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Identity in \"The Bell Jar\"
essay [ ]
Research Paper

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by [lavacaloca ]

2003-12-14  |     | 

People’s lives are shaped by their success and failures in their personal lives, and relationships with each other. The author, Sylvia Plath, expresses this in her novel, "The Bell Jar." She is concerned almost entirely with the education and maturation of Esther Greenwood, the main character of the novel. Plath’s novel uses a chronological and necessary periodic structure to keep Esther at the center of all action. Other characters are imperfect and secondary to Esther, and her developing character. They are shown only through their effects on her as a central character.
Sylvia Plath sets impossibly high goals for herself. “I want, I think, to be omniscient,” she wrote. “I think I would like to call myself ‘the girl who wanted to be God.’ Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be-perhaps I am designed to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it”(King 16). She expressed these feelings at the age of seventeen; surely many naïve, intelligent seventeen year olds have expressed similar sentiment. But in Sylvia Plath they signal the perfectionist attitude that drove her to succeed. This attitude insured failure, breeding a kind o destructive energy, which was to become increasingly evident in her writing of the character, Esther Greenwood. Esther Greenwood is a parallel to Sylvia Plath, thus enabling the reader to understand both the character and the author in a humane way.
The reader tends to sympathize with Esther. We all at one time have felt that we just did not quite fit in. Esther tries to adjust herself to those that surround her by taking in the different personalities, trying to find the right one, that could be hers. If we allow those that surround us to decide who we are we lose the power to define, t judge, and to respect ourselves. Esther is a young woman who has plunged into depression, which has caused her to doubt herself and the world around her. She attempts suicide and is put in a mental facility. The novel is more than a story of attempted suicide. It is a novel that inspires renovation and originality in mind and spirit. In Sylvia Plath’s, "The Bell Jar," Esther Greenwood’s inability to cope with daily life and social pressures bring her down into an inescapable word of profound depression.
Esther’s desire to be someone else makes her a chameleon of identity. She longs to be perfect, thus she wants to be everyone but herself. Esther’s desire to be carefree and a risk taker is stirred by the character of Doreen. Doreen was fashion-conscious, worldly, and lived a life on the edge, unlike Esther. She is Esther’s exact opposite, her rebellious side. This is evident when Esther expresses that “Doreen had intuition. Everything she said was like a voice speaking straight out of my own bones” (Plath 7). Jay Cee is just another identity Esther is eager to assume. Successful and famous is exactly what Esther has been working all her life for. Jay Cee is wise and could give direction or answers to all the questions Esther is confused about. Once again, Esther is looking for herself in other characters. She believes that Betsy is more like her. Betsy encompasses her view of virtue and goodness. Esther is not able to decide for herself, what she wants; this is why she incorporates the different identities of the characters that surround her and does not establish one for herself. Esther struggles to know herself and be self-motivated, she longs for acceptance not only from her peers, but also of herself.
Esther feels that no matter where she goes or who she is, she is always in the “hell” of her own mind “…wherever I sat-on the deck of a ship or a street café in Paris or Bangkok I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar stewing, in my own sour air”(Plath 185). This quotation introduces the symbol of the bell jar. Esther explains that no matter where she is, she exists in the “hell” of her own mind. She is trapped inside herself. The bell jar of Esther’s madness separates her from the people she should care about. Esther’s suicidal urges come from this sense of suffocating isolation. Esther can no longer escape from her unhappiness. Jay Cee has forced her to take a good look at herself, and what she sees scares her. She retreats more within herself. The bell jar is covered tightly over her. She decides to quit on herself and all she has worked for. Esther feels a disconnection between the way other people view her life and the way she experiences life. By all external measures, Esther should feel happy, and excited, because she has overcome her middle-class small town background. Esther feels uncertain about her own abilities and about the reward that there abilities have earned her. Eventually the gap between societal expectation and her own feelings and experiences become so large that she feels she can no longer survive. Her personal and professional accomplishments have become a source not only of public satisfaction but also of frustration. Esther feels she is not good enough and tries to escape a world that shuns her and does not let her breath. She herself inflicts the thought of not being perfect enough; she seems to think that if she achieves perfection she achieves happiness. Throughout her life she had perfect grades and the perfect boyfriend, Buddy Willard. Her world come crashing down when Buddy confesses that he had sexual relations with a waitress one summer. Esther begins to think that she must find that perfect person inside her so she uses alter egos and personality adaptations, which lead her into confusion and self-denial.
Esther feels she is being “stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out” (King 28). Esther’s descent into depression sends her to an asylum for the mentally ill. Her illness reaches great severity. She becomes delusional, instantly hating her doctor. Her crying is filled with distress and anguish. Dr. Gordon makes no attempt to understand her suffering; he merely attempts to make her normal again with electroshock therapy, that increases rather than lessens her pain. She feels that the electroshock therapy is not a treatment but rather a punishment for some terrible, unknown crime. She describes it by saying “then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and sap fly out of me like a split plant, I wondered what terrible thing I had done” (Plath 143). Plath’s purpose for relating to the reader this very vivid description is to show what a person with mental illness might experience during a session of electroshock therapy. It gives us good reason to believe that she herself has experienced electroshock therapy. The idea of electric current passing through human beings, in order to ease their pain, was conceived by a scientist. The scientist witnessed that pigs that were electrocuted while being slaughtered (cutting their throats) suffered less than those that were