The Bell Jar is American writer Sylvia Plath's only novel, which was originally published under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas" in 1963. The novel is semi-autobiographical with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef, with the protagonist's descent into mental illness paralleling Plath's own experiences with what may have been either bipolar disorder or clinical depression. Plath committed suicide a month after its first publication.
The novel was published under Plath's name for the first time in 1966.
Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, gains a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City under editor Jay Cee. At the time of the Rosenbergs' execution, Esther is neither stimulated nor excited by the big city and glamorous culture and lifestyle girls her age are expected to idolize and emulate, but her experiences also frighten and disorient her. She appreciates the hedonism of her friend Doreen, but also identifies with the piety of Betsy (dubbed "Pollyanna Cowgirl" by Doreen, because she's from Kansas), a 'goody-goody' sorority girl who always does the right thing. She has a benefactress in Philomena Guinea, a formerly successful fiction writer, who will, later, during Esther's hospitalization, pay for some of her treatments.
Esther describes in detail several seriocomic incidents that occur during her internship, and reminisces about her friend Buddy, whom she has dated more or less seriously and who considers himself her de facto fiancé. She returns to her Massachusetts home in low spirits. During her stay in New York City, she had hoped to return to another scholarly opportunity to attend a writing course taught by a world-famous author, but after being rejected, she decides instead to spend the summer potentially writing a novel, although she feels she hasn't got enough life experience to write convincingly. All of her identity has been centered around doing well academically; she has no idea what to make of her life once she leaves school, and the choices presented to her (motherhood, as exemplified by the prolific child-bearer and vacuous Dodo Conway, or stereotypical female careers such as stenography) do not appeal to her.
Esther becomes increasingly depressed, and finds herself unable to sleep. Her mother encourages her, or perhaps forces her to see a psychiatrist, who then hastily diagnoses her with a mental illness and administers electroshock therapy. Also, this first therapist is noted by his sex, and also his good looks, which Esther resents. By this time, Esther is suffering from intense insomnia and is traumatised by the therapy, which was improperly administered. When she tells her mother she refuses to go back, her mother smugly announces, "I knew you'd decide to be all right."
Esther's mental state worsens. She describes her depression as a feeling of being trapped under a bell jar, struggling for breath. She makes several half-fledged attempts at suicide, including swimming far out to sea, before making a serious attempt. She leaves a note that says she is taking a long walk, then crawls into the cellar and swallows almost 50 sleeping pills that have been prescribed for her insomnia. She is discovered under her house after a rather dramatic episode in the newspapers has presumed her kidnapping and death, all taking place in an interminable amount of time. She survives, is sent to a different mental hospital, and meets Dr. Nolan, a female therapist, who prescribes electroshock therapy and ensures that it will be properly administered. Esther describes the ECT as beneficial in that it has a sort of antidepressant effect, lifting the metaphorical bell jar in which she has felt trapped and stifled. Her stay at the private institution is funded by her benefactress, Philomena Guinea.
Under Dr. Nolan, Esther improves and various life-changing events — such as losing her virginity and her final understanding of death through the suicide of her friend Joan — help her regain her sanity. The novel ends with her entering the room for her interview which would decide whether she was free from the hospital or not. The reader does not find out the outcome of the interview, and the novel ends with the words: "I stepped into the room."