The Bell Jar

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Mirrors Symbol Icon
Mirrors symbolize identity and Esther’s reflection in and relation to mirrors throughout the novel follows the loss of her healthy self to mental illness. Esther’s inability to recognize herself in the elevator reflection at the Amazon, the compact mirror in Jay Cee’s office, and the mirror a nurse hands her at the city hospital illustrates Esther’s slipping grasp on her own identity, which is profoundly distorted by her suicidal depression. At the peak of her depression, Esther relies on this slippage to make suicide easier, thinking that she if she watched the reflection of herself slitting her wrists in a mirror (rather than looking at her actual wrists), she would be able to go through with the task. At the same time, the description of a mirror as “a silver hole” suggests that, to some extent, all images of identity are false, more a projection by the viewer than a revelation of essential truth.

Mirrors Quotes in The Bell Jar

The The Bell Jar quotes below all refer to the symbol of Mirrors. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harper Perennial edition of The Bell Jar published in 2005.
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). 

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Mirrors Symbol Timeline in The Bell Jar

The timeline below shows where the symbol Mirrors appears in The Bell Jar. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Purity vs. Impurity Theme Icon
In the reflection of the metal elevator door at the hotel, Esther sees “a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman... (full context)
Chapter 3
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
...events to spend time with Lenny. Each place is set with a favor: a compact mirror, a painted frame around “a silver hole.” Esther explains that eating rich food is her... (full context)
Chapter 7
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Purity vs. Impurity Theme Icon
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
...see a tiny replica of the man she slept with in her eye in the mirror. (full context)
Chapter 9
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Personal Ambition Theme Icon
...the animal, but it seemed to have taken my spirit with it.” In her compact mirror, her face appears to be the face of someone beaten up in jail, staring out... (full context)
Chapter 10
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
...“touching, and rather spectacular” and refuses to wash off. Looking at herself in her compact mirror, she looks “like a sick Indian.” She doesn’t “really see” why people stare at her,... (full context)
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Personal Ambition Theme Icon
...ahead). After a few lines, “words, dimly familiar…twisted all awry, like faces in a funhouse mirror” and “fled past, leaving no impression on the glassy surface of my brain.” (full context)
Chapter 11
Medicine Theme Icon
...in Dr. Gordon’s office waiting room, Esther notices everything is beige and there are no mirrors or pictures, only framed certificates from medical schools. There are no windows, either, which makes... (full context)
Chapter 12
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
...to get at.” Standing there in the bathroom, she’d tried standing in front of a mirror, thinking, “if I looked in the mirror while I did it, it would be like... (full context)
Chapter 14
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
Later, Esther ignores the nurse’s warning and persuades the nurse to give her a mirror. At first, Esther thinks what she’s handed isn’t a mirror “but a picture” depicting a... (full context)