A major focus of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is feminism; however, one of the less noted topics in our class discussion was the fact that protagonist Esther Greenwood suffers from mental illness. Esther’s oppression and struggle in the novel does not simply come from her fight to fit in a man’s world, but also her internal battle with herself as she faces depression. In the 1950s when the novel takes place, we see a lesser understanding of the reality of mental illness, and because of that there is a stigma placed on Esther by society, as noted by Buddy Willard who claims that after her stay in the asylum no one will want to marry her. Esther’s story shows what today can still be a relatable occurrence in young adults of feeling lost, distressed, and even depressed as they make the attempt to figure out and understand their lives in the “real world.”
Even in modern society, with a better understanding of mental illness, Esther would still be stigmatized as crazy. However, it can be argued that the reason Esther seems so crazy is simply because we know every thought going on inside her head, as the narrative consists of her internal monologues. What Esther feels is not so seemingly outlandish; rather it can be seen as the unspoken thoughts that we do not share with one another. Esther compares her internal struggles to a blackening fig tree, feeling as though all her ambitions are dying in front of her, rotting at her feet, while all she can do is stare, brought under by the belief that she is not adequate to pursue any aspect of life. As a college student and an English major like Esther, I feel the reality of her concern to become more than just an English major, and her confusion about knowing what she wants. This anxiety and her depression seemed real to me, which is what initially drew me to her character so much. The way Esther suffers from a mental illness, and the way it becomes so real as we see all of her internal struggle with it, makes her seem like more of a real person and less of a character in a book. Finally, to see the outside world cave in on her, shows how the stigma of mental illness becomes so disastrous to a person.