not electrocuted. This is an idea that is cruel and appalling. Plath’s descriptive session of electroshock therapy is her way of creating awareness of the cruel procedures used on mentally ill patients. During her hospital stay, Esther reinforces the idea that mental illness is a defect to be hidden, sanitized, and denied. Instead of being an illness to be discussed, understood, or cured. A mentally ill or disturbed person is viewed with extreme disgust, by society. However, in Esther’s case it is different. Her insanity is expressed in a different way akin to what Tubman states in his analysis of the novel, “despite the asylums and the shock treatment, Esther goes mad in a rather undisturbing way, partly because it is seen much less as a failure in herself rather than as a judgment on the world.” Esther’s mother told her “we’ll act as if all this were a bad dream” (Plath 237). They were going to pretend that her stay in the asylum never occurred and that it was all a bad dream. Even though she was being treated by a psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon, Esther begins to dwell on suicide, and the shock therapy sends her into a deeper depression. Esther thinks that for someone in the ‘bell jar,’ life itself is a bad dream. The “bell jar” is symbolic, “a thin layer of glass that separates Esther from everyone, and the novel’s title, itself made of glass, is evolved from her notion of disconnection. The head of each mentally ill person is enclosed in a bell jar, choking on his own foul air” (Moss 388). One rainy day, after visiting her father’s grave, she attempts suicide. She overdoses on prescription pills. Now desperate, her mother sends her to a state mental institution, where Esther meets Dr. Nolan. She gains Esther’s trust by being intuitive and sensitive to the Esther’s feelings and needs. Esther learns that it is all right to say that one hates one’s mother, and that it is normal for a woman her age to want to be sexually active. Under compassionate supervision, and carefully conducted shock treatments; Esther begins to improve. Esther begins to think differently, and it is through this therapy that Esther begins to breath once again. She had been lost, the road ahead of her was dark and blurry. She was forced to invent and live in her own world. A world where she could be whoever she wanted. She had been living physically but not emotionally, until she begins to slowly recover from her depression. Esther, once out of the ‘bell jar‘, experiences reality. The fog has been lifted and she can see again.
By overcoming some of her demons, Esther manages to become a productive member of society. She learns to free herself from the tyranny of others’ expectations. Once she is able to reveal her true self in her own way, she develops new confidence and perspective. Esther achieves sufficient perspective to see that her struggle against this so-called “tyranny” of customs and expectations is not hers alone, but rather a general characteristic of the human condition. However, she is still oppressed by the threatening nature of the bell jar. “All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air” (Plath 215). At last Esther is free, but not totally. The ‘bell jar’ still hangs over her head. It is like a dark cloud waiting to envelop her once again, in her madness. Further, Esther asks: “How did I know that someday at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere that bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”(Plath 241). Esther is able to go on with a seemingly functional life. But she feels like a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode. In this explosion she would once again lose herself. She wonders if she will be lost forever, never to be given another chance to be whole again. This is a terrible suffocating burden for her. Perhaps, this question offers further corroboration of Esther’s new, realistic self. On the other hand, we may hear in this question the voice of Esther’s autobiographical creator, for whom the prognosis is dark indeed. For the author, Sylvia Plath, the ‘bell jar’ did descend again, only months after the novel was accepted for publication, its author attempted suicide for a second and final time. Esther sees suicide not so much as self-destruction, but as a “theatrical ritual” which will free her from her ‘made-up’ identity, and restore her unique self. It is her ‘image’ (made-up identity) she wishes to murder. She wants to put an end to her pretentious twin that is her public persona. This image she has created of herself is a charade. It is her imitation of someone else, and totally artificial. Once Esther has freed herself from the “bell jar” she feels renewed. She anxiously awaits her expected dismissal from the hospital. But before she is to be released she must appear before a committee that will decide whether she can leave the hospital. When Esther faces the interviewing committee, she narrates that “the eyes and the faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as if by a magical thread, I stepped into the room” (Plath 244) The thread would lead Esther out of the “familiar labyrinth of shoveled asylum paths, or it could be “the thread that might lead me back to my old, bright salesmanship”(Plath 240). At last, Esther finally seems in control of her own life, she is guiding herself back into society, into that “theatrical stage” in which her future will be decided by the impression she makes on others. She has been, as she puts it, “born twice—patched, retreated and approved for the road”(Plath 244). The author, Sylvia Plath, has given us an ironic twist to Esther’s recovery. She has arranged Joan’s suicide and Esther’s recovery as opposites. To the extent that Esther is left wondering, at Joan’s funeral, just what is it she thinks she is burying. Is it the ‘wry black image’ of her madness, or the ‘beaming double’ of her old best self? Joan’s demise and eventual burial is significantly related to the death of Esther’s many imposters. In a sense the suicide of this surrogate, Joan, is Esther’s salvation from herself.
The struggle that Esther Greenwood went through to conquer her demons and find her true self, are very similar to human beings very own struggles in adolescence. They long for identity and self-realization. They want to be the popular person in school. Society has determined what is successful, and everybody wants the brass ring. In their quest for identity, individuals all go through what Esther Greenwood experienced. It is the normal quest of the human psyche. However, some are more emotionally fragile than others. For most people, searching for ones true self can be a lifelong journey. Very often it is the journey and the road of experiences that shape who they are. It is the people we encounter on this road that can either help or hinder our destinies. There is a little of Esther Greenwood in most people. The “bell jar”, parental expectations, and society’s pressures hang above everybody’s heads.

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