One is often enticed to read a novel because of the way in which the characters are viewed and the way in which characters view their surroundings. In the novel The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Esther Greenwood is a character whose “heightened and highly emotional response to events, actions and sentiments” (Assignment sheet) intrigue the reader. One of her character traits is extreme paranoia that is shown in different situations throughout the novel. As a result of this, she allows herself to be easily let down, as she believes that all events that are unsatisfactory are directed towards her. Finally, it is clear that she attempts to escape this notion by imagining an idyllic yet impossible life that she envisions in remote circumstances. It is clear that Plath’s creation is a Novel of Sensibility as her writing not only possesses all of the qualities associated with this genre, it also effectively takes the reader into the story with the protagonist.
One who suffers from paranoia often makes conclusions about situations without any real knowledge or understanding. Esther is a person who believes that she will be discovered and mistreated if any knowledge that she deems potentially harmful is realized about her. On one visit to her psychiatrist, she shows him the pieces of a letter that she wrote to a friend. However, after consideration, she realizes that that might not be the best idea. “I picked up every scrap of my letter to Doreen so Doctor Gordon couldn’t piece them together and see I was planning to run away.” (Plath 143). Despite the improbability of the situation, she finds herself suspicious of the actions of those around. Esther looks at things in a way that differs from the common way of thinking, thus demonstrating a rather unexpected response to what is happening around her. Another common attribute of paranoia is the belief that others are plotting something potentially hurtful. This can be seen in the way that she feels as if she is being tested by others. She is admitted to a mental institution, and it is apparent that she is untrustworthy of the motives of others when the doctors visit her:
I lay on my bed under the thick white blanket, and they entered my room, one by one, and introduced themselves. I couldn’t understand why there should be so many of them, or why they would want to introduce themselves, and I began to think that they were testing me, to see if I noticed that there were too many of them. (Plath 198)
Esther evidently feels as if she is constantly being judged and tested, although in fact she is not. Her magnified sense of distrust is illustrated repeatedly throughout the course of the book, at once involving the reader and developing her own characteristic response to unique situations. Finally, one who views occurrences which can only be categorized as coincidental as being planned often experiences a suspicious response. When she finds out that an acquaintance from high school is at the same hospital, her first reaction is wariness: “It occurred to me that Joan, hearing where I was, had engaged the room at the asylum on pretence, simply as a joke.” (Plath 207). Although the reader is incredulous of the protagonist’s manner of thought, it is also possible to feel a connection to the situation. Such a thought in the mind of the reader may only be a fleeting moment, however it is exaggerated in the book in order to create a correlation between oneself and the book. Esther’s deep paranoia serves to portray an extreme example of the way in which people react in certain situations. The reason that it must be so extreme is so that the reader can relate to it on a smaller scale.
Paranoia not only leads to expecting the worst; it leads to a lack of optimism in life as well. Possessing a deeply rooted negative perspective on life can contribute to disparity when one finds that things are not the way that one envisions them. When Esther finds that her boyfriend is not as virtuous as she believes him to be, she becomes very adamant about his negative qualities: “Actually it wasn’t the idea of Buddy sleeping with someone that bothered me…. What I couldn’t stand was Buddy’s pretending I was so sexy and he was so pure, when all the time he’d been having an affair.” (Plath 73). Esther is not upset about his actions, but the way in which he lies. This rouses the familiar emotion of betrayal that almost all readers to which almost all readers can relate. Esther does not forgive Buddy for his deceit, rather she holds on to it and remembers it at all times, creating a more wretched existence for herself. Esther also allows herself to be let down in other ways. Rejection is an ancient reason for feelings of unimportance, and Esther exemplifies this behaviour:
All through June the writing course had stretched before me like a bright, safe bridge over the gulf of the summer. Now I saw it totter and dissolve, and a body in a white blouse and green skirt plummet into the gap. (Plath 120).
Esther states feelings that are common to everyone, hopelessness and feelings of failure that usually accompany results are not as planned. In this way, the reader is able to both understand her thoughts and actions and grasp the reasons for one’s own in moments similar to hers.
Often when one is discouraged by the reality of everyday, hope can be derived from remote ideas or circumstances. People are notorious for having thoughts that involve how circumstances could be much improved with the involvement of a few changes. Miss Greenwood characterizes this human trait when contemplating why a man would not sleep with her: “I thought if only I had a keen shapely bone-structure to my face or could discuss politics shrewdly or was a famous writer Constantin might find me interesting enough to sleep with.” (Plath 86). This comment is absurd simply because of the qualities she designated as attractive to the opposite sex. As the author does not go into much depth about Constantin, it is impossible to comprehend his take on the situation, however it is possible for the reader to understand what the protagonist is feeling. One often wonders about one’s own inequalities when experiencing rejection by another person. Often the answer is that one is not the image of perfection in the eyes of another, and although this usually cannot be helped, it is usually accompanied by a fantasy of what it would be like to be that perfect person. Esther finds reassurance in her imagination. Although Esther imagines herself as better in different ways, she also possesses another common trait. All people wish to be accepted into society just as they are, where all good attributes are perceived as exactly and no bad ones are pointed out. Esther imagines that “in Chicago, people would take me for what I was….people would love me for my sweet quiet nature.” (Plath 140). Esther’s fantasy is one that is common to all, which effectively creates a link between her and the reader. Her wistful tone embodies in both of the incidents a weakness of humankind, to at once want to be what everyone else wants while at the same time wishing to be true to oneself. Another way in which people find sanction from the reality of themselves is in seeking pleasure from distant ideals. Esther finds herself able to escape from the chaos of her own life and mind through admiration of a different world: “My favourite tree was the Weeping Scholar Tree. I thought it must be from Japan. They understood things of spirit in Japan.” (Plath 145). Esther tries to find the simplicity that is lacking in her life in what she imagines to be a perfectly peaceful and wise existence. Her mental ideals of how things should be are present in the minds of all, and Plath successfully conveys her character’s emotional thought through experiences that are comparable to the experiences of all.
Plath’s The Bell Jar is an extension of human emotion and a portrayal of the relationship between the reader and the character. She uses Esther’s intense thoughts to communicate to her readers how human emotions are all related to life experience. The reason for the exaggeration is that without readers would not be able to comprehend their own actions and thoughts as clearly. Esther Greenwood exhibits a profound paranoia about the intentions of others. This leads her to expect the worst from others, and when the worst is what she receives she feels doubly betrayed, first of all by herself for expecting it and then by the one who wreaked such havoc upon her mind. She, like many members of the human race, searches for answers in impossible ideals, because that which is impossible to reach may never be destroyed. This novel is clearly an example of a Novel of Sensibility because it is based on emotions and their connection to “events, actions and sentiments” (Assignment sheet).
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath