The Bell Jar

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The Bell Jar Symbol Analysis

The Bell Jar Symbol Icon
The bell jar symbolizes mental illness and gives the novel its title. It is Esther’s own metaphor for describing what she feels like while suffering her nervous breakdown: no matter what she is doing or where she is, she sits alienated “under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” Though she can see through the transparent glass to the world beyond, the glass jar distorts the image of that world, leaving the suffering viewer with a warped understanding of reality. After undergoing electric shock therapy and analysis at the mental asylum, Esther feels the bell jar lifted. However, even as she welcomes health, she fears a future re-descent of the bell jar and wonders whether other bell jars also imprison the seemingly sane people around her.

The Bell Jar Quotes in The Bell Jar

The The Bell Jar quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Bell Jar. 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 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. 

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The Bell Jar Symbol Timeline in The Bell Jar

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Bell Jar appears in The Bell Jar. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 15
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
...feels that no matter where she is, she “would be sitting under the same glass bell jar , stewing in my own sour air.” (full context)
Chapter 18
Medicine Theme Icon
...Esther agrees, as Dr. Nolan had promised: pain free. Esther feels “surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head.” Dr. Nolan assures Esther all the treatments... (full context)
Chapter 20
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
...put the past away like “a bad dream.” But, Esther thinks, “to the person in the bell jar …the world itself is the bad dream” and she can’t forget any of the experiences... (full context)
Personal Ambition Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
...“calm, snow-maiden face behind which so little, bad or good, could happen.” Esther wonders if the bell jar will descend on her again on the future. She worries, too, who she will marry... (full context)