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.
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon

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 she was not aware of having decided to do, as when she can’t control her facial expression for the picture in Jay Cee’s office, or when she discovers herself sobbing at her father’s grave. Over time, Esther’s body becomes her antagonist. At first, she simply refuses to wash it, but eventually she tries to be rid of it altogether by plotting her own suicide. She keeps track of the body’s “tricks” to stay alive and is determined to “ambush” her body “with whatever sense I had left, or it would trap me in its stupid cage.” After her suicide attempt, Esther has trouble even recognizing her body, thinking her mirror reflection is a picture of someone else and watching her usually skinny body grow fat with insulin injections.

However, although Esther’s illness widens the gap between body and mind, that gap in fact exists throughout the novel. It is not caused by mental illness—mental illness simply expands it. Mind and body are always divided, as evidenced by Esther’s experiences at novel’s start and her memories of herself before her illness. In the first chapter of The Bell Jar, before Esther becomes depressed, she has a dissociative experience of not recognizing her reflection in the Amazon’s mirrored elevator door. Flashing back to her day on a ski slope near Buddy’s sanatorium, Esther remembers being exhilarated by the experience of hurtling downhill towards the sun, as if she could transcend her flesh and become “thin and essential as the blade of a knife.”

Plath’s prose style underscores the fundamental division between mind and body through its prodigious use of metaphor and estranging descriptions. The figurative language she uses is incredibly rich and original and feels simultaneously apt and bizarre. As it compares human body parts and human consciousness to everything from goose eggs to nooses, the novel’s language subtly complicates and questions stable understandings of ‘body’ and ‘mind.’ Esther’s perspective also frequently perceives parts of the human body as inanimate objects until she realizes they are feeling flesh, as when she comes round after fainting from food poisoning and sees a vague heap of cornflowers before realizing the heap is her own arm. Likewise, Esther often perceives lifeless objects as sentient beings, as when, lying beside Constantin, she sees his wristwatch as a green eye on the bed.

Mind vs. Body ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Mind vs. Body appears in each chapter of The Bell Jar. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Mind vs. Body Quotes in The Bell Jar

Below you will find the important quotes in The Bell Jar related to the theme of Mind vs. Body.
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). 

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

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 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.