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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
The Bell Jar is set during a six month period in the life of the protagonist. The year is 1953, ten years prior to the British publication date. The narrator announces at the beginning of the novel that it is set during the summer in which the Rosenbergs were executed in New York. That was 1953. Dwight Eisenhower was president at the time and Senator McCarthy was conducting "the red scare", i.e. the use of anti-communist progaganda to violate peopleís civil rights.
It is first set in New York, in a hotel for women with the fictional title of Amazon, and in the offices of a womenís fashion magazine. Later, the protagonist returns to her home in the suburbs of Boston. She receives outpatient shock treatment in Walton, Massachusetts. Then she spends a short time in a city psychiatric hospital, probably in Boston, and then is moved to a private hospital in New England. It has three main houses, ranked according to the relative health of its patients. Belsize, Caplan, and Wymark. The protagonist only lives in the first two, Caplan and then Belsize.
LIST OF CHARACTERS
A nineteen year old writer who has yet to receive serious encouragement for her writing. She writes the winning essay in a contest whose prize is the chance to work as an editor for a womenís fashion magazine in New York for a summer. She along with twelve other young women are treated basically as walking advertisements for any number of companies. She has an emotional crisis and is given outpatient shock treatment, after which she attempts to commit suicide. She is sent to a psychiatric hospital where she recovers. In the present time of the writing, she has children and writes.
Estherís well-meaning but misguided mother, who urges her to learn shorthand in case her degree in English does not prove financially fruitful. Her main method of communicating her desires is passive aggression.
The young man who Esther dates for a time and then begins to feel repulsed by. He is a medical student. He contracts tuberculosis (TB) and spends most of the novel in a sanitorium for those suffering from this respiratory disease.
Mrs. Nelly Willard
Buddy Willardís mother. She is Estherís worst nightmare of what it means to be a woman. She endorses what we now think of as the 50sí ideal of womanís place in the home.
Doreen is one of the recipients of the prize to New York. She is from a society womenís college in the south. She sneers at everything around her yet remains consumed by thoughts of fashion, style, and modishness. She treats Esther as a side-kick.
The editor on the fashion magazine which sponsored the prizes for the twelve women. She is a serious professional who wants Ester to succeed. Unlike the other women working at the magazine, she is not concerned with her looks.
One of the recipients of the prize to New York. She comes from Kansas and wants nothing more than to marry a farmer some day. Doreen calls her Pollyanna Cowgirl.
A disc jockey of country music in New York who dates Doreen and totally ignores Esther.
A man Lenny hires to be with Esther while he is with Doreen the first time. Esther describes him as a "little runt in his orange suede elevator shoes and mingy T-shirt and droopy blue sports coat."
One of the recipients of the prize to New York. She is a specialist in hats and is glad the Rosenbergs are being executed.
Estherís physics and chemistry professor.
A writer of potboiler romances who sponsors Estherís scholarship at college and her stay in the psychiatric ward.
Emily Ann Offenbach
One of the recipients of the prize to New York. Esther describes her as a "prim little girl with a bun of red hair and a husband and three children in Teaneck, New Jersey."
A woman one year older than Esther who is interested in Buddy Willard. Esther thinks she is big as a horse. She first attentds the same college as Esther and then she comes to the psychiatric hospital and lives in Caplan next door to Esther. Esther is annoyed with her presence: "Joan was the beaming double of my old best self, specially designed to follow and torment me." Joan moves up to Belsize before Esther does. At the end, she commits suicide.
A simultaneous interpreter who works at the UN. He and Esther go on one date.
A college friend of Buddy Willardís who delivers a baby as Esther watches.
The woman with whom Buddy Willard has an affair one summer. She is a waitress.
A southerner from Yale who tells Esther of his disgust of sex and his determination never to have sex with the woman he loves.
A neighbor woman and a retired nurse, who stares out her window and spies on Esther and then reports what she sees to Estherís mother.
A woman who lives in Estherís motherís neighborhood. Hers is the only Catholic family on the block. She is pregnant, has six children and a messy yard.
One of Estherís friends from college who invites her to live in a large house that several college women are renting for the summer in Cambridge. She also takes Esther for a day at the beach.
A relative of a relative who is the family doctor. She recommends that Esther see a psychiatrist.
An inept and successful psychiatrist who sees Esther and gives her shock treatment without explaining the process to her. The shock treatment is botched, leaving Esther traumatized and suspicious of psychiatry.
A man about whom Esther reads in a newspaper. He attempted suicide and was talked out of it by a police officer.
A blind date Jody fixes Esther up with. They go to a beach together.
A young doctor who briefly visits Esther after her suicide attempt. He was the roommate of a man she had dated in college and he attempts to use this tenuous contact as an opening with her.
A woman who shares a room with Esther briefly in her first psychiatric ward.
A red-haired psychiatric patient in Estherís first psychiatric ward. She experiences severe problems and must be isolated from the other patients.
A patient at Caplan where Esther stays. She has been lobotomized.
Estherís psychiatrist at Caplan who is trustworthy and maternal. She helps Esther to get well.
A patient at Caplan who does not speak. She is moved to Wymark when Ester is moved to Belsize.
The night nurse at Caplan.
A patient at Belsize.
A patient at Belsize.
A patient at Belsize. She is a society woman and talks of nothing but debutantes.
The nurse who administers the electroshock therapy at Belsize.
A mathematics professor who lives in a town close to the psychiatric hospital. On a day visit, Esther meets him and goes to his apartment where they have sex.