The Bell Jar

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harper Perennial edition of The Bell Jar published in 2005.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I felt myself melting into the shadows like the negative of a person I’d never seen before in my life.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote, which comes at the end of the first chapter when Esther is sitting at a bar, is exemplary of Esther's complex relationship with her body and identity. Many of Esther's descriptions of herself hinge on dematerialization of the body or objectification of the body (comparing a body part to something non-human), and this quote is a telltale example. First, Esther says that she feels herself melting into the shadows (which she says as though it is literally happening). Then she describes her body as becoming "the negative of a person I'd never seen before in my life." Presumably she refers to a photographic negative, which is an image of something that exists, but not the thing itself. Plath escalates the metaphor by having Esther say it's not even a negative of herself, but a negative of someone she's never seen before. So there are many different layers of distancing at work here--Esther seems to feel that her body is entirely divorced from her being, and, writer that she is, she evokes the feeling with a series of severe metaphors.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

…I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Related Symbols: Mirrors
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage describes Esther seeing herself in a mirror in her apartment building after she has just left Doreen and Lenny in Lenny's apartment. This is the first instance in which we encounter Esther's reaction to mirrors, which is typically (as in this case) one of estrangement rather than recognition. Here, Esther looks so different to herself that she seems to be of an entirely different ethnicity, and she's surprised, too, to look old and tired. Esther's inability to recognize herself is a subtle symptom of her emerging mental illness, but it also reflects the ways in which Esther seems to have been split from her body via social pressures. Esther, for instance, is obsessed with sexual purity, and it seems that proximity to Doreen and Lenny's sexual encounter has made Esther feel that her body, too, has been somehow debased (she describes herself as "used-up," though there is no explanation for why that would be). 

I lay in that tub on the seventeenth floor of this hotel for-women-only, high up over the jazz and push of New York, for near on to an hour, and I felt myself growing pure again.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

After Esther's night going to the bar and to Lenny's house with Doreen, Esther feels dirty and sad. Though her behavior wasn't as rebellious as Doreen's, Esther still feels that she has strayed, perhaps too far, from her typical habits, and she takes a bath to make herself feel better. While she did describe her eyeliner as smudged, it seems that Esther feels more spiritually dirty than physically dirty. Even so, her bath eventually allows her to feel "pure again." This is another example of the confusion of body and mind that defines Esther's relationship to herself, and which will spiral out of control as her mental illness takes hold.

Throughout the book Esther seems to be seeking a spiritual purity that she's never able to precisely define. It is, perhaps, her inability to concretize the purity she seeks that leads her to confuse this abstract purity with bodily purity, such as her bath in this scene, or her obsession with virginity. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

…I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Doreen
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

At the Ladies Day banquet, Esther is beginning to grapple with her confusion about her own behavior and her inability to fit in with the other girls at the magazine. Instead of going out to Coney Island with Doreen (the rebellious choice) or going to the fur show with Betsey (the respectable and obedient choice), Esther had laid in bed unable to decide what to do. This marks an initial instance of Esther's tendency to be paralyzed by decision making, particularly when those decisions surround ambition and identity. In this instance, Esther seems to have a very clear idea of what she "should" or "shouldn't" be doing, which shows the well-defined roles and behaviors expected of 1950s women, but Esther seems to have no idea where she, as an individual woman, fits into this scheme. As suggested by Esther's success in school (in which the expectations of her were challenging but well-defined), Esther functions best when she doesn't have to define herself, but still has an outlet for her ambition. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I’d know what to do. My own mother wasn’t much help. My mother taught shorthand and typing to support us ever since my father died…She was always on me to learn shorthand after college, so I’d have a practical skill as well as a college degree.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Jay Cee
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

On the one hand, Esther’s inability to define her career goals seems to be related to her mental illness. She lacks the kind of self-knowledge that would help her define and achieve her ambition, which is not so different from her literal inability to recognize herself in the mirror. On the other hand, though, as this passage illustrates, Esther’s problems stem from the sexism of 1950s society. Esther knows that she does not want to be a traditional woman by becoming a homemaker or learning shorthand like her mother (who, this passage implies, only works because there isn’t a man in the house), but Esther lacks female role models who could help make a nontraditional life seem concrete and achievable. Jay Cee’s skills and knowledge are admirable to Esther, but utterly mysterious, and Esther does not seem to know how to cultivate a professional mentorship. When she states that she wishes Jay Cee were her mother, it shows that Esther’s only model for relating to older women is maternal. This passage shows clearly that women in the 1950s were structurally prevented from career success.

