The Bell Jar: Essay Q&A
1. What use does Plath make of the literary motif of the doppelgnger or double in The Bell Jar?
The doppelganger is a well-known motif in myth, folklore and literature. The word comes from doppel ("double") and ganger (usually translated as "goer"). The term refers to any double of a person; sometimes the doppelgnger is a ghostly second self that haunts the first self. Plath had a scholarly interest in the motif of the double, and she uses it in two different ways in The Bell Jar. The character Joan Gilling is Esther's double. Joan's life parallels Esther's. She excels at college; she dates Buddy Willard; she tries to commit suicide when she reads of Esther's own suicide attempt; and she is admitted to the same psychiatric hospital as Esther. Esther wonders at one point whether Joan really exists or whether she invented her. She wonders if Joan "would continue to pop in at every crisis of my life to remind me of what I had been, and what I had been through, and carry on her own separate but similar crisis under my nose." When Joan commits suicide, it is as if the depressive side of Esther's own self has been destroyed. When Esther attends Joan's funeral and thinks of the hole in the ground where Joan will be laid, she hears her own heart beating with the "I am I am I am"-an affirmation of life rather than a desire for death.
The other use of the double is in the character Esther does indeed invent-Elly Higginbottom, who is a kind of second self or alternative identity, a refuge from Esther's sense of oppression and failure. Elly is everything Esther is not and yet in some ways would like to be, just for her peace of mind. Elly comes from Chicago, the sort of place, she thinks, "where unconventional, mixed-up people would come from," rather than Boston, where Esther is hemmed in by conventional expectations. Elly is an orphan and has a sweet quiet nature. She has conventional desires for marriage and many children. Elly is thus an expression of Esther's desire to find a way of fitting comfortably in her world, of breaking free of her own conflicts and uncertainties. But Elly is a fantasy creation. When Esther recovers her mental equilibrium, Elly is no more present in her mind than is Joan.
2. What is the significance in The Bell Jar of the execution of the Rosenbergs?
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the electric chair at Sing-Sing prison in New York on June 19, 1953. They had been convicted of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. However, many people at the time believed the Rosenbergs were innocent, and there was a vigorous campaign to save them from the death penalty. The case against Ethel Rosenberg was especially weak.
The opening paragraph of The Bell Jar contains an extended reference to the famous case: "It was . . . the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs." Esther comments that the case was all there was to read about in the newspapers. She adds, "It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves." She thinks "it must be the worst thing in the world."
There is another somewhat chilling reference to the execution later in the novel, at the beginning of chapter 9. It is the day of the execution, and Esther's fellow intern Hilda says, "I'm so glad they're going to die." Esther repeats the thought in her own mind. Hilda also says, "It's awful such people should be alive." This is in response to Esther's comment, "Isn't it awful about the Rosenbergs?" She means it is awful that they are to be executed. She is obviously sympathetic to the condemned couple, but Hilda misunderstands her point.
Esther may think that the Rosenberg case is "nothing to do with me," and wonder what it is like "being burned alive all along your nerves," but she will later find out at first hand. This happens when she is given electric shock therapy. Her horrific description of her first experience of it is suggestive of what the Rosenbergs may have felt in the electric chair: "Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant."
Esther feels the treatment is in fact a punishment, and wonders "what terrible thing it was that I had done," a comment that puts in mind the Rosenberg executions. There is more than a faint parallel here between fatal electrocution, which is reserved in theory for those who transgress society's most sacred rules (even though the Rosenbergs themselves may, according to many at the time, have been innocent) and milder electrocutions for those who like Esther refuse to conform to the norms of society and must be "shocked" back into becoming acceptable members of it.
3. What critique does The Bell Jar offer of American consumer culture?
At the beginning of the novel, Esther comments that any outside observer would think that she must be having the time of her life in New York. She must be living the American Dream, in which anyone, no matter what their background and circumstances, can rise to the top if they have talent and work hard: "Look what can happen in this country, they'd say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can't afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car."
