The Bell Jar


Sylvia Plath

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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:
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:
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:
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: