Story Skeleton—The Bell Jar

A structural analysis of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (summary of plot points)

Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.


By David Griffin Brown


The Bell Jaralmost a memoir

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is an autobiographical account of the author’s experience with mental illness. Though the narrative mirrors her own life, Plath opted to publish it as a novel, which allowed her to increase the drama and conceal identities. Rather than memoir, the book could be considered early autofiction (or proto-autofiction since that term wasn’t coined until 1977) along the lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. That is to say, it’s more autobiographical than a novel in which the author draws on their experiences within an otherwise invented storyline.

This is an important distinction when considering the structure of The Bell Jar. While memoir and autofiction rely on many of the same storytelling fundamentals as fiction, these genres allow for more structural flexibility. For example, a memoir may be built around a series of thematically connected events, and autofiction can involve a wide-ranging exploration of self (making it somewhat similar to the bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel).

As a developmental editor, I get the opportunity to give feedback on a variety of memoirs-in-progress. There is one piece of advice I give to almost every client: zoom in. The typical memoir that crosses my desk is too sprawling, trying to encompass too much of the author’s life. The power of a memoir lies in its specificity, or its “aboutness.”

Let me tell you about the time that I…

I tell my memoir clients—imagine you are sitting down with an old friend you haven’t seen in decades. Over an evening of catch-up conversation, you relay anecdote after anecdote, each starting with the words, “Let me tell you about the time that I…” This is the sort of specificity a memoir needs to harness. And that’s exactly what Plath gives us in The Bell Jar.

Before we consider how that sentence might end in Plath’s case, here’s a quick summary of the novel:

Esther Greenwood, a talented young poet and college student, lands a prestigious internship at a fashion magazine in New York, but her excitement quickly turns to disillusionment as she grapples with the pressures of work, her relationships, a complicated dynamic with her boyfriend Buddy Willard, and societal expectations for women to marry and have children. Her descent into a mental health crisis culminates in a suicide attempt and subsequent admission to a psychiatric facility. In the institution, Esther undergoes electroconvulsive therapy and faces the daunting prospect of integrating her experiences into a semblance of normalcy as she tentatively steps toward recovery.

In other words: Let me tell you about the time that I was hospitalized for a mental health crisis.

Narrative Goal

While Esther Greenwood’s mental health crisis has a clear “aboutness,” it also presents a narrative problem: it lacks a trajectory for the protagonist. That is to say, there isn’t a clear plot inherent in someone having a breakdown and ending up hospitalized. As Esther loses her grip on reality, she becomes subject to the will of others—family and doctors. That makes her a passive protagonist who can’t struggle and strive toward a clear and specific narrative goal.

Trajectory—a protagonist’s effort (rising action) toward a narrative goal—is an important component of a reader’s emotional draw. It allows us to connect with a protagonist through what they want, what they are willing to do (or not) to get what they want, and how they must change in order to get there. A trajectory also gives readers an idea of what the story’s climax might involve.

What’s fascinating about The Bell Jar is that Plath manages to build in a trajectory that is secondary to the main events of the novel. Make no mistake, the story is first and foremost about Esther’s breakdown, hospitalization, and recovery.

It’s worth noting that trajectory is not the only source of emotional draw. Plath sucks readers in with the power of her prose and the tragedy of this young woman who is robbed of her fledgling independence by her brain’s revolt. However, Plath still incorporates a fully realized plotline into the novel: inciting incident, point of no return, rising action, the all-is-lost stage and subsequent helping hand, and a climax wherein her narrative goal is achieved.

So what exactly is her narrative goal?

When Esther discovers that her boyfriend casually and unapologetically cheated on her, she declares that she will “go out and sleep with somebody myself.” In other words, she will seize her independence—over her life, body, and boyfriend—by losing her virginity.

Plot Points


As an intelligent young woman venturing into the world, Esther Greenwood wants many things. She wants to win a scholarship to a prestigious university. She wants to build connections and experiences in the writing and editing world. She wants to write and publish her own work. And she most definitely doesn’t want to be tied down by marriage and children. In other words, she wants independence.

Stasis refers to the protagonist’s “normal life” that is about to be shattered by a disruption, upheaval, or catalyst of some kind. It’s also a time for the author to demonstrate the protagonist’s underlying motivation which will be given specificity and trajectory by the inciting incident.

