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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.
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."
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.
The Bell Jar was first published in London in January 1963 by William Heinemann Limited publishers under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, for Sylvia Plath questioned the literary value of the novel and did not believe that it was a "serious work." More importantly, the novel had numerous parallels to the life of its author. Both Sylvia Plath and her fictional counterpart, Esther Greenwood, lost their father at early ages and hail from the Boston area. Sylvia and Esther were both poets who were noted for winning prizes and scholarships; although the college which Esther attends is not stated explicitly in The Bell Jar, it is a prestigious women's college that could easily be Sylvia Plath's alma mater, Smith College.
At Smith College, Sylvia Plath received a scholarship donated by Olive Higgins Prouty, the novelist and author of Stella Dallas, who later became a friend and patron for Plath, thus paralleling the relationship between the fictional philanthropist Philomena Guinea and Esther Greenwood. Replicating the events of the first chapters of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath won an internship at Mademoiselle.
The most important events of the novel are almost strictly drawn from Sylvia Plath's biography. Sylvia underwent electroshock therapy and disappeared after a suicide attempt, after which she was hospitalized for psychotherapy.
When The Bell Jar was first published, Sylvia Plath was disconcerted by the reviews, which criticized the novel a feminist counterpart to the works of J.D. Salinger. The reviews were lukewarm, for British critics found it to be a critique of American society and deemed the title character a hopeless neurotic. Shortly after the British publication of the novel, Sylvia Plath committed suicide.
The novel did not reach American shores for another several years, despite great demand in America for it. Because the novel had been published abroad by an American citizen and had not been published in America within six months of foreign publication or copyright, The Bell Jar fell under a now nullified provision called Ad Interim, which meant that it was no longer eligible for copyright protection in the United States. By the time that the novel reached America in 1971, Sylvia Plath was a household name and confessional literature was in vogue. The feminist movement, fascination with death, and mental illness were at that time contemporary preoccupations. A definitive change occurred during this first publication. Despite some negative reviews, The Bell Jar quickly became the definitive female rite-of-passage novel, fulfilling the British critical idea that it would become a touchstone for American youth akin to The Catcher in The Rye.