In The Bell Jar35 by Sylvia Plath, Esther becomes an epic lead by means of a series of events that are the experience of the denial of an epic quest. Becoming an epic lead implies the symbolic overcoming of obstacles and the achievement of a significant social status that is recognized by the community. Esther's achievement is symbolized by the eventual lifting of the bell jar.
"She casts herself as the wronged epic heroine of her own personal drama, slaughtering her enemies right and left (husband, mother, father, aunt, neighbor, friend, basically anyone in her path)." 36
The novel is also a bildungsroman, a "novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character."37.
According to Jerome Buckley in his study of this form, its principal elements are "a growing up and gradual self-discovery," "alienation," "the conflict of generations," "ordeal by love," and "the search for a vocation and a working philosophy." (quoted from Jerome Hamilton Buckley, Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974), viii, 18)38
Like Maggie and Lucy Snowe, Esther's journey involves interactions with men, but unlike Maggie, Esther reaches epic status despite the men in her world, rather than through them.
In this novel, she is a woman in a world of women. The novel starts with her in the world of beauty magazines. She has a few, mainly romantic, interactions with men.
While much of the characterization of separate male figures is scant and scattered, Plath locates them within a culture that itself endows them with power. Cal, her beach date, or Constantin, the U.N. interpreter, are vivid embodiments of male sexuality; they represent the patriarchy in all its erotic, financial, and domestic power.39
After the few romantic exchanges amongst friends, Buddy Willard appears and she interacts with the marriage plot in a way that does not conform to it.
The patriarchy and its pervasive misuse of power are best represented in the characters of (a) Marco, the abusive woman-hater whose interaction with Esther is scarifying, and (b) the seemingly much more respectable Dr. Gordon, the self-important psychiatrist whose abuse of Esther occurs in the malfunctioning of the electroconvulsive shock he administers to her as an outpatient.40
She moves, for a major portion of the novel, in worlds of women. She is living at her mother's house when she commits suicide. She achieves some semblance of an epic status in coming back from suicide; it is a rebirth. She almost dies; she meets the worms and comes back. This is an extraordinary achievement, especially for a depressed woman.
The family's obliviousness to her behavior and appearance screams out through Esther's objectively told narration.41
Suicide for Esther is pushing the reset button. She's placed in an asylum, which is another world of women.
Esther's relationships with these women are her means of defining herself and of defying the conservative older generation. One expects generational warfare, particularly in fiction with a college-age protagonist; thus, what is often the generational struggle in The Bell Jar seems antifemale. Esther's hostile responses to the women who have been her mentors, friends, relatives, and employers are less critical than they might appear, once they are viewed in the perspective of generational difference.
Her place in the asylum is as a passive person; she's being treated. She observes what's going on around her. She has very little active choice in what happens to her. She doesn't get to decide whether or not she is to undergo shock therapy.
One of the most telling scenes in the second half of the Bell Jar is Esther's reaction to her first electroconvulsive shock treatment: "I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done" (161)42
Both the electroconvulsive shock treatments and the insulin are thrust upon her at the asylum. She doesn't have control of what is done to her body. While she is a passive participant and she consents to treatment, the forms that her treatment takes are out of her control; she does not actively request these treatments. Neither is she comfortable with the treatments. She grows fat on the insulin and her physical state symbolizes her growing passivity. She passes time waiting to get to the next stage of recovery. She is waiting for someone else to determine her destiny.
In her first sexual experience, when she loses her virginity, she begins to hemorrhage. Hemorrhaging implies a birth gone wrong or an abortion. This is appropriate in terms of how losing one's virginity was viewed in that time. The narrative treatment of Esther's experience was progressive in a regressive sense. It casts Esther as a figure not unlike Tess of the D'Urbervilles or the suffering Virgin Mary. She is abortive; she miscarries. The entrance of a phallus into her body is symbolic of the role of the patriarchy into her life is extremely disruptive - she is not just penetrated but skewered. When she flees she seeks comfort from another woman. The introduction of the erotic into the narrative does not change the general direction of Esther's story: death lingers just behind the erotic.
Dr. Nolan's entrance into the novel is a welcome relief; she is like Mlle Beck in Villette a formidable female. She is the only female authority to whom Esther grants any credibility. She is an inspiration and a guide. Nolan's attitude towards the electroconvulsive therapy that Esther had previously received, is not only a comfort to the protagonist, but aids her resentment against the doctor who had prescribed them. Nolan is portrayed as tough, knowing, mildly compassionate and competent. Esther finds Nolan's guidance helpful, but moreover it seems as if Nolan's sheer existence has been inspiration to Esther.
Dr. Nolan, Esther's psychiatrist, is the warm, tolerant, and just mentor whose efforts to help Esther understand herself are eventually rewarded.43
In Nolan, Esther has discovered a woman whom she can respect and whom she trust and can look to for leadership. Nolan guides her to her final confrontation to death that is her final electroconvulsive treatment. With Nolan's guidance, Esther resigns herself to this treatment wholly. She is right to trust Nolan. She is not mistreated as she had been previously: the shock treatment doesn't hurt her.
Esther confronts death.
As Esther says near the triumph of leaving the asylum, there should be "a ritual for being born twice" (275)44
She eventually emerges from the stifling confinement of the gender expectations of her culture, symbolized by the lifting of the bell jar. Yet she is fully aware that even having achieved epic status, she will continue to face the sort of chauvinism from which she had rebelled with her initial suicide. Now she has the weapons that she needs to overcome these obstacles. This is shown in the penultimate scene/sequence wherein she demands that the man to whom she had lost her virginity, Irwin, the mathematics professor, pay her emergency room bill. This event is configured as a distinct victory over the patriarchy. At the end of the novel, she is going to face the powers that be at the asylum for a final review. Yet the novel ends with the implication that she will become a person independent of the asylum system.
Esther ultimately achieves an epic status through surviving. She escapes the world of lipstick ads and beauty magazines to run the gauntlet of assertion of cultural will over her own. She fights against the medical control that is asserted over her to emerge still in possession and perhaps more in possession than she had previously been over her actions and destiny.