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Sample Journal: AP American Literature Summer Reading

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The Bell Jar (by Sylvia Plath)

Part I: Major Characters (with Symbols)

    1. Esther Greenwood (Elly Higginbottom)--The protagonist of the novel; a young, gifted, attractive intellectual who wins a summer internship at a glamour magazine in New York; incapable of resolving what her identity should be, she attempts suicide, recuperates in a psychiatric hospital, and eventually prepares to re-enter the world. (NOTE: colors, esp. black, white, gray; dead fetuses; fetal position; alter egos; clothes; suffocating, cocoonlike places like the bell jar)
    2. Jay Cee--Esther's boss during the summer internship; physically unattractive, she is still passionately loved by her husband (a surprise to Esther); she is a goal-oriented, professional woman (something unusual at the time of the novel's action--1950s).
    3. Doreen and Betsy--Two friends of Esther during the summer; they are two of the "polar" characters Esther studies to try to ascertain her own identity; Doreen is glamorous, blonde, and wild; Betsy is wholesome and more "down home."
    4. Buddy Willard--Yale medical student; Esther's first boyfriend; although he does not excite her physically, she considers him as a potential husband because he is the kind of boy she knows she's "expected" to accept. (NOTE: dead turkey parts as descriptors of his genitals).
    5. Constantin/Marco/Cal--Other men Esther dates, all vastly different, indicating her search for the "right" man; Constantin is exotic but does not want to sleep with her on the first date; Marco is violent and attacks her; Cal is intellectual and talks of Ibsen plays (NOTE: Cal's reference to dominant mother in an Ibsen play--similar to Esther's mother).
    6. Mrs. Greenwood--Esther's traditional, strong-willed mother; wants Esther to learn shorthand so that she has something to fall back on; she has survived her husband's death, but her cold determination has hurt Esther.
    7. Dr. Nolan--Female psychiatrist who helps Esther; another professional female role model.
    8. Joan Gilling--Another alter ego of Esther; lesbian; commits suicide; also dated Buddy (NOTE: Joan's funeral; her outsider status as a lesbian--all are important to understanding Esther).
    9. Mr. and Mrs. Willard--The "model" marital pair of the 1950s; Buddy's parents; they want Buddy to marry Esther; they endorse traditional values even though it is hinted they are not particularly happy in their relationship.
    10. Irwin--Math professor who takes Esther's virginity; he is a Lothario (NOTE: Esther sees this event, although nightmarish, as liberating--perhaps a weakness in the novel).

Part II: Setting

Part III: Style and Structure

    1. Style:
    1. Structure:
      1. Events in N.Y. and Boston that trigger breakdown;
      2. Breakdown itself (mostly in Boston, at home);
      3. Recovery in mental hospital.

Part IV: Themes

    1. Woman's search for fulfillment in a restricting culture (NOTE: dream of tree with many fruits)
    2. Career vs. Marriage (as well as other viable female roles)
    3. How to define one's worth (Brains? Looks? Achievements?)
    4. Learning to accept oneself as one really is (NOTE: Duality images)
    5. Mental deterioration--An inside view that illustrates HOW, WHY it happens, as well as the STRUGGLE back to health.
    6. Learning where to put "the opposite sex" in one's life (the dangers of using the opposite sex as a means of self-definition)
    7. Narcissistic self-absorption--its dangers; the consequences.

Part V: Brief Essay/Topic--"Duality Motif in The Bell Jar"

Esther Greenwood is painfully incapable of reconciling conflicting desires, ambitions, and self-concepts. These divisions of the psyche will eventually become so unbearable that Esther will choose the absolute escape of suicide. In the dark, cramped crawl space of her basement, she will seek relief, a cessation of the warring dualities that plague her throughout the novel. Is she to be a scholar or a fashion plate? Independent or defined in relation to a man? Flawed but human, or an impossibly perfect paragon? Esther's battle to answer these questions is best represented by the dominant motif of "duality" that runs throughout the novel.

Early in the novel, Esther reveals her discomfort with who she is by assuming the identify of alter ego Elly Higginbottom. When she and Doreen (her glamorous hotel mate during their summer stint on a fashion magazine) pick up two men (Lenny and Frankie), Esther assumes her fake identify for the first time. When Frankie asks, "What's your name?" Esther replies, "My name's Ely Higginbottom…I come from Chicago." Then she explains, "After that I felt safer. I didn't want anything I said or did that night to be asociated with me and my real name and coming from Boston" (9). The rest of the evening will further emphasize the cracks in Esther's identity: Will she maintain the Teutonic control exemplified by her German parents or will she throw caution to the wind like free-spirited Doreen? As Elly, Esther tries to be something she is not, but sadly she does not yet know just what she does want to be.

Attempting to reconcile the divisions within herself, Esther will analyze competing, usually polar, lifestyles and role models. Jay Cee, her efficient and successful boss in New York, is the opposite of Mrs. Willard, the traditional 1950's housewife; Doreen, the glamorous summer intern, contrasts with Betsy, the rather simple-minded and wholesome beauty from Kansas; the intellectual life of the university (where Esther ponders writing a thesis on Finnegan's Wake) contrasts sharply with the shallow fashion pieces Esther is writing for the magazine. Even the men in Esther's life are wildly polar--the violent Marco in contrast to tame Buddy, for example. These are only a few of the polarities that tug at Esther; sadly, weakened by the stress fractures created by this tug-of-war, Esther crumbles; unable to become a solid adult, Esther crawls into the basement of her home, overdoses on sleeping pills, assumes the fetal position, and seeks permanent relief from the war that rages within herself.

Esther survives her suicide attempt, and the last portion of the novel deals with her story in a psychiatric hospital, where little by little she tries to put together the pieces of her own identity. The ending of the novel is somewhat vague about just how successful Esther has been in reconciling the divisions that brought her to the hospital. As she waits for the final interview that will determine whether or not she is deemed "whole" and capable of re-entering the real world, Esther muses, "I had hoped, at my departure, I would feel sure and knowledgeable about everything that lay ahead--after all, I had been 'analyzed.' Instead, all I could see were question marks" (199). Despite these question marks, Esther does seem to be stronger and to have gained a clearer sense of who she is. At the funeral of Joan Gilling (another "alter ego" for Esther in the novel), Esther hears her own heartbeat saying, "I am, I am, I am" (199). Whereas Joan had opted for suicide, Esther has opted to re-enter the world, "patched, retreaded and approved for the road" (199). And whereas Joan had not been able to reconcile the divisions in her identity, Esther seems to have worked her way to a more solid definition of who she is. The reader can only hope that as Esther steps into the interview room and, in turn, the outside world, her battle for self-awareness is finally over and that she has achieved some degree of inner peace and emotional solidity.

TEXT: Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.

June 7, 2000; updated July 5, 2005


The Bell Jar was once part of the summer reading list for AP American literature students; however, we have replaced it with Love Medicine. Thus, I have used The Bell Jar to create this "sample" for you to follow when writing your summer journal. I have managed to keep my remarks to three pages for this one novel; I hope you will try to be thorough but brief.

Please do not use Cliffs Notes. They are often inaccurate, and they will stunt your own ability to analyze and explicate literature on you own.

If you have any questions or need advice, my email address is Feel free to get in touch.

Ms. Kight