But rather than having the time of her life, Esther is becoming more and more disillusioned. Working at a top fashion magazine, she is at the heart of American consumer culture, but she begins to see how hollow it is. The reality is very different from the glamorous image. This is cleverly brought out in the food poisoning episode. Esther attends the lavish banquet put on by the magazine, and she relishes the sight and the taste of all the rich foods. She eats as much caviar as she can, and mentions that the magazine regularly features "lush double-page spreads of Technicolor meals, with a different theme and locale each month." But the real meal, as opposed to the glamorous pictures of it, makes her and the other girls severely ill. Plath thus makes the point that the image of life presented in the magazine is an artificial one. Real life does not conform to the glamorous image, and is far more dangerous. Significantly also, Esther starts to feel ill when she is in the movie theater, watching a typical Hollywood romance which has a similarly artificial view of reality. It limps toward a predictable conclusion in which "the nice girl was going to end up with the nice football hero." As Esther looks around at the audience who are lapping up this slice of popular culture that reinforces romantic and gender stereotypes, she thinks they look like "nothing more or less than a lot of stupid moonbrains." For Esther, there is a huge gap between the popular image of relations between men and women, and any reality that she can envision for herself.
4. What role does Esther's mother play in the novel?
Esther's mother never really understands her daughter's plight. Although she does everything she can to help Esther, Esther resents her. This is because her mother is the voice of convention; her horizons do not extend beyond the norm for women of that era. Like a good mother, she tries to teacher her daughter to cook (since all good wives must be able to cook for their husbands), but Esther proves a poor learner. When Esther is depressed, her mother tries to get her to learn shorthand, another skill commonly acquired by women at the time. But Esther has no desire to train as a secretary. She cannot be molded into a conventional pattern.
Esther also resents her mother's practical advice, which generally consists of trite sentiments such as the "cure for thinking too much about yourself was helping somebody who was worse off than you." It is this idea that leads to Esther volunteering at the hospital, which does no her no good at all. It is clear that Mrs. Greenwood has no understanding of Esther's illness. She agrees to try to get her out of the hospital only if Esther will "promise to be good," and she appears to believe that Esther could recover if she simply made a mental decision to do so.
When Esther is in the hospital, her feelings of resentment toward her mother bubble over, and she even says that she hates her. Although she appears to soften her view as she recovers, she sharply disagrees with her mother about how to reestablish her life. Her mother says that they will just pick up where they left off, treating her illness as if it were a bad dream. Esther knows better, however. She is prepared to face up to reality, knowing that her mental breakdown will always be part of who she is. She cannot simply pretend it never happened. In this respect she shows a more mature attitude than her mother.
5. What role does Esther's memory of her father play in the novel?
Esther's father died when she was nine or ten. It is no coincidence when she mentions that the last time she was happy was when she was nine. She remembers running along the beach with her father, the summer before he died.
Esther's mother did not allow herself to mourn her husband, and it appears that Esther, following her mother's example, did not either. She did not cry at the time, and she has never visited her father's grave. When she is depressed she decides to go to the graveyard. She feels she should make it up to her father for not having been before, and do the mourning that her mother had not done. She thinks of all the things she could have learned from her father had he not died so young. As a young woman, she lacks any man in her life who could fill the gap.
When Esther sits down at the tombstone she cries for the first time, remembering her loss. She also remembers a significant thing her mother said at the time of her father's death, that it was better that he had died than spend his life crippled, which he would have hated. This in a way gives Esther a justification for her own desire to commit suicide, since she feels that otherwise she will be condemned to a life of madness. Significantly, she decides to put her carefully laid suicide plan into action the day after her visit to her father's grave.
The Bell Jar is an autobiographical novel, and Plath's father died when Plath was the same age as Esther. Plath's poem "Daddy," contains the following lines:
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you
I thought even the bones would do.
These lines provides a gloss on the same incident in The Bell Jar. Feeling her grief at the loss of her father she wants to join him in death.