Death Imagery in “The Bell Jar”

One of the most interesting motifs of the novel is death's presence in the imagery that develops during the evolution of the narrative.

When returning home Esther exists in a state of stagnation. “I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedspread and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone.” (p. 101) Here Esther is likening her bed to a grave. In life she is tries to escape the world around her through sleep, in the same way she sees dying as the ultimate lasting escape from the world.

Even on her day at the beach this type of imagery remains in her thoughts “I saw a shark’s teeth and whales’ bones littered about down there like gravestones.” (p. 125) Again she brings to the reader's attention that her thoughts are of death. At this moment she is deciding if she should drown herself, but rather than make the choice herself she is waiting for a sign from the sea.

The image of the funeral procession seems to be the next allusion of death used by Esther: “...Grinea’s black Cadillac eased through the tight, five o’ clock traffic like a ceremonial car.” (p. 151) She is being taken to a private hospital for further examination of her illness. In the term “ceremonial car” and the Cadillac’s color, Esther seems to associate this to a hearse carrying the mourners and the dead to a funeral.

Through these images the reader finds that Esther has developed an unhealthy preoccupation with death. She desires to 'wipe herself clean', but something always stops her from completing her suicide. In the end it is not clear that eventually she will not.

To some, The Bell Jar would need no introduction, to this day it stands as a highly revered book amongst feminists and something like a keynote speaker to those who have suffered from depression. To others it may be a book that had to be read during school literature studies, one which suck in their minds long after the final exams, but to more still it remains an undiscovered gem, perhaps heard of, but never explored.

I bought it and read it for the first time yesterday. Yes, just in one day – it is short and shockingly to the point. It's a book that has been on my list for a very long time, having been talked about with great passion by many people who interest me I thought it would be good to try it out.

The Bell Jar was written by Sylvia Plath, most noted for her poetry and held today as an important feminist icon or as some say - martyr. It is likely that the first drafts were done in about 1959 and the fellowship she received in 1961 allowed her to complete the novel. The book was first published shortly after her death in 1963 under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas; it was only in 1966 in England and as late as 1971 in America that the book appeared with her real name. It was her first and last novel, and is largely an autobiographical work, the main character an image of herself and the events that take place on paper matched almost one for one with the story of her own life.


Characters and Plot

The entire book is written in the first person, told from the point of view of the main character, Ester Greenwood. This is an image of Sylvia at the age of just 19, both in physical appearance and mental state. From the outset we are let straight into Esters head, her every thought about her surroundings described for us, as we begin to get a feel for her life so far.

The book is far more about the state of Esters emotions, her thoughts and feelings and view of the world than it is about the story. Although there are many characters that appear throughout the books pages, even those that seem quite important ultimately prove to be of little significance. It is her story, those around her affect its path and her life, but only fleetingly, and then she is left with nothing but the way they made her feel.

Beginning in New York, where Ester is spending the summer as an assistant to a fashion magazine, the words on the page quickly let us into her head. As the winner of a competition to come and live in The Big Apple, she feels she should be lucky, but instead she just feels far removed from all the excited girls around her, dull and empty. Although she seems to have a friend, Doreen, their disparate natures are soon made apparent. As all Esters other friends have grown up and moved on to men, parties and drinking she feels as though she still wishes to spent the days outside, and her evenings studying toward something greater. As she sits, looking in from the outside, there is never a sense of longing, a wish to be like that, but rather a curious non-comprehension at their behaviour.

It is during this time in New York – also the first major parallel between the story and Plath's real life – that Ester really begins to feel that something is wrong. All her plans which she had so carefully laid out seem to be slipping away, that which she was so certain of becomes an unknown. She describes herself as:

"sitting in the crotch of a 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 loosing 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."

We are also introduced to Buddy Willard, her first boyfriend. The relationship tells us a lot about Esters attitude toward men and toward sex. Although she has never even had a lasting relationship, the idea of being a wife and homemaker, of having children and being happy in the shadow of a man make Ester both angry and confused as she sees it portrayed as the natural way. Societies accepted restrictions on women weigh on her as she struggles to find her place.

