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Madness and the absent father - Analysis of Esther’s mental illness in 'The Bell Jar'

Seminararbeit 2005 13 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur




1. Diagnosis

2. The Turning Point

3. Detrimental Men

4. Invidious Mother and Adjuvant Women

5. Psychoanalytical Approach: Electra Complex



Internet Resources


The following essay deals with the book The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It will try to show that Esther’s madness is profoundly linked to her social environment. This on the other hand is in several ways deeply connected with Esther’s loss of her father in her childhood. That is, the absence of her father correlates with Esther’s behaviour towards her surroundings and her life attitudes.

To prove that fact this essay will try to work out the turning point in Esther’s life that leads to the final break-out of her illness and her mental spiral down movement that leads her into a psychiatric institution.

1. Diagnosis

Esther suffers from a severe case of depression that might have been caused by a genetic defect; but as opposed to Sylvia Plath, from who is known that in her family were reported cases of depression on her father’s side[1], one finds only insufficient hints (that really only serve as foreshadows for the things to happen in the story) that the same is true for Esther, for example her comment about her father’s provenance: “My German-speaking father, dead since I was nine, came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia.”[2]

The reader, who does not know about the book’s autobiographical background and Plath’s medical history, must consequently assume that Esther’s worsening disease is entirely caused by her social environment.

This notion is not devious at all.

In Social Origins of Depressions, George W. Brown’s and Tirril Harris’ study of psychiatric disorder in women, it is stated that

loss and disappointment are the central features of most events bringing about clinical depression. (…) Long-term and not short-term threat is important because it correlates closely with the experience of loss if this is seen to include: (i) separation or the threat of it, such as death of parent (…)[3]

Therefore it is perfectly possible that Esther’s depression was at least partially nourished by external circumstances. Schizophrenia on the other hand is not an illness that is “caused by childhood trauma, bad parenting, or poverty”[4], that is, external circumstances. For that reason this essay will treat Esther’s illness purely as depression and not deal with the possibility of schizophrenia that has frequently come up in discussions about the diagnosis of Esther’s state of mind.

2. The Turning Point

There are several clues that indicate the turning point in Esther’s life: the final outbreak of her mental disease.

Esther herself compares her madness with a bell jar that encloses her. Only in the end she feels the bell jar lifting, but still threateningly hovering above her.

There is one particular scene in the book that obviously suggests its’ descend:

Then Constantine and the Russian girl interpreter (…) seemed to move off at a distance. I saw their mouths going up and down without a sound, as if they were sitting on the deck of a departing ship, stranding me in the middle of a huge silence.[5]

One can virtually imagine the vitreous vessel that has lowered itself and insulates Esther, so that she is not able to hear the outside world anymore.

Going on from this point, one can draw a conclusion about the catalyst. It is very easy to find. Just before the uneasy experience of being all alone in great silence happens, Esther has just found out for herself – for the very first time as she tells us – that she was “only purely happy until [she] was nine years old. After that (…) [she] had never been really happy again,”[6] at least not until this moment with Constantine. Esther refers also to a memory being at a beach with her father – that is before he died soon after. Since she recalls this memory as the last time that she was joyful, one can surely see her father’s death as reversal point from Esther’s happiness to her unhappiness.

We can now estimate how deep the trauma of her father’s death must have been – deep enough to keep her from being happy for the following ten years (and later on, too).

This realisation pushes her mentally over the edge.

She not only dissociates from her environment (she cannot hear them anymore), she also gets into a deep conflict with her rather low self-esteem. All of a sudden all the skills that her mother – as well as society for that matter – felt were important for a girl, such as shorthand or cooking, and other female connoted skills, which Esther completely lacks, appear to her as a major imperfection of her. At the same time she is not able anymore to see all the abilities that she actually has.

Something similar has also happened already before. That is, when Jay Cee asks her, what she would like to be. “’I don’t really know,’ I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true.”[7] That is a very sudden recognition that is also related to her father: She says about herself that she all her life she told herself that “studying and reading and writing and working like mad was what [she] wanted to do.”[8] One can speculate that a person that preoccupies his mind with the other people’s thoughts does not have to think about own matters – for example, the loss of a beloved person. If that is true Esther has very well managed to do so, until her environment forced her to think about her life.


[1] Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic. De Capo Press. New York, 1999. P. 135.

[2] Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1963. P. 34.

[3] Brown, George W. and Harris, Tirril. Social Origins of Depressions. Tavistock Publications. London, 1978. P. 103.

[4] Long, Phillip W. “Basic Facts about Schizophrenia.”

[5] The Bell Jar. P. 78.

[6] The Bell Jar. P. 78.

[7] The Bell Jar. P. 34.

[8] The Bell Jar. P. 33.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
474 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Keele University
67 (1-2)
Madness Analysis Esther’s Bell Contemporary American Fiction



Titel: Madness and the absent father  - Analysis of Esther’s mental illness in 'The Bell Jar'