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.
Personal Ambition ThemeTracker
Personal Ambition Quotes in The Bell Jar
…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.
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.
The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.
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.
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.
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.