Chapter 5 Quotes

I remember the day [Buddy] smiled at me and said, “Do you know what a poem is, Esther?’ ‘No, what?’ I said. ‘A piece of dust.’ And he looked so proud of having thought of this that I just stared at his blond hair and his blue eyes and his white teeth—he had very long, strong white teeth—and said ‘I guess so’.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Buddy Willard
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Esther is recalling bitterly a conversation that she had with Buddy about poetry, which is Esther’s passion. Buddy had told her condescendingly that a poem was “just a piece of dust,” implying that his occupation (medical student) was superior to hers. Esther remembers Buddy saying this with a smile and with obvious pride that he had come up with this idea, and his attitude betrays both his disrespect of Esther and his own self-aggrandizement. To belittle Esther, somebody Buddy supposedly loves, while only being concerned with his own cleverness is almost sociopathic in its blatant disregard for human emotion. There’s a deep irony here, since Buddy believes that medicine is more important than poetry because it cares for people’s bodies, but Buddy seems indifferent to taking care of Esther’s emotions. This would certainly validate Esther’s claim that Buddy is a hypocrite. Furthermore, this passage shows the ways in which traditionally male professions (like medicine) come with a kind of respect that feminized professions (poetry) lack. Esther has a good argument for why poetry might be more important than medicine (bodies are dust, and a good poem will last longer than any body), but it doesn’t carry much weight in her society.

Chapter 6 Quotes

I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Esther recalls visiting Buddy at medical school and witnessing childbirth. Buddy explained that the woman had been given a drug that makes women forget the pain of childbirth, and this passage is Esther's response. An important distinction here is that the woman is visibly in pain--she is making horrible noises--so we know that this drug does not take pain away in the present, it only one makes women forget it later. Esther says that this sounds "like the sort of drug a man would invent" because it does not relieve a woman of her pain in the moment, but instead serves the purpose of making her forget something terrible so that she will continue to have more children without thinking of the pain they will cause. Here, medicine is seen as something deployed by men for utilitarian, rather than humanitarian, purposes, and Esther is scared and even resentful of it. This passage is also metaphorical for the damage wrought by structural sexism. While women might not be able to account for everything damaging that has happened to them (Esther would not, for instance, be able to articulate that she has not been taught, like her male peers were, to capitalize on defined career goals), there is a part of each woman that is a "long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain."

All I’d heard about, really, was how fine and clean Buddy was and how he was the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Buddy Willard
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Buddy asks Esther if she would like to see him naked, and the question confuses her. As the quote indicates, Esther keeps being told by her family that Buddy is a "fine and clean" person. For Esther, since she is a woman, being "fine and clean" would mean staying a virgin and protecting her body until marriage, but Buddy's question is confusing because he seems willing to engage in behavior that would, if Esther did it, make her no longer fine and clean. Here, she identifies a double standard in social expectations governing sex, in which Buddy can offer to undress in front of her without it making him impure. On the other hand, though Esther is skeptical of the appropriateness of the gesture, she thinks that, because so many people have told her that Buddy is fine and clean, anything he wanted to do couldn't cause much harm. This passage simultaneously illuminates the contradictions of 1950s social norms, and explains the family pressure that undergirds Esther's obsession with purity.

