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The Bell Jar
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The Bell Jar > Bell Jar: Chapter 1-5

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Anna (Cask & Quill) (caskandquill) | 25 comments Mod
This will be the area we'll discuss the first section of The Bell Jar! Please do not post about anything beyond chapter 5!

Anna (Cask & Quill) (caskandquill) | 25 comments Mod
I hope everyone is enjoying the book so far! I really have been. :) (Aside from a few cringey/outdated racial terms.) I’ve found our main character to be pretty relatable and easy to read. Two points have stuck out to me so far, in addition to what I see developing as one of the main themes.

First, Esther mentions the difference between intelligence and intuition pretty early on. Middle of page 7 if you have the same copy as me. She’s talking about how Buddy Willard is “stupid” even though he does well in school. But Doreen has intuition and “everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones.” I’m interested to see if and how that distinction develops throughout the rest of the book.

Second, Esther has a poignant moment of talking about “looking on at other people in crucial situations.” She mentions she learns a lot from doing this that she may not have otherwise and that even if it was disturbing in some way she wouldn’t show that, acting as if she knew this is how things were the whole time. I think that’s another compelling commentary on education and how we educate ourselves. Both formally and by these little methods of learning from others or life around us. And how maybe there are certain things that can’t really be taught to us.

So one of the themes I am picking up on so far is the disconnect between education and the rest of one’s life. Specifically between education and career, but also how career fits into not just a life, but a fulfilling one. Esther is a good student as well, but feels pretty disoriented about where life and career are taking her. That might be most clear in her conversation with her boss, Jay Cee, and while thinking about working at the UN. I think there’s a tendency to think if you do well in school, you’ll be prepared for life beyond that. But Esther is demonstrating how that’s not necessarily true. And how, if you feel directionless about what you want to do after school, you might not be getting everything out of school that you should in order to help you on your way (i.e. the recommendation of taking a language if she wants to be an editor). She also touches on the emptiness of shuttling back and forth between sleep, work and social functions. I don’t get the sense that she’s feeling a whole lot of purpose or meaning in life.

Just as an aside, I felt very connected to this because I also have so many interests and while in school I ended up studying English because that’s what I loved. But I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to or would do with that once school was over. Translating educational experience into a career or a life can be pretty difficult, especially for the arts and humanities, or those who aren’t really sure what they’d like to end up doing.

Well, I’d love to hear if you have anything to add to either what I’ve said or anything that stood out while you were reading!

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Here are a few thoughts and reactions I had after reading the first 5 chapters:

In Chapters 1 and 2 I was struck by the push-pull Esther experienced between wanting to engage in the rebellion of youth (in seeking out a friendship with someone rebellious in Doreen, and in being rebellious herself in convincing Doreen to go along and drink with the boys they met while in the cab) and also rejecting the rebellion of youth (especially in her disgust of Doreen drunk and her assertion that she would spend more time with Betsy and her “innocent friends” because it was them she “resembled at heart”). It felt very real and relatable for being that age: pushing limits and then feeling regret/shame/disgust when you realize you’ve crossed your own. Although, I am curious if her reaction and rejection of Doreen when she was drunk, and her declared rejection of those lesser impulses in herself, is actually due to a true statement of her values, or are stemming from a greater self loathing and rejection of the darker or less “innocent” parts of herself. This is hinted at in a few statements she makes, but I felt it was most palpable in this scene and also in the scene in Chapter 4 after she is sick and declares “I felt purged and holy and ready for new life.” Both of these situations seem to indicate that she feels there is something unclean in her to be rejected or purged. I’m interested to see if that’s on ongoing theme.

The slow reveal of Esther’s depression in Chapter 3 felt very real and relatable, you could feel the shift happening as she did with the declining interest, motivation, and increasing isolation. You can feel her desperation while talking to Jay Cee, and really sense just how lost she feels. She also paints a picture of times she has felt this way in the past, indicating this is an ongoing struggle for her. While her struggle with feeling directionless is fairly common for her age, there’s a sense that there’s a darker force driving it that seems to just scratch the surface of the inner turmoil she’s feeling.

