The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath c. 1971 (244 pages—Harper)

First published in London in 1963 (the year of Sylvia Plath’s death) under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, The Bell Jar is Plath’s largely autobiographical account of her battle with mental illness. The protagonist, a nineteen-year-old writer named Esther Greenwood, goes to New York after being awarded an internship at a fashion magazine. Returning home to the suburbs of Boston, Esther suffers insomnia and is plagued by thoughts of death. The recurring image of a “bell jar” seems to convey the narrator’s feeling of being trapped and exposed—similar to a specimen in a bell jar.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers—goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway . . . It was like the first time I saw a cadaver. For weeks afterward, the cadaver’s head—or what was left of it—floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast and behind the face of Buddy Willard, who was responsible for my seeing it in the first place, and pretty soon I felt as though I were carrying that cadaver’s head around with me on a string, like some black noseless balloon stinking of vinegar” (1-2).
  • “The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence” (18).
  • “I’d discovered, after a lot of extreme apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at a table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty” (27).
  • “I’d been telling people I’d always wanted to learn German for about five years. / My mother spoke German during her childhood in America and was stoned for it during the First World War by the children at school. My German-speaking father, dead since I was nine, came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia . . . / What I didn’t say each time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam” (33).
  • “Botany was fine, because I loved cutting up leaves and putting them under the microscope and drawing diagrams of bread mold and the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern, it seemed so real to me . . . [But] Physics made me sick the whole time I learned it. What I couldn’t stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes and enlarged diagrams of the holes the leaves breathe through the fascinating words like carotene and xanthophyll on the blackboard, there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas in Mr. Manzi’s special red chalk” (34-35).
  • “It wasn’t the nice kind of rain that rinses you clean, but the sort of rain I imagine they might have I Brazil. It flew straight down from the sky in drops the size of coffee saucers and hit the hot sidewalks with a hiss that sent clouds of steam writhing up from the gleaming, dark concrete” (41).
  • “The same thing happened over and over: / I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all. / That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket” (83).
  • “It was the day after Christmas and a gray sky bellied over us, fat with snow. I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass” (87).
  • “The cold air punished my lungs and sinuses to a visionary clearness” (94).
  • “A dispassionate white sun shone at the summit of the sky. I wanted to hone myself on it till I grew saintly and thin and essential as the blade of a knife” (98).
  • “Fashion blurbs, silver and full of nothing, sent up their fishy bubbles in my brain. They surfaced with a hollow pop” (99).
  • “The faces were empty as plates, and nobody seemed to be breathing” (105).
  • “Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York” (111).
  • “The gray, padded car roof closed over my head like the roof of a prison van, and the white, shining, identical clapboard houses with their interstices of well-groomed green proceeded past, one bar after another in a large but escape-proof cage. / I had never spent a summer in the suburbs before” (114).
  • “I feigned sleep until my mother left for school, but even my eyelids didn’t shut out the light. They hung the raw, red screen of their tiny vessels in front of me like a wound. I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone. It felt dark and safe under there, but the mattress was not heavy enough” (123).
  • “I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason” (124).
  • “I saw, as if through the keyhole of a door I couldn’t open, myself and my younger brother, knee-high and holding rabbit-eared balloons, climb aboard a swanboat and fight for a seat at the edge, over the peanut-shell-paved water. My mouth tasted of cleaness and peppermint. If we were good at the dentist’s, my mother always bought us a swanboat ride” (137).
  • “Pantherlike in a dapple of tree shadow, Dodo Conway’s black station wagon lay in wait . . . Sitting in the front seat, between Dodo and my mother, I felt dumb and subdued. Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently” (145).
  • “I hadn’t slept for twenty-one nights. / I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth” (147).
  • “When they asked some old Roman philosopher or other how he wanted to die, he said he would open his veins in a warm bath. I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists, flush after flush through the clear water, till I sank to sleep under a surface gaudy as poppies. / But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. 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” (147).
  • “The stones lay lumpish and cold under my bare feet. I thought lovingly of the black shoes on the beach. A wave drew back, like a hand, then advanced and touched my foot. / The drench seemed to come off the sea floor itself, where blind white fish ferried themselves by their own light through the great polar cold. I saw sharks’ teeth and whales’ earbones littered about down there like gravestones. / I waited, as if the sea could make my decision for me. / A second wave collapsed over my feet, lipped with white froth, and the chill gripped my ankles with a mortal ache” (153).
  • “I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head, but the idea seemed so involved and wearisome that I didn’t say anything. I only burrowed down further in the bed” (182).
  • “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” (185).
  • “The walls were bright, white lavatory tile with bald bulbs set at intervals in the black ceiling. Stretchers and wheelchairs were beached here and there against the hissing, knocking pipes that ran and branched in an intricate nervous system along the glittering walls. I hung onto Doctor Nolan’s arm like death, and every so often she gave me an encouraging squeeze” (213).
  • “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” (215).
  • “A fresh fall of snow blanketed the asylum grounds—not a Christmas sprinkle, but a man-high January deluge, the sort that snuffs out schools and offices and churches, and leaves, for a day or more, a pure, blank sheet in place of memo pads, date books and calendars” (236).
  • “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream. / A bad dream. / I remembered everything. / I remembered the cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig tree and Marco’s diamond and the sailor on the Common and Doctor Gordon’s wall-eyed nurse and the broken thermometers and the Negro with his two kinds of beans and the twenty pounds I gained on insulin and the rock that bulged between sky and sea like gray skull. / Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them. / But they were part of me. They were my landscape” (237).
  • “Then, behind the coffin and the flowers and the face of the minister and the faces of the mourners, I saw the rolling lawns of our town cemetery, knee-deep in snow now, with the tombstones rising out of it like smokeless chimneys” (243).
  • “But I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (241).
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About Kelsey Maki

writer and English professor
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