Looking for The Bell Jar summary and analysis? You’re in the right place! In the article prepared by our experts, you’ll find a synopsis, an illustrated plot timeline, and chapter summaries of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
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📃 The Bell Jar Synopsis
Despite the numerous events and feelings described in the novel, The Bell Jar book summary can be expressed in a couple of sentences. A college student lives through a depressive episode that leads her to multiple suicide attempts. Several doctors treat her, but only the caring and attentive treatment of the last one helps. She associates her mental illness with a bell jar that prevents her from free breathing.
📈 The Bell Jar Plot Timeline
Below you’ll find a plot timeline of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It contains all the novel’s key events on one picture.
📖 The Bell Jar Chapter Summaries
The section below contains a detailed summary of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It is divided into the 4 subsections, each focused on 5 book’s chapters.
The Bell Jar Summary: Chapters 1-5
Esther Greenwood is a brilliant 19-year-old college student. In the summer of 1953, she wins the competition to be the guest editor of Ladies’ Day in New York for one month. But the prospect does not make her happy. Moreover, she does not enjoy her new job, clothes, or parties, although many girls of her age would envy her.
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.The Bell Jar, chapter 1
She lives in a women’s hotel named Amazon. 11 other girls came to New York to be guest editors, like her, and some other beautiful ones, who work as secretaries. The protagonist makes friends with Doreen, a beautiful and sarcastic rule-breaker. But she avoids Betsy, a wholesome girl who wants to become Esther’s friend.
Chapter 1 of The Bell Jar culminates at a party on the road to which they meet Lenny Shepherd, a disc jockey. The young man likes Doreen (and her voluptuous beauty).
The Bell Jar Chapter 2 starts with Esther and Doreen going to Lenny’s apartment. Lenny dances with Doreen and fights with her playfully. When Doreen’s breasts slip from under her strapless dress, Esther realizes she is an odd man out and leaves. She walks all the way home. Back at the hotel, Esther takes a bath to feel “growing pure again.”
I don’t believe in baptism or the waters of Jordan or anything like that, but I guess I feel about a hot bath the way those religious people feel about holy water.The Bell Jar, chapter 2
Late at night, Doreen knocks at her door. She is drunk and vomits on the carpet. Esther leaves her there and takes Doreen’s room for the night, deciding to become friendlier with Betsy. In the morning, Doreen is gone, like her vomit on the carpet.
Chapter 3 of The Bell Jar starts with a banquet luncheon organized by her magazine. Esther has never been to a restaurant, so she is eager to attend the party. Doreen skips the event to spend the evening with her new boyfriend. Betsy asks Esther why she missed he fur show that took place the same day. Esther replies she had a conversation with her boss, Jay Cee. She was asked about her plans for the future but could not give a definite answer. Esther thought of going into publishing but lacked the knowledge of foreign languages. She had a flashback about her college life, where she wrote poems during chemistry classes.
Esther enjoys the conversation with her boss. She wishes she had such a mother because her mom “wasn’t much help.” Her mother wanted Esther to learn shorthand to be able to support herself. Her father passed away when the protagonist was nine years old, leaving no life insurance, and they had a hard time then.
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My mother had taught shorthand and typing to support us ever since my father died, and secretly she hated it and hated him for dying and leaving no money because he didn’t trust life insurance salesmen.The Bell Jar, chapter 3
Esther is given a finger-bowl, which reminds her of Philomena Guinea. She was a famous writer and a wealthy sponsor who paid for Esther’s college. Esther wanted to have a career like Philomena.
In chapter 4 of The Bell Jar, the girls are taken to watch a movie after the luncheon. Esther thinks that the plot is dull and artificial. A nice girl gets happily married, while a sexy one is left alone. During the film, Esther and Betsy feel sick and leave. They vomit all the way home. Later, Esther learns that all the people who attended the event had food poisoning.
Poisoned, the whole lot of you. I never seen anythin’ like it. Sick here, sick there, whatever have you young ladies been stuffin’ yourselves with?The Bell Jar, chapter 4
Doreen takes care of her. Esther enjoys the illness as it reflects her moral condition.
The Bell Jar Chapter 5 starts with a phone call from Constantin that Esther receives on the following day. He is a UN interpreter and an acquaintance of Mrs. Willard. Her son, Buddy Willard, wanted to marry Esther, but the girl had not had an occasion to tell him she did not want to.
Buddy once said that a poem is “a piece of dust.” In one of his later letters, he told her about a poem written by a doctor. He thought that doctors and poets could get along well. Esther recalls how they started dating. Buddy invited her on a date during his own date with Joan Gilling.
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Oh, I like Joan. She never cares whether you spend any money on her or not and she enjoys doing things out-of-doors.The Bell Jar, chapter 5
He was a handsome young man. Still, when they kissed for the first time, Esther felt nothing but a willingness to share the adventure with her friends.
The Bell Jar Summary: Chapters 6-10
Chapter 6 of The Bell Jar describes Esther’s relationship with Buddy. He took her to see fetuses in jars and cadavers. The fetus jars fascinated Esther. They represent a life that ends before it even begins. They also echo the novel’s title of the novel and serve as a foreshadowing of Esther’s suicidal depression, of which the bell jar is a symbol.
