Symbolism

Statement: The use of symbolism is the best way to shed light on the darker or deeper messages of a text.

In The Bell Jar, a 1963 autobiographical novel, written by Sylvia Plath, the reader can find that the use of symbolism that that the author uses is the best way to shed light on the darker or deeper messages of the text. The main symbols that were found that lead to these messages are the bell jar itself, the fig tree and mirrors which could also be justified as a motif. All three symbols led to a deeper analysis of the text which gave the reader a better understanding of the emotions of the characters.

The title of the text, The Bell Jar, almost immediately gives the impression that a bell jar is going to be significant within the text. A bell jar is justified as a jar typically made from glass that is formed in the shape of a bell and is used to enclose gases and act as a vacuum, often used in science experiments. In the novel, the Bell Jar symbolically is taken to another whole deeper level where its used against the theme of mental illness which the main character, Esther Greenwood, is suffering from. The symbol of The Bell Jar when initially introduced in the text, immediately signifies that Esther feels trapped like a gas inside a bell jar, but instead she is trapped with depression and her unstable thoughts under the bell jar and is unable to escape from them. “Wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” This quoted by Esther allows the reader to understand that where ever she is, whether it’s in an incredible place where she is travelling to or just at home, her depression will stay with her and she is unable to separate herself from it. Though the bell jar is not described, it allows us to reach a further proximity to how Esther’s emotions stray so far from our own. The last time in the novel that the bell jar is mentioned, Esther speaks of the bell jar as equal to her mental illness. “How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” The bell jar is described as her mental illness; when the bell jar is lifted, she doesn’t feel so emotionally trapped by her mental illness but she knows that it can drop upon her anytime and she would be stuck in the same dark pit of her mind again.

The symbolism of the bell jar allows the audience to have a deeper understanding of the text and the emotional capabilities of somebody who is suffering from a mental illness. I believe it is the best way to shed light on the deeper and darker messages of the novel as the symbolism of the bell jar itself shows the mental relationship between how it affects Esther personally and how it effects other people as the audience can see that Esther is trapped inside with her thoughts and her feelings and everybody else is trapped on the outside unable to try and help you and so they have to take slow steps to enable them to slowly lynch the bell jar above her head so that she can breathe some fresh air and start living alongside her peers and not in her emotionally unstable world. The symbolism of the bell jar with Esther’s mental illness links closely alongside the way a scientific bell jar works in the way that it traps something inside, which is how Esther is trapped alone with herself and her thoughts. This is especially true being alone and trapped because in the era of the 1950’s in which the novel was set, mental illness was negatively looked upon by those bystanders as well as looked upon as if she was mentally insane and crazy, not mentally ill.

The fig tree, a short story used in the text, is incredibly symbolic of Esther Greenwood being unable to make choices about her the direction in which her life will proceed. The story proceeds about a Jewish man and a Catholic nun whom meet under a fig tree every day to collect figs. What is most symbolic about this fig tree is that not only can she relate it to Buddy Willard where she feels her own relationship with him will not work out, alike how The Jewish man and Catholic nun’s relationship could never work out. She can also relate it further on in the text to the fact, where she cannot make a choice about what she wants to do with her life and she sees this in the same context of picking figs. “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,” which is a riveting analogy on Esther’s behalf but also very distorted on her emotional point of view due to the mental illness that she was facing. Its very emotionally distorted due to the comparison of starving to death because she also attempts to commit suicide multiple times, so that fact that she compares choosing death rather than making a decision about career choices shows that she was not in a positive mental state which can easily distort one’s point of view on how they view the world. Esther can see the positivity in things also which is seen through the quote, “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.” It shows that her original view was full of positivity about how her life could be brilliant because she had so many opportunities in which to make it so but the it saddens because it’s so hard for her to make that choice and this deeply upsets her. I think that her depression takes its toll on positivity and makes something positive, negative which then again further negatively affects her depression.

The symbolism of the fig tree alike the use of the bell jar sheds light on the audience about the deeper and darker messages of the novel. The fig tree symbolised how we make choices in life, the way we pick figs and how for some people, like Esther it becomes a lot harder based on your view of the world. Which in Esther’s case was distorted due to the mental illness she was suffering from. It shows that for people who are the same, it is so easy to get along but those who are of different cultures and religions, they struggle to get along easily. This is the same with Esther who has a different mental view compared to the rest of the world. For those who are not mentally ill, picking figs is a simple task but for those who are mentally ill, it becomes a much more difficult task. Choosing what opportunity, she would like to pursue is seen as the same as picking figs for Esther which is why the fig tree is so symbolic.

The third symbol, which can also be presented as a motif, is that of mirrors. Mirrors play a huge role in text without the audience even knowing it at that deeper analysis in certain events within the novel. Mirrors play such a main symbol because often she doesn’t recognize herself when she sees herself in the mirror which I think can also be identified with having an identity crisis. After her suicide attempt, when Esther is admitted into a public hospital, Esther is unable to visualise herself in the mirror and cannot even tell if what she sees is a man or a woman. She made it sound as if she were looking at a picture of a person and not at a mirror looking at herself. Esther says that “You couldn’t tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head.” I think this is quite an important example of being unable to recognize herself because it shows that in her head she has a completely different image of herself compared to what she actually sees when she looks in the mirror. It shows that she definitely is having trouble understanding her identity which also relates to how she is unable to decide on a career because she has so many opportunities for not even understanding what she wants herself. Another event that occurs during the text is in the private hospital, after her first treatment with Doctor Nolan, she has this idea that her own reflection is actually another woman in the room next to her who also just finished receiving her electroshock therapy. The woman that Esther sees is described as a “body of a woman wearing a rumpled black-and-white checked robe and flung out on a cot as if dropped from a great height.” This is quite a shocking realisation if she knew it was a mirror and that it was herself which is why I think that she visualises it as another woman who is nothing alike how she thinks she personally looks.

The symbolism of mirrors is one of the deepest symbols due to linkage of Esther having an identity crisis, which is very much a deeper and darker message within the novel. The idea that she cannot see herself when she looks in a mirror, only another person shows that the way that she sees herself and the way that she looks in reality are completely different people. Her perception has distorted her but I think also that her mental illness has distorted her in looks so that in some ways, she looks tired and sicker which is why she can’t identify herself. This also links with idea of Esther having her other name of Elle Higginbottom, a name she came up where she has another whole history behind her to go with that alternate name which shows that in some ways, she really does have two different identities’.

The Bell Jar written by Sylvia Plath is a text full of symbolic representations, suggestions of the era and characters and themes that bring a new understanding to the audience of those whom are mentally ill. These symbolic representations, were best found as shedding a new light on the darker and deeper messages of the text, but furthermore allowed the audience to be enlightened on concepts, if they’d never experienced it themselves before, about how depression really does affect so many people and the emotional capabilities of these people.

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