A 20th Century Novel - The Bell Jar

For January, our theme for our book selection was a 20th Century Novel. We chose The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

My first reading of The Bell Jar was in 1974 at the age of fifteen. At that time I was an angst ridden teenager and deeply identified with Esther Greenwood. It was my favorite book for a long time. Reading it again, as a grown woman in her fifties. I found there was so much I missed in my first reading, first and foremost the humor. 

In getting ready for our discussions I, not surprisingly found a plethora of resources on Sylvia Plath and her only published novel. After reading many articles and listening to podcasts I have gathered what I think was helpful and interesting and included the links here so that you can delve deeper into the material as much or as little as you desire.

I have also included discussion questions that I found thought provoking and good points to kick off a discussion of the book.

You'll also find a section with Sylvia Plath's other published works and various biographies and related material.

Finally, I have listed other books you may find to your liking.

The Following podcast is only partly on The Bell Jar (it is the first segment). It is a short piece but I found it interesting. 

Ali Smith on the 50th anniversary of The Bell Jar.

This is a longer discussion of Sylvia Plath. Carl Rollyson's biography of Plath is the first to use newly available material, including letters between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. 

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. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
— Esther Greenwood, from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Discussion Questions

Do you think this book holds uo today? Do young women today identify with Esther as they did at the time of its publication?

The Bell Jar is considered by some people to be sensational and morbid, What are your thoughts?

Are Esther's attitudes toward men, sex, and marriage peculiar to herself? What role do her attitudes play in her breakdown? What are we told about her society's expectations regarding men and women, sexuality, and relationships? Have those expectations changed since that time?

Esther more than once admits to feelings of inadequacy. Is Esther's sense of her own inadequacies consistent with reality? Against what standards does she judge herself?

Knowing some of Sylvia Plath's own backstory, did Esther seem real and believable to you? Can you relate in any way to her predicaments? To what extent do they remind you of yourself or anyone you know? What did you like the most about Esther's personality/character? What did you like the least? How did the narrator view herself vs. how you personally viewed her? Did you end up admiring or loathing her?

What instances and images of distortion occur in the novel? What are their contexts and significance? Does Esther achieve a clear, undistorted view of herself?

In a letter while at college, Plath wrote that "I've gone around for most of my life as in the rarefied atmosphere under a bell jar." Is this the primary meaning of the novel's titular bell jar? What other meanings does "the bell jar" have?

Doctor Nolan had said, quite bluntly, that a lot of people would treat me gingerly, or even avoid me, like a leper with a warning bell’ (page 226). How have attitudes towards mental illness changed since the 1950s? How different is Esther’s treatment from the way a breakdown would be treated today?

How would you describe Esther’s relationship with Buddy Willard? What did you think of her assessment of Buddy as a hypocrite? How do her attitudes towards sex and marriage differ from those of the other female characters and from our own preconceptions about 1950s sexual mores?

With what specific setting, event, and person is Esther's first thought of suicide associated? Why? In what circumstances do subsequent thoughts and plans concerning suicide occur?

What do you think about the structure of the novel? Did you like knowing from the beginning that she survives and eventually has a child?

Discuss the Character of Joan

Discuss the Humor. Was there difficulty with the tone of the book?

Discuss the end of the novel.

Can we read this novel without considering the fact that Plath did commit suicide not long after the book was written?

Discuss the U.S. publication. How do you feel about the publication of works posthumously?

After summating the book as a whole, where there any burning questions you would ask Sylvia Plath as the author?

credit for some of the discussion questions should go to Buy It or Burn It book club on meetup.com and the publisher

Some of Sylvia Plath's Other Published Works


Biographies and Other Works

Other Works You May Like