Then they went to Buddy’s room, where he asked if she had seen a naked man and wanted to see him. She agreed, and the sight made her think of “turkey neck and turkey gizzards.” Esther refused to undress. Then she asked Buddy if he had ever had sex. Buddy confessed to having slept with a waitress for ten weeks, although claiming that she had seduced him.
Mother asked me about Gladys… I said Gladys was free, white and twenty-one.The Bell Jar, chapter 6
Esther decided to break up with him, but Buddy fell ill with tuberculosis. She felt relieved.
The Bell Jar Chapter 7 starts with Constantin taking Esther to his work at the UN. Both of them find Mrs. Willard unpleasant. Esther is surprised to realize that with Constantine, she feels happy for the first time since she was nine. Watching the interpreters’ work, the girl reflects on the many things she cannot do. Esther does not speak foreign languages, dance, sing, ski, ride a horse, or write shorthand.
Esther imagines her life as a fig tree. Figs represent her life choices (a family, different careers, traveling, etc.). It takes her too long to decide, and the figs rot and fall to the ground.
Constantin invites her to have dinner and then to his place.
I felt so fine by the time we came to the yoghourt and strawberry jam that I decided I would let Constantin seduce me.The Bell Jar, chapter 7
But they just fall asleep, and nothing happens. She wakes up at night and wonders what it is like to be married. Esther reaches the conclusion that it is all about cleaning and washing. Her ambitions do not match with a marriage.
In chapter 8, Esther has a flashback to the day when Mr. Willard took her to visit Buddy at the sanatorium. There she told him she would never marry. He tried to teach Esther to ski. She was happy but fell and broke her leg twice. She enjoyed being close to death.
Chapter 9 of The Bell Jar starts with Esther’s conversation with Hilda about the Rosenbergs and their execution. Hilda thinks they deserve their death. Esther watches the girl yawn and remarks, “a blind cave behind her face.”
Her depression starts to show. When asked to smile for the camera, Esther starts crying.
I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week.The Bell Jar, chapter 9
When she looks in the mirror, she sees a person behind bars beaten in jail. She dreams of becoming a writer, and Jay Cee will accept her manuscripts for print. Esther cannot pack her clothes for several days, and Doreen throws them under the bed.
Doreen convinces Esther to come to the country club with her and Lenny. There will be someone who could become her date. She reluctantly agrees.
The young man called Marco is a Peruvian and a “woman-hater.” He gives Esther a diamond pin. But he also forces her to dance and decides what she should drink. Then they go outside, and Esther asks Marko who he loves. He says, it is his cousin but they will never marry. She is going to become a nun. Esther tells Marco he will find another person to love, and he hits her into the mud and tries to rape her. Esther breaks his nose and leaves him to search for his diamond pin in the dirt.
Back at the hotel, she throws all her clothes from the roof. With Marco’s blood on her face and dressed in Betsy’s clothes, she takes the train to Massachusetts. She wonders why everyone is staring at her.
In chapter 10 of The Bell Jar, Esther’s mother meets her at the station. She says that Esther has not been admitted to the fiction writing course. The girl does not know what to do with her life. She has many options, none of which satisfy her. Finally, she decides to drop out of college for a year to have more time to think.
Esther receives a letter from Buddy. He is falling in love with a nurse and invites the protagonist to visit him and win his love back. She writes an answer on the flip side of his letter that she never wants to see him again.
Several weeks later, Esther asks her family doctor, Teresa, to prescribe more sleeping pills. The doctor sends her to a psychiatrist.
I think, you’d better see another doctor I know. He’ll be able to help you more than I can.The Bell Jar, chapter 10
The Bell Jar Summary: Chapters 11-15
Esther has not slept for a week. She has not bathed or washed Betsy’s clothes since she returned from New York three weeks ago. She visits Dr. Gordon’s office. Esther hopes he might help, but it turns out he does not take her illness seriously. He recalls a “pretty bunch of girls” from Esther’s college and says that all her problems are in her head. The girl’s mother is saddened by the need for a second visit to the doctor, as it is expensive.
My mother sighed. Doctor Gordon cost twenty-five dollars an hour.The Bell Jar, chapter 11
By the next visit to Dr. Gordon, Esther has not slept for fourteen days. The “unimpressed” doctor asked to talk to Esther’s mother in private, prescribing electric shock therapy. Esther received the information as if she read it in a news report about someone else. She tries to escape to Chicago to avoid the treatment but fails to do so.
In The Bell Jar chapter 12, Esther comes to the hospital. The patients seem normal at first, but then they resemble her “shop dummies.” Electric shock therapy feels like “the end of the world.” Esther thinks about what she has done to be punished so badly.
On the way home, the girl asks her mother to discontinue her visits to Dr. Gordon. The mother is glad that Esther has decided “to be all right again.”
I knew my baby wasn’t like… those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital.The Bell Jar, chapter 12
Esther sits in the park, comparing her picture with a picture of a dead starlet in a newspaper. She plans to kill herself. In the morning she has tried to cut her wrists but could not dare. That is why she practiced on her calf.
Esther could not cut her wrists because she did not have a bath to sit in afterward. She did not manage to drown herself either because the water was too cold.
In the beginning of chapter 13 of The Bell Jar, Esther goes to the beach with some friends. She tries to drown herself once again, swimming too far. While doing so, Esther recalls her attempt to hang herself on the cord of her mother’s bathrobe. She couldn’t find a proper place to do it and tried to strangle herself with her hands. It didn’t work either. She thinks of her body as a trap that makes her existence pointless. Besides, the drowning was failed, too.
Esther visits her father’s grave and cries there for the first time since his death. She decides that she will kill herself when she runs out of the money earned in New York.
The next morning, when her mother leaves for work, Esther takes a bottle of sleeping pills and a glass of water. As she eats all of them, she faints.
The bottle slid from my fingers and I lay down. The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life.The Bell Jar, chapter 13
In chapter 14 of The Bell Jar, Esther wakes up at a hospital where her distraught mother visits her. Esther breaks a mirror and gets transferred to a psych ward. Both the doctors and her mother treat her as if she misbehaved rather than had a disease.
You should have behaved better, then.The Bell Jar, chapter 14
Gradually, Esther’s mother agrees to get her out of the hospital on the condition she will be a good girl and cooperate with her doctors. But one day, Esther turned over a tray of thermometers to steal a ball of mercury. She keeps playing with it, watching the mercury decompose into smaller parts and then reassembling again without any trace of a crack.
In chapter 15, Esther’s mother has run out of money on the hospital bills. Philomena Guinea undertakes the payment for a private mental asylum.
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… I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.The Bell Jar, chapter 15
On the way, Esther thinks of jumping from a bridge. But her mother and brother hold the car doors so that she cannot escape.
At the asylum, she receives insulin injections. They have no effect apart from her growing plump.
The Bell Jar Summary: Chapters 16-20
In the institution, Esther meets Joan Gilling, her college acquaintance. She has read about Esther in a newspaper and decided to come to the same asylum. Joan also had psychological problems. She tried to kill herself, having read about Esther’s suicidal attempt.
I read about you… and I put all my money together and took the first plane to New York… I thought it would be easier to kill myself in New York.The Bell Jar, chapter 16
The insulin treatment starts to have a positive result. Dr. Nolan, Esther’s doctor, promises that there will be no more visitors. Esther is happy, as she hates when people come to say that her depression is imaginary. The girl tells the doctor she also hates her mom, and the statement seems to please Dr. Nolan.
In chapter 17, Esther gets moved to another ward, which means she is closer to recovering. But the following day, she does not receive any breakfast. Esther understands that she is being prepared for electric shock therapy. As soon as the treatment starts, Esther faints.
Chapter 18 of The Bell Jar starts with Esther opening her eyes to see Dr. Nolan. They go for a walk, and the protagonist notices that she feels better.
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.The Bell Jar, chapter 18
Buddy Willard writes Joan and Esther that he wants to visit them with his mother. Esther does not object, as she wants to turn over that page of her life.
Esther finds Joan and another female patient, DeeDee, in bed. The protagonist wonders what they see in each other, and Dr. Nolan replies, “Tenderness.” Joan confesses to Esther in her affection, but the latter roughly rejects her feelings.
Esther shares her thoughts about freedom with Dr. Nolan. The girl wants to be as free as men are, but she is afraid of pregnancy. Dr. Nolan takes her to a birth control specialist who puts a diaphragm in her body. Now Esther wants to find a proper man to lose her virginity.
Chapter 19 of The Bell Jar starts with Joan claiming that she is going to become a psychiatrist. This makes Esther jealous. On her town leave, the protagonist meets Irwin, a math professor. She likes him and thinks that he is good enough for her intimate purposes. She expects to feel transformed after their sex, but she just feels severe pain.
I wondered how much I would bleed, and lay down, nursing the towel… I couldn’t possibly be a virgin any more. I smiled into the dark. I felt part of a great tradition.The Bell Jar, chapter 19
The blood does not stop, and she asks Irwin to take her to Joan’s apartment. The friend calls a taxi and takes Esther to a hospital emergency room. The doctor is surprised with the bleeding, as it is very rare.
A couple of days later, Esther learns that Joan has hanged herself in the woods.
By Chapter 20 of The Bell Jar, Esther is done with her treatment and is going to return to college. Her mother suggests forgetting about her illness as if it was a bad dream. Esther thinks she will never manage to forget her asylum experiences.
Buddy comes to visit Esther once again. He asks if he is guilty of Joan’s death or Esther’s madness. She replies as Dr. Nolan instructed her that nobody is to blame. The young man is relieved. He is only concerned about who will want to marry Esther once she has stayed at the asylum.
Esther calls Irwin to tell him he should pay for her doctor bills after their night together. He wonders if he can meet her again, but she just says, “Never.” The protagonist attends Joan’s funeral. She waits for the final interview before her release from the asylum. She is nervous. She enters the room where the doctors wait for her, and the novel ends.
The eyes and the faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.The Bell Jar, chapter 20
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