Chapter 7 Quotes

The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes in the midst of a passage in which Esther is taking stock of everything she can't do (a list notable for its traditionally feminine skills like cooking, singing, dancing, etc.). She notes that she cannot do shorthand, a skill that could get her traditionally feminine secretarial work in which her mother insists she could dictate thrilling letters for her (male) boss. Here, Esther notes that she does not want to serve a man--she wants to be at work on her own projects, making her own "thrilling letters." This passage is interesting because it shows that Esther is much better at articulating her faults than her skills, and she is much better at saying what she doesn't want than what she does (she has few concrete career goals, for instance, but she knows she doesn't want to serve a man). A common idea among feminist thinkers is that femininity is a negatively-defined concept, which means that women are most often identified for what they are not (men) than for what they are. This passage seems to be an embodiment of this concept, in which Esther is very aware of what she isn't and what she doesn't want, but has no strong concept of her goals and identity. 

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

Esther, who has just enumerated many things that she can't do and doesn't want, now tries to name some of the possibilities she sees for the future, which seems to include everything from what is expected of her (marriage and family) to what she desires (becoming famous poet) to what seems intriguing (being an "Olympic lady crew champion"). It is clear in the language she uses that Esther sees the future as being much less real than her limitations. Furthermore, Esther's musings on the future do not serve to inspire or motivate her. She feels paralyzed by all of the possibilities and by the knowledge that choosing one thing might foreclose all of the others. Esther's circumstances and previous experiences (like her time at the magazine) indicate, though, that her paralysis in the face of the future might not be simply due to her inability to parse her abundance of options. Esther is ambitious, but she seems not to understand how to make an achievable path to any of these goals. The problem, then, is not just that choosing one of the metaphorical figs in the fig tree would preclude choosing the others--it's that all of them seem to be visible but out of reach.

Chapter 8 Quotes

People and trees receded on either hand like the dark sides of a tunnel as I hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:
This passage, a memory of the moments leading up to a skiing accident, is one of the most exhilarating descriptions in the book. It seems to be one of only a few moments in which Esther has felt purely happy--ironic, since it is mere moments before she badly breaks her leg. It's interesting that Esther's moment of transcendence is described in a way that is resonant with purity. Everything--the people and scenery--falls away, and Esther describes herself as plummeting into her past, into the purity of the sun (without which the world would not exist, she notes) and the purity of a newborn baby. This skiing accident occurs in the context of a trip to visit Buddy, in which he proposes marriage, Esther refuses, and Buddy (and Esther) seem to not entirely trust that she means what she says. In this context, Esther's desire to escape the complex social expectations of womanhood (some of which grate against Esther's personality) and flee towards a purer and simpler past (or future) makes perfect sense. In addition, her happiness in the face of potential danger is resonant with her latent desire for self-destruction.
Chapter 10 Quotes

I squinted at the page. The letters grew barbs and rams’ horns. I watched them separate, each from the other, and jiggle up and down in a silly way…I decided to junk my thesis. I decided to junk the whole honors program and become an ordinary English major.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes in the midst of a moment of crisis for Esther. While it seems that Esther has always bristled at the expectations placed on her and felt unsure about her future, at this point in the book she is, for the first time, facing a summer in which she must be completely responsible for her own time. In this vacuum of structure, Esther's mental illness (which has shown itself before, like when she couldn't recognize herself in the mirror of the Amazon) begins to take over. Here, reading James Joyce's work (which she once hoped to write a thesis about), the letters morph into strange and indecipherable images, and Esther suddenly no longer feels up to reading, let alone thinking critically about a book and writing down her ideas. This deterioration of Esther's ability to perform tasks that were once easy is an alarming development that foreshadows much trouble to come.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“Suppose you try and tell me what you think is wrong.” I turned the words over suspiciously, like round, sea-polished pebbles that might suddenly put out a claw and change into something else. What did I think was wrong? That made it sound as if nothing was really wrong. I only thought it was wrong.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Dr. Gordon (speaker)
Page Number: 129-130
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes from a conversation between Esther and Dr. Gordon (the male psychiatrist with whom Esther is meeting, whose manner makes Esther deeply uncomfortable). This passage shows, first, how estranged Esther has become from something (words) that was once a source of joy for her (since she was a poet). Esther does not trust the doctor's words, not simply because he seems to be a dubious person, but because the things that Esther once took to be stable are now, in the midst of her illness, betraying her (a "claw" could emerge from the "pebbles" of the words at any moment). This passage also begins to address the stigma in medicine and society against mental health. Esther's doctor is supposed to heal her, and in order to do that he needs to make her feel comfortable, but he phrases his question in a way that implies that Esther's problems are not real. In verbally undermining the seriousness of Esther's mental health problems, Esther's doctor makes Esther feel angry and self-doubting, and he thereby diminishes his efficacy as a doctor.

