In the summer of 1953, Esther Greenwood, a brilliant college student, wins a month to work as guest editor with eleven other girls at a New York magazine. Esther lives with the other girls at the Amazon, a woman’s hotel, and attends a steady stream of events and parties hosted by the magazine. Though Esther knows she should be enjoying herself, she feels only numb and detached from the old ambitious self that her boss, editor Jay Cee, tries to motivate. Esther vacillates between wanting to be wholesome, like her friend Betsy, and wanting to break all rules, like her friend Doreen. She worries about the rigid expectations of virginity, maternity, and wifeliness that society (and her mother) holds for young women and feels paralyzed by her contradictory desires for her own future. She goes on a string of bad dates, the best of which feels anticlimactic when the Constantin, an interpreter, makes no romantic advances and the worst of which ends with the misogynistic Marco trying to rape her.
Throughout her time in New York, Esther flashes back to her troubled relationship with Buddy Willard, a handsome know-it-all medical student who Esther once admired and is now disgusted by, having realized Buddy is a hypocrite for projecting a virginal public image even after he’s had a sexual affair. Buddy is currently suffering from TB, but Esther plans to break up with him as soon as he gets better. On her last visit to the sanatorium, she rejected Buddy’s marriage proposal and broke her leg skiing.
Back at home near Boston, Esther is rejected from a writing course she had planned to spend the rest of the summer taking. Stuck at home in the suburbs, Esther’s mental illness, which was nascent in New York, amplifies into suicidal depression. She stops bathing or changing her clothes. She tries and fails to write a novel and loses the ability to sleep, read, write, or eat. She lies about her identity to every stranger she meets. She sees Dr. Gordon, an unsympathetic psychiatrist who prescribes and then incorrectly administers electric shock treatment. Esther tries to kill herself in a variety of unsuccessful ways (by slitting her wrists, hanging herself, and drowning) before hiding in a crawlspace under her house and taking fifty sleeping pills.
Esther is found and rescued and wakes up in a hospital. Facing her own horrific reflection in a mirror, she does not recognize herself. Esther is soon moved to the psychiatric ward of the city hospital where she is paranoid, uncooperative, and still suicidal. Eventually the wealthy novelist Philomena Guinea, who has sponsored Esther’s college scholarship, decides to sponsor her move to a private asylum, where Esther is treated by the compassionate Dr. Nolan and enjoys comforts and freedoms that the city hospital lacked. The doctors arrange to cut off Esther’s steady stream of judgmental visitors (including her mother) who have been exhausting Esther with their advice and inaccurate theories about depression. Joan Gilling, a college friend of Esther’s, winds up at the asylum too after emulating Esther’s suicide attempt. Through a combination of analysis, insulin injections, and correctly administered electric shock therapy, Esther improves and begins to contemplate reentering her old life.
As her condition improves, Esther earns more freedom to come and go from the asylum and she uses these privileges to buy a diaphragm and to lose her virginity in a one-night stand with a math professor, Irwin. With the encouragement of Dr. Nolan, Esther has learned to embrace her independence as a woman and shake off the stifling social expectations she used to feel constrained by. Unfortunately, though Esther expects her loss of virginity to be a revelation, it results in painful hemorrhaging. Later, she discovers Joan having an affair with another patient, DeeDee, and thinks about lesbianism, which she has no attraction to. Soon afterwards, Joan hangs herself. Buddy visits Esther at the asylum and Esther gets closure on their relationship. Esther feels stable and prepares to return to college, though she knows the bell jar of mental illness could descend on her again at any time. The novel ends as Esther enters a last interview with the doctors before returning to college.