. Her interests are ignored by Buddy Willard because he doesn’t value her opinions or thoughts. Though she is intelligent and interested in poetry, he calls it stupid and ridicules her. Esther is assaulted by a sexist and treated as if she is less than or less intelligent by others because of her gender. 

The sexist views of society prove to be a force that further hinders her growth and distorts her sense of self. This is a part of the bell jar constantly trapping her, something that she can’t necessarily get professional help for and something she has to brave on her own, as many women had to at that time, and what women have to do now.

“‘Do you know what a poem is, Esther?’ No, what? I would say. ‘A piece of dust.’”

Sexism is still a modern issue. Misogyny and misogynoir (a type of sexism that affects specifically POC women) are still issues that must be addressed today. While there have been improvements, these prejudices still affect the lives of many women and men today. Sexism creates a box that traps people into what is acceptable and what is not, and in many cases, sexism and misogyny come in the form of violence. Sexist ideals can be passed down through generations, imposed by peers and even the workforce. Modern misogyny can hinder the growth and expression of teens and young adults just as the sexism of the 1960s and ’70s did. 

“When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know. ‘Oh, sure you know,’ the photographer said. ‘She wants,’ said Jay Cee wittily, ‘to be everything.’ I said I wanted to be a poet.” 

Esther Greenwood’s struggle with career and future goals is what sends her on a spiral of “what ifs.” She hopes to be a poet and a writer, but she finds herself not wanting to be anything sometimes. She struggles with her internship, finding that her employers expect something that isn’t authentic to herself. Esther figures that she isn’t enough or adequate because what they want isn’t who she really is. She is expected to write in a specific way and be extroverted, but she would rather be pensive and write in the way she does best. She is constantly thinking over and over, asking herself what she’s going to be and how she’s going to achieve this vague idea of success. While she thinks things over, she is completely stationary, her anxiety paralyzes her and she ends up overthinking to the point of destruction. This struggle to work hard while feeling immobilized by depression, fear, and obstacles in her life brings about more fear and catastrophe in her mind.

“At this rate, I’d be lucky if I wrote a page a day. Then I knew what the problem was. I needed experience. How could I write about life when I’d never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew just won a prize for a short story about her adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing?”

Fear is the third and final aspect of the metaphorical bell jar that keeps Esther trapped and stagnant. Fear prevents her from going out and experiencing the world. It is what keeps her from deviating from the pace of her life that was set by other people and what keeps her thinking about all the possibilities instead of exploring them herself. Fear is what binds her to the bell jar. Esther hates her limited life, but is too afraid and exhausted to challenge the idea that the bell jar can be lifted. 

Anxiety and fear in teenagers and young adults today is quite common, especially with the rise of social media being something entirely different to worry about. New adults can also relate to the struggle of finding a career and navigating the workforce. This fear hinders most people from making certain decisions, and pressure from peers can send you down a career you don’t even enjoy. The story of Esther Greenwood accurately represents the time in a young person’s life in which they’re between college and career life, and trying to figure things out before it’s “too late.”  The troubles we’re now finding in the capitalist system, and the pressure from social media, are modern forms of this tension Esther experiences in “The Bell Jar.” 

“The Bell Jar” represents the struggles of anxiety, gender roles/expectations, and depression that can be applied to current youth today. Esther Greenwood’s bell jar, a symbol for oppression, despair, and the feeling of being trapped by not only your circumstances, but yourself. Everyone deals with a bell jar in their life, and Esther Greenwood’s story is simply a young woman’s perspective navigating it.

“The Bell Jar” is a timeless novel in that the struggles of the protagonist are struggles of today, and even struggles of the future. Esther is neither a hero nor a villain, and she is neither likable nor unlikeable. She is human and shows a depth that many young people can relate to and admire in Sylvia Plath’s storytelling. The fact that the story ends in a way that is neither completely resolved or completely depressing makes the story more realistic and human. There is no perfect happy ending, but nothing has to end terribly, either. It shows that healing isn’t always black and white. It’s a complicated process that takes time, patience and hope.

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”