The Bell Jar

Characters

  • Esther Greenwood is the protagonist of the story, an English student from Boston. While working as a summer intern at Ladies' Day magazine, she lives at the Amazon hotel in New York City along with the other women and girls working for the magazine. Esther becomes mentally unstable during that summer and the following months. The cumulative effects of fear and panic from not knowing what to do in life after graduation, professional setbacks, social alienation, traumatizing encounters such as narrowly avoiding attempted rape, and the feeling that she simply does not fit into the culturally acceptable role of womanhood contribute to her instability. Though it is not immediately apparent, unresolved grief at the death of her father when she was 8 also affects her. Having returned to live with her mother in the suburbs, and experiencing increasing insomnia, loss of appetite, inability to read or write, and she becomes fixated on and later attempts suicide. Before her mental health more precipitously declines, Esther is characterized as a hardworking student, high achieving in prizes and grades, with a vague idea she might go into publishing or being an author and poet. She is also fairly self-interested and prone to feeling withdrawn and tired. She leaves her friend Doreen with a man they just met after being asked to stay to help protect her. Later, when Doreen arrives late at night back to the hotel they both stay at asking for her, she leaves Doreen, still-drunk, to sleep on the ground near her own vomit rather than set her up in Esther’s bed.
  • Doreen is a rebel-of-the-times young woman and another intern at Ladies' Day, the magazine for which Esther won an internship for the summer, and Esther's best friend at the hotel in New York where all the interns stay. Esther finds Doreen's confident persona enticing but also troublesome, as she longs for the same level of freedom but knows such behavior is frowned upon. Esther takes care to praise Doreen’s appearance, humor, personality, and even smell, which she describes as sweaty and sweet like fresh crushed ferns. At other times Esther repudiates Doreen and swears to have little more to do with her, and to instead be friends with more conventional women like Betsy. When first looking for an escape after failing to get into her desired writing program, Esther thinks to write Doreen and ask to stay with her, but her handwriting has deteriorated and she never sends the letter.
  • Joan is an old acquaintance of Esther, who joins her at the asylum. She also dated Buddy Willard, but tells Esther later that she was more interested in keeping up relationship with Buddy’s parents, who she says are much more caring and superior to her own. At the asylum she and Esther have a quiet rivalry over who will become better quicker, as appears to be common culture among the patients. Intruding, Esther finds Joan in bed with another female asylum patient, DeeDee. Esther then reflects on other women who have sex with women she has known. Ambiguously, Joan may later proposition Esther, either romantically or in a gesture of friendship. Esther tells Joan she never liked her. When Esther needs help getting to the hospital while hemorrhaging after sex with Irwin, Joan helps her get there. Joan eventually dies by suicide at the asylum. Esther attends her funeral.
  • Doctor Nolan is Esther's doctor at the asylum. A beautiful and caring woman, her combination of personal sensitivity and professional ability allows her to be the first woman in Esther's life she feels she can fully connect with. Nolan administers shock therapy to Esther and does it correctly, which leads to positive results.
  • Doctor Gordon is the first doctor Esther encounters. Self-obsessed and patronizing, he subjects her to traumatic shock treatments that haunt her for the rest of her time in medical care.
  • Mrs. Greenwood, Esther's mother, loves her daughter but is constantly urging Esther to mold to society's ideal of white, middle-class womanhood, from which Esther feels a complete disconnection.
  • Buddy Willard is Esther's former boyfriend from her hometown. Studying to become a doctor, Buddy wants a wife who mirrors his mother, and hopes Esther will be that for him. Esther adores him throughout high school, but upon learning he is not a virgin loses respect for him and names him a hypocrite. She struggles with ending the relationship after Buddy is diagnosed with tuberculosis. He eventually proposes marriage, but Esther rejects him since she has decided she will never marry, to which Buddy responds that she is crazy.
  • Mrs. Willard, Buddy Willard's mother, is a dedicated homemaker with conservative views on women’s social roles and sexual propriety who is determined to have Buddy and Esther marry. Joan loves Mrs. Willard and found her to be the mother she never had.
  • Mr. Willard, Buddy Willard's father and Mrs. Willard's husband, is a good family friend.
  • Constantin, a simultaneous interpreter with a foreign accent, takes Esther on a date while they are both in New York. They return to his apartment and Esther contemplates giving her virginity to him, but for unknown reasons he chooses to spend the night sleeping chastely side by side with Esther instead.
  • Irwin is a tall but rather ugly young man, who is Esther’s first sexual experience, causing her to hemorrhage. He is a "very well-paid professor of mathematics" and invites Esther to have coffee, despite not knowing her at all (and not knowing she was out on leave from an asylum). The rare hemorrhage caused by penetrative sex with Irwin leads to Esther having to go to the hospital to get help to stop the bleeding.
  • Jay Cee is Esther's strict boss, who is very intelligent, so "her plug-ugly looks didn't seem to matter".[4] She is responsible for editing Esther's work.
  • Lenny Shepherd, a wealthy young man and disc jockey living in New York, invites Doreen and Esther for drinks while they are on their way to a party. They go together to his place. Doreen asks Esther to stay with her in case Lenny “tries anything”, but Esther leaves. Doreen and Lenny start dating, taking Doreen away from Esther more often.
  • Philomena Guinea, a wealthy, elderly lady, was the person who donated the money for Esther's college scholarship. Esther's college requires each girl who is on scholarship to write a letter to her benefactor, thanking him or her. Philomena invites Esther to have a meal with her. At one point, she was also in an asylum herself, and pays for the "upscale" asylum that Esther stays in.
  • Marco, a Peruvian man and friend of Lenny Shepherd, is set up to take Esther to a party, assaults her, and attempts to rape her.
  • Betsy, a wealthier girl from the magazine, is a "good" girl from Kansas whom Esther strives to be more like. She serves as the opposite to Doreen, and Esther finds herself torn between the two behavioral and personality extremes.
  • Hilda is another girl from the magazine, who is generally disliked by Esther after making negative comments about the Rosenbergs, rejoicing in their imminent execution.

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