Death and Rebirth
The Bell Jar is shaped to resemble a myth of death and rebirth. Esther will go through experiences that suggest, and in one case almost literally is, death, and emerge anew. The theme might also be called renewal through suffering. Even Esther's last name, Greenwood, is suggestive of renewal through the coming of spring.
The theme is announced early, in Chapter 2. After she walks home from Lenny Shepherd's apartment, Esther feels downcast, and she seems to have death on her mind. She decides to take a long hot bath, and this restores her spirit. The experience of being immersed in water is almost a religious one for her, and the longer she stays in the bath, the more pure she feels. She has washed off the dispiriting experience of her evening with Lenny and Doreen and feels pure again. When she finally steps out of the bath, she reports, "I felt pure and sweet as a new baby."
The theme is repeated in the food poisoning episode, when Esther is sick, falls unconscious, and then sleeps for a long time. Doreen says to her when she wakes, "Well, you almost died," and Esther says as she recovers, "I felt purged and holy and ready for a new life."
The theme of death and rebirth comes to its fullest expression in the episode in which Esther tries to commit suicide. She goes underground into the cellar and is almost buried alive. She stays there, unconscious, for several days before being rescued. The remainder of the novel is the story of how, painfully and little by little, she is reborn. At the end, as she is about to go into the meeting of the board of directors who will permit her to leave the asylum, she explicitly mentions the rebirth theme as she thinks, "There ought to be a ritual for being born twice-patched, retreaded and approved for the road."
There is still a dark shadow present in this rebirth, however. Esther knows that there may always be a possibility that she will regress, and that the "bell jar" will descend on her again and distort her mind.
Role of Women in Society
The novel is a critique, from the point of view of a highly gifted young woman, of the 1950s American family, with its clearly defined roles for men and women. As Esther presents the issue, the men hold all the interesting jobs, and the women have no choice but to stay at home and cook, clean and have children. They are supposed to provide emotional warmth and security while the men fulfil their ambitions in the world. Esther cannot bear the thought of such a life, which she would have if she married the conventional Buddy Willard. She would have no better prospects if she married Constantin, the interpreter, or any other man of her acquaintance. As she puts it, "This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A's." Buddy, who has no patience with the fact that Esther wants to write poetry, tells her that after she is married with children she won't want to write poems any more. This prompts Esther to think, "[M]aybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state." Esther thus fears marriage as a kind of living death trap, but almost everywhere she looks she is reminded of a woman's lot. On her first day back at her home in the Boston suburbs, for example, the first person she sees walking by is her neighbor, Dodo Conway, pushing her baby carriage, with several young children accompanying her. Dodo already with six children and is pregnant with another.
The problem is compounded for Esther by the fact that many women have internalized the rules that men have made for them, so she is left with no role models on which to base her life. The few successful career women she knows, such as Jay Cee and Philomena Guinea, are not presented as attractive alternatives. Joan's lesbianism presents another possible model, but Esther rejects it outright. She does not see what women see in other women.
Esther is thus in the difficult position of having to build up an identity for herself regardless of what society expects of her. This is not an easy task, and Esther has no support from anyone who understands her dilemmas. It must be remembered that the story takes place in 1953, before the women's movement in the 1960s began to challenge stereotypical gender roles.
It is especially unfortunate for Esther that there are no role models to follow, because she herself lacks a strong sense of who she is. When she is an intern, she sometimes feels she is really like the extrovert and daring Doreen, and at other times more like Betsy, the "good girl" from Kansas. When meeting people, she will sometimes create a double, a kind of phantom self, named Elly Higginbottom, who is everything Esther is not. So even when she is in New York, she already seems like a fractured personality, struggling to put up a united front to the world. This is obviously not the type of woman who is suited to courageously forging her own path in life. The fact that Esther is not grounded in a stable sense of self-identity contributes to her confusion, depression and eventual disintegration.
But she does recover, and she manages to take steps toward creating a life that is more free and less dependent on societal norms. This applies in particular to sexual behavior. Esther well knows that society has double standards when it comes to sex, extending more license to men than to women. But when she acquires a diaphragm, she is able to assert her sexual independence in the sense that she is no longer inhibited by the fear of pregnancy.