Buddy is someone she had admired from afar, but never thought she would actually meet, and it is only when he approaches her that they have any real contact. However as she begins to learn more about him she realizes that he is not all she thought and, like all the others boys and many friends as well, she becomes disappointed in his nature and wishes to have no more to do with him.

The second part of the book begins when Esters summer is over. Her plan had been to go to a college writing course, as she wishes to become a poet. But on the way home, her mother informs her that she was not accepted for the course. And here is where the real slide into depression comes. Although Esters thoughts often criticises herself, men, society and cultural expectations, like the author, she never blames her mental state on any of these. Instead she simply holds the terror of mental illness as something she has and must therefore suffer from.

Cancelling all her long held plans and with the thought of being stuck at home with her mother, Esters mind begins to come unstuck. She tries to start writing a novel, but decides that she cannot write as she has no real life experiences. As the days pass her thoughts turn more and more to ones of death and all her actions become linked to those.

Reluctant to get out of bed in the morning, despite many nights of insomnia, she hides herself away, likening he feel of the mattress and pillows on top of her to that of being buried. A day at the beach, arranged by her mother to try and cheer her up, ends with her trying to drown herself by swimming out as far as possible, wanting to lie at the bottom with the bones of all the life before her. As well as insomnia, she finds herself unable to eat, read or write.

It is the last of these that worries her the most and prompts her mother into action – she is sent to a psychiatrist. At first, Ester is somewhat encouraged by this, imagining someone she can talk to and will help her to be able to do things again. Instead she is introduced to Doctor Gordon, who she doesn't like from the start. She spends their first session telling him everything, waiting for an answer, and all she receives at the end is "Okay, well, see you next week". After only two sessions, he decided to send her for electroconvulsive therapy.

At his private hospital Ester undergoes the treatment, and finds it to be worse than death. Upon stepping out of the hospital later that day she informs her mother that she is never going back there, to which her mother smiles at her and says "I knew my baby wasn't like that. Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital. I knew you'd decide to be alright again." To anyone who has experienced some type of mental illness, the irony, frustration and anger held in words like that – despite all good intentions - will be all too familiar.

After the unsuccessful therapy, Ester tries to make amends with her dead father by visiting his gravesite, but this just steers her thoughts back to those of death. After many minor attempts at suicide by drowning, hanging and slitting her wrists, it is now that Esters first serious attempt to take her life unfolds. Exactly as the books author did, Esters hides herself away and swallows over 40 sleeping pills.

Although she is only discovered days later, the attempt was unsuccessful and once she has recovered the third part of the book begins, chronicling Esters time at another private mental asylum. Terrified of more electroshock therapy, all Esters previous fears and confusion return in full force. However this time she is assigned to Doctor Nolan – a woman psychiatrist – which immediately puts Esters mind more at rest. At the hospital Ester also meets one of her old friends, Joan, who ran away from home after reading about Esters suicide attempt in the papers and now wishes to follow suit.

There is also the culmination of Esters worries about sex as she finally looses her virginity to a stranger she decided would be good for the job as well as being fitted with an IUD as she is terrified by the idea of motherhood. She divides the world into just two types of people – those who have had sex and those who have not. Throughout the story she has wondered if her virginity was not part of the problem, if perhaps she got that out the way she would be open to a whole new her and things would be better. Of course it is not so, and ends up with a trip to the emergency room.

As the book follows Esters trails during her stay in the hospital the reader becomes more and more aware of how easy it can be for the mind to slip, for insanity and depression to take over and make perfect sense. And as she once again undergoes the electro therapy she so feared as well as insulin therapy, her sense of despair seeps off the pages. The one thing many people did not like about the book was its ending. It is ambiguous. It does not tell us what becomes of Ester, nor how we should feel about it. The ending is left up to the reader, perhaps to say that as in life, the end is up to no one but oneself.

Final Word

The title of the book refers to Plath's recurring metaphor for depression that is used in the book. When a rich poet who had originally given Ester her scholarship to college provides the funds for her to be in a private asylum instead of the state one, Ester thinks:

"I knew I should be grateful to Mrs Guinea, only I couldn't feel a thing. If Mrs Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn't have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air."

