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.
Personal Ambition Theme Icon

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 these past successes are meaningless. She realizes that none of her academic achievements have brought her joy and that she has not been truly happy since she was a child running on the beach with her father. Esther begins to feel useless and helpless, recognizing that her knack for winning academic accolades does not necessarily translate into success in the world outside school. “I felt dreadfully inadequate,” she reflects, “The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it. The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end. I felt like a racehorse in a world without race-tracks…”

As she confronts her own inadequacy, Esther is also paralyzed by indecision about the future. Where she was once able to rattle off a long list of plans and goals, she is now tongue-tied and doubtful, as when Jay Cee asks what her ambitions are and Esther can only reply “I don’t know.” She compares this paralysis in the face of choice to sitting at the crotch of a fig-tree. “From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked,” Esther imagines, “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…”

After she returns to her mother’s house and descends further into mental illness, Esther loses personal ambition altogether. She considers dropping out of college and dreams of changing her name to Elly Higginbottom, running away to Chicago, and never striving towards any of her old aspirations again. She loses the refined literary ambitions she possessed at the novel’s start—to write a thesis on Finnegan’s Wake, to be a famous poet—and feels content taking pleasure in popular entertainment by reading tabloids with the uncultured masses.

When Esther eventually regains mental health, she also regains some of her old ambitions, though she now approaches them more knowledgeably. She no longer runs on autopilot accruing successes as she used to in the past. Instead, Esther is hyper-conscious of the hard-won recuperation of sanity, of her retrieved ability to read and think clearly. She values these dearly and is freed from the malaise she felt trapped in at novel’s start. At the same time, Esther is wiser to life’s complexities and knows that, just like she still retains all the memories and experiences of her depression, so too is there no firm boundary cutting off ‘crazy’ people from ‘sane’ ones: “What was there about us, in Belsize, so different from the girls playing bridge and gossiping and studying in the college to which I would return?” Esther muses, “These girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort.” She proceeds into healthy life with caution, knowing that the bell jar of her mental illness may descend again in the future.

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Personal Ambition ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Bell Jar related to the theme of Personal Ambition.
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. 


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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 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 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 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.