The Bell Jar Book Summary - The Bell Jar Book explained in key points
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The Bell Jar summary

Sylvia Plath

A Young Woman’s Experience With Mental Illness and Recovery

4.2 (156 ratings)
23 mins
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    The Bell Jar
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    A queer, sultry summer in New York

    “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

    So begins The Bell Jar – narrated by its protagonist, Esther Greenwood. 

    Esther is a young, talented writer spending the summer of 1953 in New York City. Along with eleven other college-age girls, she’s won a coveted internship at fashion magazine Ladies’ Day. As an aspiring poet from the suburbs of Boston, this should be an exciting opportunity.

    Yet Esther can’t seem to feel the excitement. The other girls appear to have it all figured out, and Esther feels increasingly alienated from them.

    She’s fascinated and appalled by Doreen, a cynical society girl who prefers partying over studying. One night, Esther tags along when Doreen is picked up by a DJ at a bar. But she ends up alone and depressed in her empty hotel room. When Doreen comes knocking late at night and blacks out in her room, Esther resolves to stick to girls like Betsy.

    Betsy is Doreen’s wholesome antithesis. She’s a cheerful, innocent Midwestern sweetheart. Betsy seeks out Esther’s friendship; ambivalent, Esther keeps finding excuses to avoid her.

    She finds temporary solace in the fancy gifts and dinners paid for by the magazine. After one of these dinners, she and the other girls end up suffering from terrible food poisoning. Now it’s Doreen who ends up taking care of Esther by feeding her soup.


    The first chapters of The Bell Jar delve into Esther's inner conflicts and her strained relationship with the world around her. The story closely follows Plath’s own experience as an undergraduate in 1953, when she won the chance to be a guest editor at New York fashion magazine Mademoiselle.

    Plath draws on this context to paint a vivid picture of New York City, its people, and the fashion scene. The theme of fashion as a costume is a potent metaphor for Esther's quest for identity.

    Unlike cynical, sexy Doreen and sweet, innocent Betsy, Esther does not readily fit into the female archetypes of the time – which is reflected in her mixed feelings toward the two girls. 

    In her quest to find out who she’s supposed to be, Esther often resorts to lying. For instance, she tells men who try to flirt with her that her name is “Elly Higginbottom” from Chicago.

    Esther's detachment will become a growing obstacle over the course of the novel. Her frequent mention of the Rosenbergs – the first Americans to be executed for treason during peacetime – is the beginning of a morbid obsession with death. 

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    What is The Bell Jar about?

    The Bell Jar (1963) follows the story of Esther Greenwood, a talented young woman who secures a coveted internship at a New York fashion magazine during the summer of 1953. But Esther feels trapped by the gender roles and societal expectations of the time, and soon spirals into a deep depression from which there seems to be no escape.

    Who should read The Bell Jar?

    • Students of English literature
    • People interested in the exploration of mental health and social norms
    • Anyone who considers themselves a feminist

    About the Author

    Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer. The Bell Jar is her only novel; based loosely on Plath’s own life, it was published just one month before her suicide. Other famous works include the poems Daddy and Lady Lazarus, published posthumously in her poetry collection Ariel

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