Many times throughout Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, the narrator, looks in the mirror and feels inadequate in her looks, her knowledge, or in other ways. Because of Esther’s mental illness, readers and analysts of The Bell Jar begin to look at the transformation of the way she perceives herself; Esther’s self-image began poorly at the beginning of the novel and deteriorates throughout the novel therefore creating an increase in her depression.
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The beginning views that Esther perceives herself as are that she did not look as pretty as the other girls who were on the internship in New York with her, and she also describes her tan as being faded away, which made her look as “yellow as a Chinaman” (9). These comparisons that Esther makes between her skin and the skin of a man show that she does not have a positive self-image. Also, Esther does not see herself as just any man but a minority that is often discriminated against. Right after she describes her faded tan and the rest of herself, she and Doreen have a night on the town with Lenny, a man they had just met that night. By the end of the night, Esther has to walk back to the hotel room alone drunk. Therefore, her poor self-image has led her to make poor choices, such as leaving the group of interns with strange men. After making those poor choices, Esther reflects over herself more.
In the elevator, she sees her reflection in the doors, and again, she compares her facial figures to a minority, “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used up I looked” (20). Her self-perception diminishes yet again; she now not only sees herself as a Chinese male but a Chinese woman. Esther sees herself as a minority that is many times discriminated against even more than a male minority would be, which shows that even throughout one night, Esther’s self-image transforms into something she feels is more and more inadequate. However, her night of self-reflecting is not over.
Later that night in her hotel room, Esther describes when looking in the mirror that “the mirror over my bureau seemed slightly warped and much too silver. The face in it looked like the reflection in a ball of dentist’s mercury” (21). The image of mercury is connected to another incidence in the novel when Esther knocks the tray of thermometers off of her bed and gathers “a ball of mercury” (204). The self-image of mercury could be foreshadowing of the progression of Esther’s mental illness. However, in the mirror, Esther does not see herself as the ideal image she aspires to be, and because she does not see herself in a positive way, this shows that her judgment and credibility as a narrator are affected. Because her judgment is not at its potential, Esther may make poor choices, such as going off in the night with strange men. After realizing that she makes those poor choices, Esther could then begin to fall into a downward spiral of guilt and poor self-image, making more poor choices, etc. The downward spiral could then make her depression and self-image worse.
After breaking down in front of the photographer and Jay Cee, Esther looks in the mirror and illustrates what she sees, “The face that peered back at me seemed to be peering from the grating of a prison cell after a prolonged beating. It looked bruised and puffy and all the wrong colors,” (114). Again, Esther describes her self-image as being inadequate, and soon afterwards she is attacked by Marco at the country club. After she leaves New York, Esther looks in the mirror again and thought that “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian,” (125). This instance of thinking about self-image shows that Esther feels that she was not as valuable as she was before because of the attack from Marco, and the marks of blood he left on her alluded to war paint used by Indians. Soon after this, Esther slips further into depression.
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Esther’s depression leads her into thinking about committing suicide, and one of the options she contemplates is slitting her wrists with a razor blade and bleeding out into a bath. However, when Esther looks in the mirror trying to make herself commit suicide this way, she cannot because, “the person in the mirror was paralyzed and too stupid to do a thing” (165). Her feelings of stupidity and paralysis show that her self-image is still poor, where she does not feel that she adequate enough to commit suicide. After Esther overdoses on sleeping pills and is moved to a hospital, she looks in the mirror and is so displeased with what she saw that she throws the mirror down and breaks it (195). By breaking the mirror, Esther could have been displaying that her self-image was completely broken and needed to be rebuilt, which may or may not have happened throughout the rest of her life.
In Plath’s The Bell Jar, Esther begins with a low self-esteem and a poor self-image; a poor self-image combined with the increasing feeling of inadequacy and rejection creates a snowball effect that leads Esther into mental illness and depression. By seeing how Esther’s poor self-image affected her mental stability, it can help encourage other young women to view themselves in a better light as well as help those around them that they see are struggling.
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