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Character analysis: Esther Greenwood in 'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath

Updated on October 12, 2013


‘The Bell Jar’ is the only novel of American writer Sylvia Path. Sylvia won acclaim as a poet and short story writer. Tragically the writer committed suicide at the young age of 31. She was born in 1932 at Boston. Her novel ‘The Bell Jar’ won critical acclaim and was also made into a film. She is the first writer to have won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously. She earlier wrote under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas”. The novel is a semi-autobiographical story. Plath also wrote poetry. Her genre of poetry is classified as confessional poetry. She published two collections which have survived her death namely The Colossus and Other Poems and Ariel.

Psychological Novel

Sylvia Path has written a deeply psychological novel. She has created Esther Greenwood, perhaps in her own image. The novel is narrated by Esther Greenwood, who is the protagonist. The beauty of the character is the deeply psychological aspects of Esther’s character. Unlike most girls of her age she does not graduate from school but from a mental asylum. She is a non-conformist. Society expects that she be a virgin till her marriage, yet she rebels and has a loveless sexual encounter. She decides to give her virginity to a Harvard professor on a visit to Cambridge. She bleeds profusely and her friend Joan helps her. She has a grouse against society which does not allow having sexual experiments. This facet of Esther’s character is perhaps a reflection on the modern young woman in America.

Esther Greenwood: a Disturbed Character

The character of Esther Greenwood shows that Plath had deep understanding of a restless and disturbed mind. She is hemmed in by society and slowly madness descends on her. It is a slow process and Esther is overtaken by this enormous disability.

She has little or no feelings for her father who died when she was young. This is a reflection on the broken homes in America. Esther attempts suicide and has no remorse as to how she would have hurt people close to her. In that respect Plath creates a selfish character in Esther Greenwood. There is much in common between Ms Plath and the character Greenwood. Both lost their fathers when they were young and both were poets. In a way the character of Esther Greenwood is the alter ego of Plath herself.

Esther Greenwood is an Autobiographical Character

Much of the character of Esther Greenwood is centred on the happenings in Plath’s life. She was given electroshock therapy and then was hospitalized for psychotherapy. Esther Greenwood is also a neurotic woman who attempts suicide by consuming a bottle of sleeping pills. She also is given electroshock therapy by Dr Gordon. She is saved from her suicide attempt but the parallels with the personal life of Plath are hard to bypass.

Morbidity all around

Esther’s best friend Joan, who had helped her earlier, commits suicide and Esther attends her funeral. The novel ends on a note of hope as Esther attends her exit interview from the institution. The entire novel is an exercise in psychology and a disturbed mind. By reading it one can understand why Plath committed suicide. The novel pictures the life of Plath as she saw it. There is a tinge of morbidity in the entire novel, but it makes interesting reading.

Last word

Plath herself led a tortuous life and it is reflected in the character of Esther Greenwood. It must be appreciated that Sylvia Plath was a genius and she won recognition after her death. The Pulitzer prize is a fitting recognition of her genius.

Personal Life

Plath married ted Hughes in 1956 and the couple had two children. But her suicide in 1963, not only left her kids motherless, but the world lost a budding writer. One aspect of Plath’s life needs mention. Though she herself was loyal to her husband , but the realization in July 1962 , that her husband Hughes was sleeping with Assia Wevill was a blow to her. The couple separated September the same year. Plath ha got recognition after her death and the US postal department issued astamp in her honor in 2012. The morbidity in her family has continued as her son committed suicide in 2006 after a history of depression


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    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you for commenting DDE

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Character analysis: Esther Greenwood in 'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath, an interesting insight to a talented writer's life well informed and most useful

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Gypsy Rose Lee. Please do.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Great analysis. Fascinating. Passing this on.