Although there are moments of hope hidden within the pages and flashes of black humour, this book is so honest, so true and so personal, that with knowledge of how it ended in real life there is little room for doubt about what happens to Ester in the end. It is a story of despair, one that perhaps awakens in you your own sense of being closed off, surrounded by an impenetrable bell jar, lost in the noisy confusion of the world. For those not so deeply affected by its truth, it still remains an eye-opener to the nature of depression and its effects on the sufferer, while at the same time being an interesting and absorbing character study.

The books prose is vivid and intense, the ideas laid bare in a straightforward way, just how one would think them. As though they fell straight from the brain that originated them onto the page with no literary devices to obscure the meaning. Like all books that seem to hold a timeless appeal it carries within it something for everyone, its myriad themes spanning across decades and cultures to connect, in some way, with each mind that reads it.

Noding my homework. There was a length restriction and so I had to leave out a number of details however they are all talked about above so, that shouldn't be so much an issue. It should be noted that I wrote this paper in a sort of nursing theory based manner and knowingly omitted several glaring details about Plath and her characters. I didn't even talk about Buddy Willard. Still, here it is - feel free to offer commentary or simply ignore it at your leisure.


            “I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (Plath, 1966, p. 2). Mental illness is the type of disorder that can manifest in such varied and sometimes obscure ways that it is often misunderstood by those who are not personally afflicted. A mental disorder is defined as “a psychological dysfunction within an individual associated with distress or impairment in functioning and a response that is not typical or culturally expected” (Barlow, Durand, & Stewart, 2009, p. 2). The complexity of the human mind - from chemical components to physical structure - provides for a fascinating scientific field of study as well as an opportunity to dissect the very nature of human interaction. This paper will discuss the impact of mental illness from an individual and societal point of view through a brief summary of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar. It will also define and discuss stigma as it relates to mental illness and how this is represented and portrayed throughout the novel. Current health care practices will be examined in relation to those utilized in this story. It will close with a discussion of the influence this novel might have on societal perceptions of mental illness and a reflection on the personal insights it provides.  


            The Bell Jar was penned by Sylvia Plath – her only novel in a career that spanned ten years and whose other work consisted almost entirely of poetry and prose pieces (Wagner-Martin, 1988, p. 243). Sylvia Plath herself suffered from severe depression and ended her own life at the age of 30, an event that has since coloured society’s perception of her writing and lead many to believe that The Bell Jar is at least partially autobiographical (Wagner-Martin, 1988, p. 304). The Bell Jar chronicles a year in the life of a young woman suffering from a mental illness that leaves her feeling detached and despondent, as though she is simply stumbling through life with no purposeful direction.

            The story begins in New York City with the main character, Esther Greenwood, a nineteen year old small town girl who has been given the unique opportunity of an internship at a fashion magazine after winning a writing contest. Despite the fact that Esther has been given a significant scholarship and has excelled throughout her school years, she seems to be drowning in the repressive cultural expectations of women in the 1950s and her own self-described “madness”. She is terribly confused about sexual relationships and obsessed with her own virginity. She often alludes to feeling as though she is ruled by the madness in her head, comparing it to being trapped inside of a bell jar. This seems an apt metaphor, as a bell jar is often used to cover, seal in, and protect delicate items or instruments: “Wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air” (Plath, 1966, p. 178).

            Upon her return from New York City, Esther is to live with her mother for the summer. This is the beginning of her spiral into an unrelenting despair. Failing to gain entrance to a writing course she had applied to prior to her trip triggers a series of particularly unpleasant experiences, thoughts, and more than one failed attempt to end her own life. Esther begins to see her life as a series of telephone poles, each one representing one year: “I counted one, two, three … nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth” (Plath, 1966, p. 118). Her family doctor refers her to her first psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon, whom she detests instantly. Dr. Gordon tries and fails to treat Esther exclusively with electroconvulsive therapy. The experience is horrifying for her and leads to the suicide attempt that nearly succeeds and her subsequent admission to a specialized psychiatric facility. Here she meets Dr. Nolan, whose treatment methods will be discussed later in this paper. Dr. Nolan is responsible for Esther’s ascension from her internal madness and eventual reintegration into society and her college life. As she is preparing for her departure from the facility, Dr. Nolan warns Esther “that a lot of people will treat her gingerly, or even avoid her, like a leper with a warning bell” (Plath, 1966, p. 226).


