The Bell Jar: Subversion, Identity, and Downfall in Plath's Bildungsroman

The Bell Jar (1963) is the only novel written by Sylvia Plath. The author presents a coming-of-age story that focuses on Esther Greenwood, an English student who works at Ladies’ Day magazine as a summer intern while living in New York. Nevertheless, Plath’s novel does not follow the traditional path of coming-of-age experiences since she does not explore the expected development into adulthood of the main protagonist. Rather than depicting a slow and gradual entrance into womanhood by overcoming life-changing obstacles, Plath focuses on Greenwood’s fall into madness. Therefore, The Bell Jar serves as a groundbreaking novel to examine other vital aspects that mark maturity apart from the traditional female coming-of-age stories that focus on the heroine’s journey to marriage.


Regarding structure and intention, The Bell Jar could be described as a conventional Bildungsroman which is “a novel about a young person facing the challenges of growing up” since it focuses on the psychological and moral development of Ether Greenwood (Graham, 2019, p.1). Traditionally, the Bildungsroman has been a male-dominated genre since the first novel of the kind, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), and, thus, those texts that centered their stories on women had to develop narratological and content modifications, such as the structure, the implicit psychology and the social impositions surrounding young girls (Abel, Hirsch & Langland, 1983). According to Abel, Hirsch & Langland (1983), the main character being a woman utterly transforms a concrete Bildungsroman since social beliefs and rules change depending on gender expectations. However, Plath creates her Bildungsroman and, therefore, subverts the expectations for a novel of this kind regardless of the main character’s gender. She combines both the Bildungsroman and the autobiography and, consequently, escapes from the “controlling” forms of both genres (Evans, 2000, p. 76).


Figure 1. Original 1963’s cover for The Bell Jar. Plath uses the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.


The Bell Jar portrays a nineteen-year-old girl named Esther Greenwood who fails at achieving her life goal of having a successful career in Manhattan. Esther’s mental state becomes severely damaged while trying to meet the social expectations and peer pressure that the big city embodies for her. The ultimate problem is her desire to engage in the social conventions while earnestly trying to refuse them which eventually leads to her undoing. Thus, her attempt to reconcile these conflicting longings causes her to fall from grace (Graham, 2019).


According to Jerome Buckley (1974), one of the main elements of a Bildungsroman is the dislike for provincial settings and attitudes since younger people cannot find freedom or escape from social traditions. In this way, Plath places great relevance on Esher’s arrival in New York since she leaves Boston to find herself and explore her individuality. In addition, several characters throughout the novel seem to idealize the urban setting, especially New York, because they believe it is a source of life-changing experiences, learning and freedom (Wagner, 1986). Nevertheless, Plath does not follow the traditional pattern that depicts the city as a place of joy, but she rather describes it as a hostile place: “New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream.” (Plath, 1966, p.1). What should be a reward for Esther and one of the most memorable moments of her life turns out to be an inimical and threatening place for her (Joannou, 2019). During the first lines of the novel, the protagonist also recalls the Rosenberg execution and links this notorious event to the city: “the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.” (Plath, 1966, p.1). The Rosenbergs were an American marriage that was executed because they were accused of spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. The event was one of the most infamous episodes of the 1950s and it was used by Plath to depict Esther’s impression of the city as a rather menacing and distressing place (Wagner, 1986).


Figure 2. The Rush Hour, New York City. Colin Campbell Cooper. 1900.


The city can be perceived as a rather ambiguous setting since its multiple possibilities and promises create great expectations for the newcomers and, if these opportunities turn out to be a fallacy, the disillusionment could be more shattering in comparison to provincial life’s ordinary disappointments (Buckley, 1974). For Esther Greenwood, the opportunity to work in New York and leave Boston was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and, thus, the disenchantment that she experiences with the city has catastrophic consequences. Therefore, not only does the city prevent her from developing rewarding adventures, but rather “nearly ends” her life (Wagner, 1986, p. 56).


Another commonplace for a Bildungsroman is the personality development of the main character which is also an ambivalent element in Plath’s novel. Rather than a quest to find her true self, Esther tries to capture or impersonate several role models as the plot unfolds. For example, the first one is Doreen a southern girl known for her seductive and outspoken demeanors which both intrigue and repulse Esther (Wagner, 1986). Nevertheless, as time passes, Esther feels lost and emptier as she has no clear direction of how her persona is going to be: “The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence.” (Plath, 1966, p. 20). In fact, in a Bildungsroman, the conflict lies within the hero or heroine and any other outward action is secondary (Buckley, 1974). Esther’s confusion derives from her trying to impersonate others, rather than finding her inner truth, that is, she does not have a voice. Therefore, Esther’s personality is the result of several “conflicting personalities”, such as “the obliging daughter and the ungrateful woman” o “the virginal girlfriend and the worldly lover” (Wagner, 1986, p. 58). Plath could have been influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s Eternal Feminine, a patriarchal construction that represents the series of beliefs, images or conventions related to the female essence. This concept portrays women as conflicting creatures that are either a source of idealization or a threatening figure for men (de Beauvoir, 1976). Therefore, this canon of femininity ends up being unattainable and, finally, self-destructive.


Figure 3. Loss of Identity. Daniella Krtsch. (n.d.)


Nevertheless, Esther’s lack of identity in New York dates to her former partner, Buddy Willard, who took on the role of vital guide and tutor. Willard had an extremely conventional and traditional perspective of women whom he considered to be helpless, submissive, and pure both in a sexual sense and in a practical one since they had to be naïve (Wagner, 1986). For him, Esther’s literary expectations are meaningless since poetry is a “piece of dust” (Plath, 1966, p. 20). In a spiritual sense, Esther is constantly looking for a protector who can save or guide her because she cannot open her mind to the adult world: “The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end.” (Plath, 1966, p. 80). She still feels trapped in her teenage year and, thus, she tries to rely on models of authority represented by older or more experienced women or men (Patea, 1990).

Esther’s lack of self goes as far as being unable to recognize herself in the mirror when returning home from her outing with Doreen. Despite trying to identify her facial features, her face adopts, for a moment, another aspect: “Then my ears went funny, and I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course.” (Plath, 1966, p. 19). She cannot acknowledge herself because she has yet to create herself (Wagner, 1986). According to French philosopher Michel Foucault (1998), mirrors are ambiguous objects since they have a duplicating effect. Since they show the subject and its surroundings, the final reflection is fragmented in comparison to the person’s gaze and that ends up creating a feeling of uneasiness. Thus, the mirror has been the pinnacle element in literature to showcase the divergence between the real self and the self-perception (Bonasera, 2019). In addition, mirrors also serve as the object that helps the person to create a unitary identity although their memories or experiences are disconnected (Lacan, 2006). In this way, The Bell Jar and Plath’s poetry are an embodiment of her concerns about “images of fragmentation” which, in this case, have to do with Esther’s lack of identity.


Figure 4. Young Woman before the Mirror. William Merrit Chase.1900.


Esther’s life is characterized by uncertainty because she is not able to take decisions. This is exemplified in the novel by using the metaphor of the fig tree, which is the central motif of the narration. The tree is filled with purple figs and each one represents a different path in life (Wagner, 1986). One of them presents “a husband and a happy home and children” whereas another one depicts a “brilliant professor” although Esther feels incapable of reaching for either of them and, therefore, she remains “starving to death” because she cannot decide “which of the figs” she “would choose” (Plath, 1966, p. 80). Esther cannot manage to start her adult life because she does not dare to decide between conflicting options, that is, all choices seem to entail a loss to a certain extent (Bonasera, 2019). Therefore, both Esther and Plath seem to think that a woman could not have a professional life and a family during the 1950s (Wagner, 1986). Then, being an excellent student was not enough to have a successful career since the requirement was to renounce maternity (Evans, 2000).

Figure 5. The Fig Tree. Julia Bereciartu. (n.d.).


