The Bell Jar symbolism is revealed in everyday objects and metaphors the protagonist uses in her inner dialog. The setting, genre selection, specific language, and literary devices enhance the reader’s impression of the character’s movement from depression to madness.
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The Bell Jar Symbols
From the section below, you’ll be able to learn more about The Bell Jar symbols: the fig tree and the mirror.
Fig Tree in The Bell Jar
The fig tree of Sylvia Plath is the best depiction of a woman’s life in the novel. In Chapter 7, she describes the dilemma any woman faces at least once in her life. She can control her destiny like Jay Cee, Dr. Nolan, or Philomena Guinea, living a lonely life. She can render that power to a man but lose her identity in motherhood. Esther thinks that she can choose only between a career or motherhood, but not both. The fig tree symbol shows that a woman cannot have everything in her life, even if she does her best. Unlike men, for who a family and career are not “mutually exclusive” things, a woman has to select one variant or nothing.
Esther’s ambition used to open a world full of opportunities for her. It is worth noting that the imaginary fig tree branches out with unconventional professions for a mid-20th century woman. She thinks of becoming a traveler, professor, editor, athlete, or even having a host of lovers from exotic countries. Her selection of career paths makes them hardly achievable. For this reason, she can limit herself to sitting under the bell jar over the fig tree in her mind.
Quotes on the Fig Tree in The Bell Jar
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet… and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.The Bell Jar, chapter 7
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.The Bell Jar, chapter 7
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 a grey skull.The Bell Jar, chapter 20
Mirror in The Bell Jar
Mirrors and reflection motifs appear in the novel multiple times and correlate with the theme of identity. The protagonist’s opinion about her reflection and her relation to mirrors in general signal the worsening of her mental health.
Esther struggles to find her identity. That is why she fails to recognize herself in the mirror in the hotel elevator. It happens after the girl spends an evening with Doreen and Lenny at the beginning of the story. She sees a Chinese woman smiling “idiotically” at her. This moment shows that Esther feels inferior to other people, given the position Chinese people and women, in particular, had in American society in the 1950s.
After her suicide attempt, Esther does not recognize her discolored face. She cannot tell if the bruised creature is a man or a woman.
Mirror imagery in The Bell Jar is also mentioned when she regains consciousness after electric shock therapy. Esther thinks that it shows the reflection of some other woman in the room.
All these details point to Esther’s failure to accept her identity. She does not understand who she is and what she wants from life.
Quotes on Mirrors in The Bell Jar
The mirror over my bureau seemed slightly warped and much too silver. The face in it looked like the reflection in a ball of dentist’s mercury.
The Bell Jar, chapter 2
The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.
The Bell Jar, chapter 10
But the person in the mirror was paralysed and too stupid to do a thing.
The Bell Jar, chapter 12
You couldn’t tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head… The person’s mouth was pale brown, with a rose-coloured sore at either corner.
The Bell Jar, chapter 14
The Bell Jar Genre
The Bell Jar is an autobiographic novel written in the genre of psychological realism. It is not an autobiography, as it contains some fictional elements.
Esther Greenwood, the protagonist, goes from adolescence to adulthood. She is concerned about her virginity and vague literary aspirations, but she becomes an experienced woman with a solid willingness to write poetry at the end of the story. These features define the novel as coming-of-age fiction.
Sylvia Plath uses Esther’s conflict with the outside world as a background for social and feminist criticism. That is why The Bell Jar is a satire.
The Bell Jar Setting
The entire plot unfolds in the summer of 1953 in the US. We know the year as the narrator mentions that the events occurred in the summer when the Rosenbergs were executed. The novel starts in New York during Esther’s internship at a fashion magazine and culminates in the Boston suburbs, where she makes suicide attempts. She receives shock treatment at a hospital in Walton, Massachusetts.
Esther’s condition gets worse, and her family cannot afford a private asylum. However, her sponsor, Philomena Guinea, pays for her stay at a psych ward in New England. The hospital consists of three buildings (Caplan, Belsize, and Wymark) where patients are allocated depending on their mental state. The main character lives only in the first two.
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