As an aside, I’m a mental health therapist and I was struck by how real Esther’s description of the beginning stages of her depressive episode were, and how similar her experience is to many people’s experiences with the beginning stages of depression. She describes increasing desire to isolate, the loss of interest in things she might normally enjoy, and the decreased motivation in a way that signals she knows something is off, but hasn’t fully realized what, or hasn’t yet experienced the full range of her depression (at least in this current episode). I suppose it’s not surprising how well and real those symptoms are written, given Sylvia Plath‘s own experiences with depression, but the poignancy with which it was written was definitely striking.

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Kat (freekat) | 5 comments Admittedly it took me the first two chapters to get into a rhythm with reading this, it's a style I haven't read in quite a while.

I completely agree with Anna about the disconnect between education and the rest of one's life. I can completely connect with Ester's struggle of doing well in school but how does that translate when you're no longer there? 65 years after this book was published, that feeling still holds true for many now.

I really like what Nichelle pointed out about the fact that Ester seems pulled between the dark (Doreen) vs. the light (Betsy), and how maybe there is something in Ester's past that makes her feel "impure" and "less than." Curious if this has anything to do with Buddy Williard. We keep getting little glimpses into him and I'm left wondering what happened...and why every so often Ester mentions a baby.

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Rebecca Lynn  | 2 comments I forgot how much of a different writing style this book is.
Reading about how Ester feels when Doreen is around and how she wants to be friends with her, but doesn't fully accept how she acts is completely understandable to any teenage/young twenty year old. There is always those people you think are going to be a blast to hang out with, but once you start to hang out with them you realize that their life is not as glorious as it's going to be.
As you keep reading you realize that Ester is showing signs of depression for years, but while she has been in New York it has been showing up more frequently and I think that it also has a part to do with why she has a hard time feeling motivated or interested in anything that the scholarship she is there with.
I also feel that Buddy Williard has something to do with her depression state and contributed to the spiral that she is slowly wondering down.

Emily (arlunydd) I finally made it to chapter 5! Last time I gave up before then. To reiterate what has been said, Esther's depression is coming through quite obviously.
Last time I tried reading it, I hadn't been diagnosed with depression yet so I was perpetually frustrated with Esther. I just wanted to shake her and tell her to pull herself together. This was brought on by my frustrations with myself, I believe. Now on the other side of a diagnosis, I can look at the character with much more empathy.
I do wonder how Buddy will be shown as a hypocrite....

Anna (Cask & Quill) (caskandquill) | 25 comments Mod
Glad we're all getting along with the book so far! Excited to see how a lot of these themes and hints might develop throughout the rest of the book!

Thank you all for contributing your thoughts!

Rebecca, I like your point about people seeming like they're going to be fun to be around and then once you get to know them, that mask sort of cracks. To take that a little further, I think that's getting at a theme of expectation and appearance, which I think is another thing Esther is struggling with. Playing a role. Keeping up appearances. Doing what you're "supposed" to do. It's all very surface level and think she seems torn between feeling pressured to keep up with that (buying all the expensive clothes, going thru the motions with work and school, wanting to be w/Buddy initially) and on the other side realizing that she doesn't really know what she wants and there are moments she wants to rebel against what is expected of her by society, friends, family, etc. It seems to me this is where a lot of her impatience with others, specifically Buddy is coming from. She seems to be seeing these roles and these masks people wear as really dishonest and hollow.

Emily, I think that's so interesting how your perspective has changed on this reading after your own experience. I think that's part of why mental health awareness is so important. It is so common for people to have a "snap out of it" reaction, like you described, when hearing or reading about someone going through depression. Makes me think about ways we can be more aware ourselves, but also to help spread that awareness and understanding... I think that's totally relevant to what we're reading!

Thanks again you guys!

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