The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar

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Sylvia Plath’s autobiography, The Bell Jar, tells the story of Plath’s own mental breakdown and suicide attempt, as well as her recovery and eventual reentrance into the outside world. The Bell Jar shows the transition of Plath as a young, hopeful girl into a cynical, suicidal woman. The main character whom represents Plath, Esther Greenwood, is first shown as an aspiring writer who is full of dreams and whose life is brimming with opportunities. As Esther becomes more and more depressed, Plath then shows a very different picture of a woman who has lost hope and no longer wishes to live. Plath conveys this deterioration through effective use of rhetorical devices such as imagery, alliteration, and point of view.
     From the very beginning, Plath lets the reader know that all is not as well as it seems. Esther has won a fashion magazine contest. As her prize, she was given a job and accommodations in New York City. While this seems like a dream come true, Esther says, “I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. 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.” This use of metaphor helps the reader to better understand how Esther felt. Right from the start, there is something different about Esther, and her unhappiness continues to grow throughout the story. Esther takes to hanging out with another one of the girls, Doreen. Doreen has a habit of blowing off deadlines in favor of men and alcohol. Esther follows her around one night, and upon returning to her room comments, “The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.” This statement, made more effective by the first person point of view, conveys Esther’s growing sense of unhappiness.
     As Esther descends further into madness, a very vivid picture is painted. The once healthy young woman can no longer sleep, eat, or read. Stunning imagery is used when describing Esther’s inability to sleep. “…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.” This description emphasizes the pain that Esther’s mental illness is inflicting upon her, through use of such words as “raw”, “red”, and “wound”.

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Word choice and imagery are again utilized as Esther says, “I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone.” Plath’s comparison of the mattress as a tombstone gives a dark connotation to the sentence. Then, as Esther attempts to read, Plath uses alliteration. “Haltingly, I tried the word aloud. It sounded like a heavy wooden object falling downstairs, boomp boomp boomp, step after step.” This use of alliteration and repetition not only shows the awkward sound of the word, but also highlights Esther’s faltering as she attempts to read. All of these rhetorical elements combine to effectively convey her sad mental state.
     Later in the story, Esther attempts suicide and is put into an asylum. The book then takes a turn and becomes not only a commentary on Plath’s personal hardships, but also a commentary on society as a whole. Rather than viewing Esther as a sensitive, creative individual, the asylum gives her the same treatment as every other patient: electroshock therapy. This is a reflection on the society of the time and how it viewed mental illness. In this way, The Bell Jar becomes both an autobiography and a social commentary. Plath combines the use of many elements such as imagery, alliteration, word choice, and point of view in order to effectively portray her personal experience with mental illness as well as the misguided views of society at the time. All of these elements combine to create a brilliant autobiography as well as a story of triumph and perseverance.
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