This is the main focal point in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), a classic essay in gender studies. According to Friedan (1963), an increasing number of women living in American suburbs during the 1950s reported feelings of isolation and depression which were the result of their lives as housewives. Plath illustrates this experience in several passages of the novel as Esther feels that “in spite of all the roses and kisses”, a man only wants her wife “to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs Willard's kitchen mat.” (Plath, 1966, pp. 88-89). Therefore, Esther cannot form her persona because she is the target of an insurmountable amount of pressure from her significant other, peer groups and social norms. Not only does Plath narrate the impossibility for Esther to form herself, but she also allows the reader to share her feelings and those of an entire generation of women (Evans, 2000).


Finally, the figs in the tree end up rotting and dying which illustrates Esther’s stagnation and lack of identity (Wagner, 1986). Her degree of powerlessness and weakness while recovering from her suicide attempt ultimately makes her feel enclosed within a bell jar. This metaphor represents both the male-dominated world of science embodied by her partner Buddy, a medical student, and Esther’s confinement in her mental condition (Graham, 2019). However, the bell jar is also the object used to observe reality by those who are not mentally healthy (Bonasera, 2019). For Esther, “the person in the bell jar” regards “the world itself” as a “bad dream” (Plath, 1966, pp. 250).


Figure 6. Illustration of Geraldine Sy. 2015.


In conclusion, The Bell Jar is undoubtedly read as a narration of disappointment and destruction and its story could have been extremely familiar to many of its contemporaries. Plath manages to combine the narratological aspects of the female Bildungsroman and those of the autobiography to subvert the expectations of a coming-of-age story and uses her wide range of literary images and metaphors to brilliantly illustrate a disastrous first-hand experience with reality. Esther Greenwood differs greatly from the conventional hero in a Bildungsroman since male protagonists have been traditionally brought up to develop the necessary attitude to overcome worldly obstacles. Nevertheless, the heroine is often bound to be disillusioned and misled by the patriarchal society since “her desired world inevitably clashes with” the normative society (Wagner, 1986, p. 67).


Bibliographical References

Abel, E., Hirsch, M. & Langland, E. (1983). The voyage in: fictions of female development. Hannover: Dartmouth College by University Press of New England.


Bonasera, C. (2019). Of Mirrors and Bell Jars. Heterotopia and Liminal Spaces as Reconfigurations of Female Identity in Sylvia Plath. Humanities (Basel), 8(1), 20–36. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8010020


Buckley, J. (1974). Season of Youth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


de Beauvoir, S. (1976). Le deuxième sexe. Paris: Gallimard.


Evans, M. (2000). Extending autobiography: a discussion of Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar'. In T. Coslett, C. Lury, and P. Summerfield (Eds.) Feminism and Autobiography: Texts, Theories, Methods. Transformations. London: Routledge.


Foucault, M. (1998). Different Spaces. In J. D. Faubion (Ed.), Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984 (pp. 175–85). New York: The New Press, vol. 2.


Friedan, B. (1963). The feminine mystique. New York: Norton.


Graham, S. (2019). Introduction. In S. Graham (Ed.), A History of the Bildungsroman (pp. 1–9). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://doi.org/10.1017/9781316479926.001


Graham, S. (2019). The American Bildungsroman. In S. Graham (Ed.), A History of the Bildungsroman (pp. 117–142). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://doi.org/10.1017/9781316479926.006


Joannou, M. (2019). The Female Bildungsroman in the Twentieth Century. In S. Graham (Ed.), A History of the Bildungsroman (pp. 200–216). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://doi.org/10.1017/9781316479926.009


Lacan, J. (2006). The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience. In Écrits. The First Complete Edition in English (pp. 75–81). New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.


Patea, V. (1990). El camino iniciático en The Bell Jar. Atlantis Revista De La Asociacion Espanola De Estudios Anglo Norteamericanos, 12(1), 129-148.


Plath, S. (1966). The Bell Jar. London: Faber and Faber.


Wagner, L. (1986). Plath’s the bell jar as female bildungsroman. Women’s Studies, 12(1), 55–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/00497878.1986.9978628


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