Chapter 12 Quotes

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 the sap fly out of me like a split plant. I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is Plath's description of Esther's electroshock therapy under the care of Dr. Gordon. While this is supposed to be a therapeutic experience that helps Esther recover from her mental breakdown, the description is anything but therapeutic. Plath describes that it is "like the end of the world" and that Esther "thought [her] bones would break." The experience seems to be one of terror and incredible pain, and it leaves Esther wondering "what terrible thing it was that [she] had done," as though this were a punishment instead of a treatment. This passage clearly recalls the childbirth that Esther and Buddy watched together, in which a woman endured unbelievable pain at the hands of a male doctor. In both of these instances, medicine is used in a way that seems punishing rather than relieving. This passage also illuminates some of the stigma surrounding mental health that Esther experiences. Though Esther seems reasonably aware that her illness is not her fault, she still wonders what she has done that she is being punished for, which indicates a lingering socially-imposed guilt over her symptoms.

It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

After Esther's electroshock therapy, her illness seems to have worsened instead of improved. Esther's reminiscence of her nearly-executed suicide plan from that morning shows the extent to which she has deteriorated, and her explanation of why she didn't go through with the suicide attempt explains a lot about her condition. Esther thinks about slitting her wrists, but balks at actually harming her own flesh. She recognizes, in this quote, that it's not her body that she wishes to kill--it's something in her mind that she does not fully understand and she cannot easily locate. This is another instance of Esther's constant dichotomizing of mind from body. While she knows intellectually that to kill her body would be to kill her mind (and, presumably, the source of her trouble), she cannot talk herself into actually carrying out an action against her own body, because she thinks of it as being utterly distinct from her mind. This mind/body separation has been (and will continue to be) a source of trouble for her, but here it happens to save her life.

Chapter 13 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes in a scene in which Esther is at the beach with friends and decides to drown herself swimming in the ocean. Her body betrays her own death wish and she continues swimming without meaning to, which prompts her to recall another failed suicide attempt from that morning in which she decided to hang herself but couldn't go through with it. At this point, Esther's body is no longer simply a separate entity from her mind (one with divergent motivations, as her mind wants to die and her body wants to live), but her body has become an actual antagonist to her mind. Esther's body is not simply disobeying her mind's wishes, but it is seemingly tricking her mind and even mocking it. This marks a new extreme in the estrangement that Esther feels from her own body--it is now not simply unrecognizable or even unreliable, it is downright diabolical and a source of continued misery.

Chapter 15 Quotes

…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.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Bell Jar
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes as Esther is being driven, by way of Philomena Guinea's generosity, to a much nicer asylum than the one she'd previously been in. While Esther's mother reminds her to be grateful for the opportunity, Esther feels numb. She imagines being given a trip to Europe or a cruise around the world, and determines that even such extravagant and exciting opportunities wouldn't be different than being in an asylum because Esther would still be trapped inside her own mental illness, which renders the world dull and unrelatable. The metaphor Esther chooses for her mental illness is being trapped under a bell jar, which separates her from the rest of the world and warps her view of the world without making it invisible. In other words, Esther's body could inhabit a place, but it wouldn't make a difference to her mind, since, no matter where she is, mental illness has created an unbridgeable barrier between Esther and the rest of the world. 

