The Bell Jar

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Themes and Colors
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Purity vs. Impurity Theme Icon
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
Personal Ambition Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Bell Jar, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

At its essence, The Bell Jar is an exploration of the divide between mind and body. This exploration unfolds most visibly in the development of Esther’s mental illness, which she experiences as an estrangement of her mind from her body. As her illness amplifies, Esther loses control over her body, becoming unable to sleep, read, eat, or write in her own handwriting. She frequently catches her body making sounds or engaging in actions that…

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Esther remains preoccupied by questions of purity and impurity throughout the novel, framing them in different terms at different points in her development. She thinks about purity of body as well as purity of mind. Indeed, Esther often speaks of purity as a kind of spiritual transcendence that can be accessed through transcendence of the body. At novel’s start, she admires the clearness of vodka and imagines that drinking it into her body will purify…

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The Bell Jar offers an in-depth meditation on womanhood and presents a complex, frequently disturbing portrait of what it meant to be female in 1950s America. Esther reflects often on the differences between men and women as well as on the different social roles they are expected to perform. Most of her reflections circulate around sex and career. Esther’s interactions with other female characters in the novel further complicate these reflections by presenting different stances…

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Throughout The Bell Jar, Esther struggles to determine her personal ambitions and much of her growth by novel’s end owes to her clarified view of what she wants from herself and from her life. Esther has spent her life prior to novel’s start winning grants, scholarships, and prizes, and excelling in academia. At the outset of the novel, amidst the first signs of Esther’s developing mental illness, she begins to feel that all of…

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From Buddy’s medical school laboratory to Esther’s ritzy private mental asylum, The Bell Jar surveys various medical practices in 1950s America and considers their effectiveness. Buddy embodies the ideals and attitudes of modern medicine at the time. He is active, physically fit, hardworking, committed to science, dismissive of the arts (he scoffs at Esther’s poetry), and rigorously unemotional (he has no qualms about manipulating new mourners into donating their loved ones’ corpses to…

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