The split identity of Esther Greenwood in Silvia Plath's "The Bell Jar"

Seminar Paper, 2008
15 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Motif of the Fig-Tree

3. The Fake Identities of Esther Greenwood
3.1 The Consciously Created Identities
3.2 The Unconsciously Created Identities

4. The Motif of the Bell Jar

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

7. Eidesstattliche Erklärung

1. Introduction

Madness is an important aspect in literature - especially madness of female writers respectively madness of female chief characters is interesting to deal with concerning the social role of women in the cause of time.

It [madness] is that state of mind where a person’s feelings or beliefs about himself […] are completely disrupted, making him unable to function in whatever social role – husband, parent, friend, employee – he might expect to enjoy. It is the state where the sufferer passes beyond the bounds of reality, intelligibility, and rationality as defined by the bulk of society. The psychotic is a stranger among his own people. (Nettle 12)

A character consistent to this definition of madness is Esther Greenwood in Silvia Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar which was published 1963. Being a young intelligent woman, Esther becomes mad as a result of the mental stress to conform to the traditional role of women or to break tradition. Esther Greenwood is passive and unable to be agent of her life. Never having learned how to develop herself as an independent individual, she is dependent on others and follows their ideals of a fulfilling life. She is torn between starting a family and starting a career. According to this, The Bell Jar reveals the difficulty of becoming an adult, by breaking tradition to be able to realize one’s personal scheme of life. As Susan Bassnett points out, “The Bell Jar is a novel about a suicide attempt that fails; but it is also a novel about a woman who learns how to live with herself and how to come to terms with the world, that world of destruction and horror […]” (Bassnett 122).

As the story of Esther Greenwood’s madness is full of interesting symbols and motifs, it is unfortunately impossible to deal with the whole of them. Consequently this paper will focus on few aspects revealing the split identity of Esther Greenwood and show the process of her recovery as well. These basic motifs are: the fig-tree, the fake identity she builds up and the motif of the bell jar. They will be discussed in the context of Esther’s mental illness. Esther’s split identity is represented through the motif of the fig-tree occurring in The Bell Jar. Since Esther wants every “fig”, she cannot make up decide for one option in life. As a result she builds up several fake identities, which are either consciously or unconsciously built. They indicate her insecurity towards her choice for a scheme of life. The last point of this paper is Esther’s development throughout the novel and her recovery which is reconstructed by the motif of the bell jar.

2. The Motif of the Fig-Tree

The fig-tree is a symbol of Esther Greenwoods mental illness. Being torn between different options for a fulfilling life, she has to decide which one to pick. She cannot come to a decision because if she does so in favour of one “fig”, she will loose all the others. Her problem is that she has not one aim she wants to achieve. She wants to do and have everything: “On another level, the image of the fig tree offers the reader an insight into Silvia Plath’s obsessive desire to succeed in everything. Fragmented though life may be, Esther Greenwood, like Silvia Plath, wants the best fig on every bough” (Bassnett 50). Esther hesitates and meanwhile the options for her life pass away.

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. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. 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. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. (Plath 73)

Esther’s inability to come to a decision is representative for her disease. An example of her inconclusiveness of picking a fig is that Esther Greenwood, like many other women in the 1950s, has to determine either for starting a family or starting a career. For women it is rather unlikely to be able to have both. Men instead, have the opportunity to gain everything which is a great problem for Esther. She does not want to devote her life exclusively to a family and concludes that women living a life like this are “brainwashed” (Plath 81) and “numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state“ (81). On the one hand Esther hates “the idea of serving men in any way” (72) and wants to be independent: “The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself” (79). On the other hand she wants to have a family or at least a loving husband. A hint to this is Esther’s reaction after her fitting: “I was my own woman. The next step was to find the proper sort of man.” (213).

Her inability to decide in favour of or against a family, respectively a career, is only one of her troubles. As a result Esther builds up personalities which do not have these problems.

3. The Fake Identities of Esther Greenwood

3.1 The Consciously Created Identities

There are two identities Esther builds up consciously: Elly Higginbottom and Elaine, the heroine in the novel she wants to write.

The character of Elly Higginbottom from Chicago appears the first time when Esther and Doreen are in a bar with two foreign men. Esther does not want “anything I [she] said or did that night to be associated with me [her] and my [her] real name and coming from Boston” (Plath 11) and feels “safer” (11) after having invented Elly. Esther therefore tries to protect her real identity and hides from her real self. Through Elly’s identity being the total contrast to Esther’s, she does not have to cope with the troubles of her old life and can to a certain extent be independent: “Esther is insecure; Elly is supremely self-confident” (Hall 25). Aside from that, the fact that Esther cannot remember her invented identity when Doreen knocks at her door is interesting. Esther takes a bath after having left Doreen and one of the men alone and feels “pure and sweet as a new baby” (19) afterwards. She seems to be reborn and has totally forgotten about Elly: “‘Elly, Elly, Elly, let me in’, and I didn’t know any Elly.” (19). This is a hint to Esther Greenwood’s split identity.