Chapter 16 Quotes

I hated these visits, because I kept feeling the visitors measuring my fat and stringy hair against what I had been and what they wanted me to be, and I knew they went away utterly confounded.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 202
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Esther has just been delighted by Dr. Nolan's news that Esther will no longer be receiving visitors. Esther reveals that she does not like receiving visitors because nobody seems to take her ideas or her descriptions of her experiences and beliefs seriously, and everyone seems to pity her and judge her based on her appearance and the fact of her having been institutionalized. Furthermore, it seems that all of Esther's visitors seek to change or improve her in some way, rather than meeting her where she is and accepting that this is Esther's current state and current struggle. It's reminiscent, in a way, of Esther having always felt that people were trying to push her in the direction of being a more traditional woman. Esther's refusal of traditional femininity has often felt more ambivalent than her refusal of her visitors, though, which shows--oddly--that Esther might be gaining a new sense of self-confidence and self-possession by being essentially exiled in the asylum.

Chapter 17 Quotes

I felt the nurse had been instructed to show me my alternatives. Either I got better, or I fell, down, down, like a burning, then burnt-out star, from Belsize, to Caplan, to Wymark and finally, after Doctor Nolan and Mrs. Guinea had given me up, to the state place next-door.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Dr. Nolan, Philomena Guinea, The night nurse
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Esther has been put in Belsize, the part of the hospital reserved for the patients who are closest to recovery. However, Esther feels conflicted about whether she belongs there--she still feels ill, and she does not fit in with the other patients. Medicine is here, again, portrayed as something menacing and manipulative. The hierarchy of patients that the hospital system creates makes Esther feel that her self-worth is wrapped up in the same kinds of achievements that governed her life in school. An environment in which Esther is judged or looked down on for the speed of her recovery, though, does not seem conducive to healing. Furthermore, the nurse who explains Esther's possible trajectories to her seems to be threatening that if Esther doesn't get better as expected, something bad will happen to her (like ending up in the state-run hospital, in which conditions are not as good). While Dr. Nolan has been caring and helpful, other aspects of Esther's treatment seem to be less concerned with her well-being.

Chapter 18 Quotes

I climbed up on the examination table, thinking: ‘I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just because of sex, freedom from Florence Crittenden Homes where all the poor girls go who should have been fitted out like me, because what they did, they would do anyway, regardless...’

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Buddy Willard
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs when Esther is at the gynecologist being fitted for a diaphragm, a form of birth control. This is one of the only moments in the book in which Esther seems to understand the connection between mind and body; she sees that the diaphragm, a device intended for her body, is actually doing just as much for her mind. The diaphragm means that she won't have to fear premarital sex and its consequences, and she can be free to make her own choices about her body and her future. This melding of concern for mind and body bodes well for her recovery from her mental illness, and it also allows her a new kind of happiness and freedom that she hadn't previously experienced. This passage also shows the enormity of the burden placed on women by the social expectations that they must remain pure and virginal. Simply by having birth control, Esther becomes liberated from her greatest fears about possible limitations to her future.

Chapter 20 Quotes

There would be a black, six-foot deep gap hacked in the hard ground. That shadow would marry this shadow, and the peculiar, yellowish soil of our locality seal the wound in the whiteness, and yet another snowfall erase the traces of newness in Joan’s grave. I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Joan Gilling
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:
By this point in the book, Esther is experiencing significant recovery from her symptoms, and this passage, a recollection of Joan's funeral, shows just how far Esther has come. While death once represented to Esther a relief from all of her problems and torments, here Esther seems to be resisting death. Her feelings towards death are complex--she sees it as a shadow and a wound, but also something that doesn't preclude purity and beauty (shown by the imagery of the snow), and in some ways a kind of healing and unifying idea. Confronted by the physical evidence of death, Esther reflects on its meaning without considering its implications for her own future; she describes the "old brag of [her] heart. I am, I am, I am." The other instance of this chant was when she tried to drown herself, and her heart seemed to be mocking her by asserting itself in opposition to her mind's wishes. Here, Esther's mind and body seem unified in their contentedness with her life, or at least with life and existence in general.
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