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
Mind vs. Body Quotes in The Bell Jar
I felt myself melting into the shadows like the negative of a person I’d never seen before in my life.
…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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
…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.
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.
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.