Metaphors and Symbols in The Bell Jar

Table of Contents

Mirror in The Bell Jar

One of Esther’s problems is that she does not really know who she is. She has no firm sense of identity. It is noticeable how often she looks into a mirror, or sees a reflection of herself, but does not recognize the image as herself. In the reflection in the elevator in New York, for example, “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face.” In her room at the hotel, the mirror seems warped and too silver, and “The face in it looked like the reflection in a ball of dentist’s mercury.” On the train going home, “the face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.” When she first looks in a mirror in the hospital, after her suicide attempt, she is so disfigured that she does not recognize herself: “It wasn’t a mirror at all, but a picture.” She throws the mirror to the floor, breaking it. What these examples suggest is that Esther’s feelings of inadequacy lead her into a dislike of her own appearance and a feeling that she is not really being herself.

Bell Jar in The Bell Jar

A bell jar is a bell-shaped glass cover used to protect and display delicate objects or to cover scientific apparatus or to contain gases or a vacuum. Esther uses the bell jar as a symbol to convey her feeling of being cut off from the normal world. When she reflects on the fact that she should feel grateful to Mrs. Guinea for helping to get her out of the city hospital, she realizes that it would not have made any difference what Mrs. Guinea had done for her: “I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” She returns to the same image when she starts to recover: “The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.”

Blood in The Bell Jar

During the course of the novel, Esther struggles to come to terms with her experience of life. It is if she is going through a harsh process of initiation, and the frequent presence of blood emphasizes this. After her violent encounter with Marco, she does not wipe the dried blood off her face, even traveling home with the marks still showing. She seems to wear them as a badge of honor. Esther also draws blood from her leg in her attempt to steel her nerve for a suicide attempt. She seems to relish the sight of the blood: “The blood gathered darkly, like fruit, and rolled down my ankle into the cup of my black patent leather shoe.” And finally, after her first sexual experience, she bleeds so badly that she has to go to the Emergency Room. She has been through another rite of passage, but it has not been easy for her.