            The societal behaviour that Dr. Nolan prepares her patient for is something that is now referred to as the stigmatization of the mentally ill. Stigma is simply defined as “the mark of a spoiled identity” (Austin & Boyd, 2010, p. 34). In broader terms and for the purpose of this paper, stigma is a singular term that embodies the numerous misconceptions that surround mental illness and negatively impact the lives of those who are afflicted. Some people are so terrified of this stigmatization that they never seek help, or face constant road blocks in the form of those who do not comprehend the gravity of the situation (Austin & Boyd, 2010, p. 34). One startling statistic indicates that “despite availability of treatment, nearly two thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional” (Austin & Boyd, 2010, p. 34).

            The issue might be inner turmoil - the fear that if they seek assistance with their condition they are admitting weakness and inability to cope. They might fear rejection and exclusion from communities or social groups, a very real possibility even in modern culture and with our growing knowledge of mental illness disorders (Austin & Boyd, 2010, p. 34). This “self-stigmatization” is perhaps the most troubling as it often results in a diminished sense of self and contributes negatively to the success of treatment as outlined in a 2007 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (Watson, Corrigan, Larson, & Sells, 2007, p. 1313). Most of these stigmas stem from preconceived attitudes and beliefs perpetuated by society as a whole.

Attitudes and Beliefs

            The predominate attitudes and beliefs of society in The Bell Jar impact, often harshly, on the course of Esther’s illness. It could be argued that the most significant of these beliefs, outside of the health care settings, are those of Esther’s own mother. A person with a mental illness requires a support system. When a family member starts to believe that they are responsible, it is decidedly damaging for everyone involved and they can experience “frustration, guilt, and anger when the affected family member is immobilized and cannot function” (Austin & Boyd, 2010, p. 393). Esther’s mother goes so far as to plead with her daughter to “tell her what she had done wrong” and even felt the doctors blamed her child rearing for Esther’s problems (Plath, 1966, p. 195). This type of stigmatization could be incredibly detrimental to the psyche of someone who is already suffering with their own diminished sense of self. Esther is perfectly aware that she is not “normal” and notes frequently that she is pleased with her own ability to hide her dysfunction most of the time.

            Plath’s presentation of the main character is particularly interesting. She chooses to create the impression of a fully capable and functional human being with many successes and numerous people who care deeply about her yet nevertheless feels she has no control over her own life or the path that she is on. Esther is incredibly naïve about her own human condition and is very easily swayed into negative thought patterns. This illustrates a key point, and likely one that the author felt particularly important given her own situation – mental illness can affect anyone and is not necessarily a reflection of intelligence or social status. There is one other significant set of attitudes and beliefs in The Bell Jar – those of the doctors involved in Esther’s care.

Mental Health Care Practices

            Plath elects to present two strikingly different sets of attitudes, beliefs, and treatment protocols that were used in the 1950s and probably still persist today. She contrasts the conceited, self-important Dr. Gordon with the gentle, kind-hearted Dr. Nolan. While both are considered professionals and have established practices, Dr. Gordon does not feel the need to communicate with Esther to establish what is truly causing her problems or to establish any kind of therapeutic relationship. He pushes forcefully into electroconvulsive therapy as the only solution to her problems with no establishment of a care plan or support system. He doesn’t explain the procedure and the experience sours Esther’s entire opinion of mental health care.

            Dr. Nolan has a much more patient-centred philosophy in the development of her care plan. She builds a solid, trusting, and therapeutic relationship with Esther for months before she even suggests electroconvulsive therapy. Her emphasis is on what is best for the patient and she states clearly early on that the treatment Esther received from Dr. Gordon was not administered correctly. At one point Dr. Nolan restricts all visitors much to Esther’s relief. While restriction of visitors probably seemed like a punishment to some, it was precisely what Esther needed to escape the stigmatization and unwanted commentary from well-intentioned family and friends.

            Despite the obvious improvements in Dr. Nolan’s plan, none of the treatments that were used in Esther’s care would be considered commonplace in current mental health care practice. Electroconvulsive therapy, while still used and supported by some, is becoming more of a last resort than a primary intervention. Still, some of the problems that Esther faced with her electroconvulsive therapy still persist today as evidenced by a 2009 Journal of Mental Health study on the patient’s perspective post administration. This study revealed that at least one third of the patients polled felt they had an insufficient or no explanation at all about the therapy prior to its administration (Rayner, Kershaw, Hanna, & Chaplin, 2009, p. 382). Despite advances in privacy and patient consent laws, only two years ago people with mental illness were being subjected to the same things that occurred in Esther’s story some sixty years ago.

            Another treatment protocol used in Esther’s care was insulin shock therapy. This treatment involved giving patients steadily higher doses of insulin until they convulsed and became temporarily comatose. It was found that “Some actually recovered their mental health, much to the surprise of everybody, and their recovery was attributed to the convulsions” (Barlow, Durand, & Stewart, 2009, p. 13). In modern practice this therapy is considered too dangerous and would not be used, although there has been much discussion about the link between insulin abnormalities and depression, primarily in diabetic patients (Lustman, Anderson, Freedland, De Groot, Carney, & Clouse, 2000).

The second half of this novel correlates with the multidisciplinary approaches used in modern mental health care practice. It has been proven that Dr. Nolan’s combination of psychotherapy and pharmaceutical intervention is much more likely to be successful long term than a one-dimensional approach (Barlow, Durand, & Stewart, 2009, p. 31).

Personal Insights and Societal Influences

            The first half of this novel provides a poignant example of the potentially devastating effects of mismanaging a patient with a mental illness. Sylvia Plath used her poetic prowess to vividly portray the absolute desperation and crippling effect that mental illness can have on a person. This seems vitally important given the on-going stigmatization of mental illness that is still prevalent in modern society. Providing insight into the perspective of the mentally ill person may be the only purposeful way to help alleviate these stigmas and misconceptions. It seems as though it might be considered required reading for anyone who is having difficulty understanding the plight of someone who is dealing with a severe episode or lifelong mental illness.  

This novel has, from a personal standpoint, influenced much of my own philosophy when dealing with the mentally ill and really anyone enduring a crisis in their personal or professional life. Having read the novel several times and at different stages of my own life, it never fails to invoke powerful emotions and introspection. Regardless of the life stage, it always seems to reinforce the importance of understanding and compassion for anyone involved in a situation of this nature. 


            Mental illness is the type of disorder that does not discriminate based on age, race, sex, or social status. While there is sometimes an increased risk of certain types of mental illness in specific demographics, a crisis can occur at any time and to anyone. The Bell Jar presents an intimate and emotionally gripping story and highlights all of the most important aspects of mental health care. These include the need to understand and discourage stigmatization of mental illness, provide individualized and multidisciplinary therapy to those affected, and the continued education of society as a whole. Esther Greenwood provides an inspirational character, despite the heaviness of the subject matter, for anyone who is suffering or has suffered from a mental illness. This is never more notable than when Esther receives her first successful electroconvulsive therapy treatment with Dr. Nolan: “All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.” (Plath, 1966, p. 206) With support, compassion, and the appropriate interventions mental illness can be managed in the community and in health care settings to the benefit of everyone involved.


Austin, W., & Boyd, M. (2010). Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing for Canadian Practice. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Barlow, D. H., Durand, V. M., & Stewart, S. H. (2009). Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach (2nd Canadian ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education Ltd.

Lustman, P., Anderson, R., Freedland, K., De Groot, M., Carney, R., & Clouse, R. E. (2000, July). Depression and Poor Glycemic Control: A meta-analytic review of the literature. Diabetes Care, 7(23), 934-942.

Plath, S. (1966). The Bell Jar. London, England: Faber and Faber Limited.

Rayner, L., Kershaw, K., Hanna, D., & Chaplin, R. (2009, October). The patient perspective of the consent process and side effects of electroconvulsive therapy. Journal of Mental Health, 5(18), pp. 379-388.

Wagner-Martin, L. (1988). Sylvia Plath, the critical heritage. New York, NY: Routledge, Chapman and Hall Inc.

Watson, A. C., Corrigan, P., Larson, J. E., & Sells, M. (2007, January 25). Self-Stigma in People With Mental Illness. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 33(6), pp. 1312-1318.-Stigma in People With Mental Illness. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 33(6), pp. 1312-1318.

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