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.
Purity vs. Impurity Theme Icon

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 her spirit. Later that night, she soaks her body in a hot bath to feel spiritually cleansed. Esther also flashes back to the feeling that she might be rendered “saintly” by racing down a ski slope towards the sun.

Yet even though Esther considers purity in multiple arenas of experience, she considers it most frequently in terms of sex. There, ‘pure’ is synonymous with ‘virgin.’ Esther’s obsession with the sexual purity of those around her and her angst about her own virginity dominates Esther’s thoughts on female sexuality. “When I was nineteen,” Esther reflects, “pureness was the great issue…I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t…I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.” Contemplating losing her virginity to Constantin, Esther thinks she would wake up the next day and look in the mirror to “see a doll-size Constantin sitting in my eye and smiling out at me.” Through these thoughts, Esther not only uses purity and impurity to organize the world around her, but also conceives of sex as something that leaves a visible mark—an impurity—in the form of an image on a person’s eye.

Even as Esther is attracted to the transcendent, spiritual purity mentioned above, she is resentful of and frustrated by her sexual purity. She feels stifled by the double standard of social expectation, constantly reiterated by women like her mother and Mrs. Willard, which instructs young women to remain virgins until marriage while allowing young men to engage in sexual experimentation without seriously tarnishing their characters. After discovering that Buddy has had an affair, Esther grows furious at his hypocrisy (pretending to be ‘pure’ while in fact being ‘impure’), which echoes the hypocritical standards of the social expectations surrounding her. Esther becomes determined to abandon her own virginity and embrace sexual freedom, which she eventually manages by buying a diaphragm and having sex with Irwin.

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Purity vs. Impurity ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Bell Jar related to the theme of Purity vs. Impurity.
Chapter 2 Quotes

I lay in that tub on the seventeenth floor of this hotel for-women-only, high up over the jazz and push of New York, for near on to an hour, and I felt myself growing pure again.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

After Esther's night going to the bar and to Lenny's house with Doreen, Esther feels dirty and sad. Though her behavior wasn't as rebellious as Doreen's, Esther still feels that she has strayed, perhaps too far, from her typical habits, and she takes a bath to make herself feel better. While she did describe her eyeliner as smudged, it seems that Esther feels more spiritually dirty than physically dirty. Even so, her bath eventually allows her to feel "pure again." This is another example of the confusion of body and mind that defines Esther's relationship to herself, and which will spiral out of control as her mental illness takes hold.

Throughout the book Esther seems to be seeking a spiritual purity that she's never able to precisely define. It is, perhaps, her inability to concretize the purity she seeks that leads her to confuse this abstract purity with bodily purity, such as her bath in this scene, or her obsession with virginity. 


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Chapter 6 Quotes

All I’d heard about, really, was how fine and clean Buddy was and how he was the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Buddy Willard
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Buddy asks Esther if she would like to see him naked, and the question confuses her. As the quote indicates, Esther keeps being told by her family that Buddy is a "fine and clean" person. For Esther, since she is a woman, being "fine and clean" would mean staying a virgin and protecting her body until marriage, but Buddy's question is confusing because he seems willing to engage in behavior that would, if Esther did it, make her no longer fine and clean. Here, she identifies a double standard in social expectations governing sex, in which Buddy can offer to undress in front of her without it making him impure. On the other hand, though Esther is skeptical of the appropriateness of the gesture, she thinks that, because so many people have told her that Buddy is fine and clean, anything he wanted to do couldn't cause much harm. This passage simultaneously illuminates the contradictions of 1950s social norms, and explains the family pressure that undergirds Esther's obsession with purity.

Chapter 8 Quotes

People and trees receded on either hand like the dark sides of a tunnel as I hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:
This passage, a memory of the moments leading up to a skiing accident, is one of the most exhilarating descriptions in the book. It seems to be one of only a few moments in which Esther has felt purely happy--ironic, since it is mere moments before she badly breaks her leg. It's interesting that Esther's moment of transcendence is described in a way that is resonant with purity. Everything--the people and scenery--falls away, and Esther describes herself as plummeting into her past, into the purity of the sun (without which the world would not exist, she notes) and the purity of a newborn baby. This skiing accident occurs in the context of a trip to visit Buddy, in which he proposes marriage, Esther refuses, and Buddy (and Esther) seem to not entirely trust that she means what she says. In this context, Esther's desire to escape the complex social expectations of womanhood (some of which grate against Esther's personality) and flee towards a purer and simpler past (or future) makes perfect sense. In addition, her happiness in the face of potential danger is resonant with her latent desire for self-destruction.
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.