Partially inspired by Plath’s experiences with depression, The Bell Jar follows the emotional breakdown of Esther Greenwood, a promising college student who cannot reconcile her desires with American conventions during the 1950s-1960s.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
Gloria Steinem (1934-present) is an American feminist, journalist, author, and social-political activist. She gained national recognition as a leader of the “Second Wave” feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. On May 6th, 1970, Gloria Steinem stood before the Senate and delivered this speech, advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and seeking to dispel myths about women.
Introduce this text before students read the novel, in order to provide them with context on some of the social issues that were current during the time The Bell Jar is set. Pair “Testimony before the Senate Hearings on the Equal Rights Amendment” with The Bell Jar and ask students to consider attitudes towards women in the 1950s and1960s in the United States, when Silvia Plath lived. What was expected of women in the past? What were those expectations based on? How might women respond to those expectations today?
In the speech “Depression, The Secret We Share,” Andrew Solomon describes his experiences with depression and why some people are more resilient with the illness than others.
Have students read this text before beginning the novel in order to provide them with some psychological insight into depression and its effects through a first-hand account of the experiences associated with the condition. Pair “Depression, The Secret We Share” with The Bell Jar and ask students to consider the symptoms and effects of depression, especially as it becomes more apparent in the protagonist, Esther Greenwood.
“The Elements of Success” examines three cultural traits that are said to illustrate the successfulness of different groups in America.
Introduce this text after students have read Chapter 3 — when Esther has a conversation with Jay Cee about her future — in order to provide them with psychological ideas to help shape their analysis of the characters within the novel. Pair “The Elements of Success” with Chapter 3 and ask students to consider what, if anything, has motivated Esther to succeed in the past and how this will affect her future — how does Esther fit the success formula?
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s poem “An Obstacle,” she urges us to remain strong when facing everyday obstacles. Gilman was writing as a feminist during a time when it was not socially acceptable to identify as such.
Introduce this text after students have read Chapter 7, in order for them to draw thematic connections across genres. Pair “An Obstacle” with Chapter 7, and ask students to discuss the various obstacles or prejudices that limit people’s success. How does gender expectation and mental illness impede Esther from achieving happiness? How would you interpret her quote “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree”?
In “Coping Mechanisms,” the author explains the difference between adaptive and maladaptive coping mechanisms.
Introduce this text after students have completed Chapter 13, in order to provide them with psychological insight into how people behave under emotional stress. Pair “Coping Mechanisms” with Chapter 13 and ask students to discuss how Esther manages, if at all, her depression—what types of coping methods does she use and why?
In this famous soliloquy from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet contemplates suicide and poses the most important question one can ask: "To be or not to be?"
Introduce this text after students have read Chapter 14, in order to encourage students to draw thematic connections across form and genre. Pair “To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy” with Chapter 14 and ask students to analyze themes around death and suicide. Ask students to compare the mindsets of these two main characters, Hamlet and Esther, and how they regard the idea of ending their own lives.
In Emily Dickinson’s poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” a speaker describes the loss of something internal that affects them deeply.
Introduce this poem after students have completed Chapter 20, in order to encourage students to draw thematic connections across form and genre. Pair “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” with Chapter 20 and ask students to consider the metaphorical meaning of the poem and to apply this to the novel, particularly focusing on Joan’s funeral and thematic ideas of depression and death — how is Esther Greenwood plagued by the presence of death? How does this presence affect her life and her future?
In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” Dunbar uses the experiences of a caged to bird to discuss the oppression of African Americans.
Have students read this poem after completing the novel, focusing particularly on instances in which the symbol of the bell jar is mentioned (such as in chapters 15, 18, and 20). Pair “Sympathy” with The Bell Jar and ask students to compare the symbols of the birdcage and the bell jar — how are the narrators affected by these objects? What do they represent?