Esther needs the character of Elly a second time when she gets to know a young sailor. Again she pretends to be Elly Higginbottom from Chicago. She thinks about changing her name into Elly if she ever gets to Chicago and is relieved about the fact that nobody would know that she has “thrown up a scholarship” (127) and “mucked up a month in New York” (127) and “refused a perfectly solid medical student for a husband” (127). These quotes make perfectly clear how desperate and dissatisfied Esther feels about her life. She just wants to get rid of these aspects of her old life and hide herself behind a foreign identity. She wants to forget about her problems so that she does not have to deal with these “scandals” of her life. Esther imagines that in “Chicago, people would take me [her] for what I [she] was [is]” (127) and does not even realize that if she goes to Chicago, changes her name and forgets about her previous life, nothing of her real self will remain. How should anyone take her for what she is, if she hides her real self behind an invented identity?

The second identity Esther creates is Elaine. Esther decides to spend the summer writing a novel. As she sits on the breezeway wondering what her novel ought to be about, she sees herself from another perspective, sitting on the breezeway and compares this copy of reality to “a doll in a doll’s house” (116). That is when Esther decides to names her heroine Elaine, who is Esther herself in disguise. Both names start with an E and have six letters which is “a lucky thing” (116) for Esther. Having written a few lines, Esther does not know how the story should go on. Besides, she does not even know what shall fictionally happen with Elaine, as she does not foresee what will happen to her real self in reality. Again she compares Elaine and therewith herself to a doll: “and in my mind, the barefoot doll in her mother’s old yellow nightgown sat and stared into space as well” (116). Having realized that she has not got enough experience to write a novel she abandons this plan.

The comparison of Esther respectively Elaine to a doll is actually the most important aspect in this example. A doll is a toy, with which children or human beings in general, play. A doll is passive and must be considered as an object. This characterization fits to Esther’s behaviour: she is never able to make a decision independently and is consequently the “doll” or the object people play with. Esther prefers to be the passive rather than the active one because she thinks she learns many things by observing people who are doing something instead of doing anything by herself: “I liked looking on other people in crucial situations. […] I certainly learned a lot of things I never would have learned otherwise this way” (12). This is a great contrast to her being or intending to be an intellectual student and stresses the inner conflict Esther is in. According to Linda Wagner-Martin, “[t]o be a doll is to assume an inanimate being, or the sexual familiarity of being a possession: a liberated and intellectual college woman would probably not want that identity” (Wagner-Martin, A Novel of the Fifties 76).

Elaine and Elly are personifications of the personal disorder of Esther Greenwood, or at least they visualize Esther’s conflict which was already mentioned in the fig-tree episode.

3.2 The Unconsciously Created Identities

Apart from the identities Esther has created consciously, there are some aspects which indicate other identities which are unconsciously built.

One example is the change of Esther’s voice before she starts her therapy with Dr. Nolan. At first the voice is “husky, [and] receptive” (Plath 28) and appears as Esther’s hotel phone is ringing. Because Esther does not know who will be on the phone, she disguises her voice intentionally to protect her inner self. This behaviour is similar to using the character of Elly. The voice emerges for the second time while Esther is talking to Jody about her rejection to participate in the writing course: “My voice sounded strange and hollow in my ears” (114). As the conversation goes on, no longer Esther but her personified voice speaks: “But the hollow voice said” (114). This supports the thesis of her split identity because she does not recognize her voice as a part of herself any more. The oddity of the voice increases within the novel from “husky” (28) and “receptive” (28), to “strange and hollow” (114) and finally to a “zombie voice” (115): “and listened to the zombie voice leave a message that Miss Esther Greenwood was cancelling all arrangements to come to summer school” (115). The voice has developed from an intentionally disguised voice (28) to a personified voice: “I tried to speak in a cool, calm way, but the zombie rose up in my throat and choked me off” (121). It seems as if Esther is split into an introverted being and a fractious zombie whom she cannot control.

Another indicator of Esther Greenwood’s split identity is her handwriting. She wants to write a letter to Doreen to flee to her, but is not able to write properly. For Esther the letters look like those of a child which makes her so angry that she tears the paper into little pieces. She keeps them, puts them into a pocket-book, as if they were a treasure. For Esther the pieces are a definite proof of her disease. That is why she keeps them: to show them to the doctor to convince him of her disease.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


The split identity of Esther Greenwood in Silvia Plath's "The Bell Jar"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Department of English and Linguistics)
Madness in Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
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426 KB
Meine Dozentin hat angemerkt, dass ich den ersten Teil, also das Motif des "fig tree" noch mehr hätte analysieren sollen, aber sie abgesehen davon sehr zufrieden war.
Esther, Greenwood, Silvia, Plath, Bell, Madness, Literature
Quote paper
Sarah Schommer (Author), 2008, The split identity of Esther Greenwood in Silvia Plath's "The Bell Jar", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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