In The Bell Jar, Esther’s stasis is not shown directly since the story opens after her inciting incident, which we’ll examine next. We learn about her stasis through asides and flashbacks to a time before the bell jar has begun its descent (a metaphor for her breakdown and loss of self). This is the time before "All the little successes I'd totted up so happily at college fizzled to nothing." It’s also a time when she still adored Buddy Willard, her boyfriend.

Inciting Incident

Chapter one opens sometime after Esther Greenwood’s inciting incident, and even after she crosses her “threshold” or “point of no return.” We don’t learn about her inciting incident until Chapter Six. In flashback, she recalls the day she visited Buddy Willard at the hospital where he was interning.  In a spectacular demonstration of character, Buddy shows her a cadaver, a series of fetuses preserved in jars, a woman giving birth, and then finally, his penis. What a day.

After refusing to get naked with him, Esther asks if he’s ever had sex. When he tells her about an affair he had the summer before in Cape Cod, she is crushed and disillusioned. She brands Buddy as a hypocrite. He treats Esther like she’s wild and lascivious, and meanwhile he was having an affair for which he offers no apology.

This is the catalyst for her narrative goal: to get back at Buddy by losing her virginity to someone else. She wants to even the score.

It’s uncertain if this is also the genesis of her depression. She comments at one point that she hasn’t been happy since she was nine—ever since her father’s death. So it seems depression has followed her through adolescence. But still, Buddy’s betrayal has a big impact on Esther, which no doubt contributes to her looming mental health crisis.

Point of no return

The threshold or doorway of no return is the moment in the story when the protagonist in some way commits to their quest. Often stakes are clarified at this stage: readers connect with the protagonist’s inner conflict, whatever is driving them forward, and what failure might mean should they not achieve their goal.

Esther’s goal of getting back at Buddy and losing her virginity to someone else requires separation. And that’s what she gets when Buddy is diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent away to convalesce—until Buddy’s mother tries to get her a job at the sanitorium where he’s staying. But then Esther, along with eleven other female college students, wins a coveted editing position with a New York fashion magazine. She accepts, taking a step toward independence.

But again, readers learn about this from asides and flashbacks.

Rising action

When the story opens, Esther is already in New York for what is supposed to be an amazing summer of being wined and dined and presented around town. But depression is creeping in. She doesn’t like most of the other students, she’s bored by the parties, and the summer heat is unbearable. Her discontent with Buddy is driving her to meet someone else, but it’s also getting in the way of her ability to connect with anyone.

Eventually she goes on a date with a translator named Constantin, but their encounter ends with awkwardness rather than romance. Then, at the end of her internship, she meets a man named Marco at a country club dance who tries to rape her.

Following this traumatic encounter, Esther’s application to a writing program is rejected and Buddy writes to say that he’s falling in love with someone else. She is deep into her mental health crisis at this point.

The Bell Jar was published in 1963, and much has changed in the field of psychiatry since then. As such, Esther Greenwood doesn’t have a clear diagnosis other than “depression.” Some scholars contend she is dealing with bipolar II disorder. Others say it’s major depressive disorder. From my own experience with a sibling and two close friends with bipolar disorder, Esther’s experience looks a lot like a depressive period leading into the full-blown mania of bipolar I. She goes without sleep for more than a week, even longer without bathing or changing her clothes, she can no longer read or write, and her behavior becomes erratic.

Whether due to bipolar or major depressive disorder, Esther Greenwood’s breakdown is reaching a peak, which results in her mother’s intervention.

All is lost—the dark night of the soul

Mrs. Greenwood takes Esther to see Doctor Gordon, a psychiatrist. Esther doesn’t like him and decides not to confide in him, but she does agree to come back. In a subsequent session, he gives her an electroconvulsive treatment, which goes badly. Her condition worsens and she fixates on suicide. Then, after Esther’s mother takes her to visit her father’s grave, she hides in the cellar and swallows a handful of sleeping pills.

Her mother finds her and gets her to the hospital. At this point, the protagonist’s breakdown has eclipsed her efforts toward independence. She has become disconnected from her sense of self and lashes out at the nurses and hospital staff, which gets her sent to the psych ward. Her actions are appalling and quite disconnected from who she was—the up-and-coming young writer who won a fancy internship.

Resurgence: the helping hand

Following the all-is-lost moment, a protagonist may have a personal resurgence as they learn a key detail or realize something important about themself (perhaps that what they want isn’t actually what they need). However, sometimes the resurgence occurs because of an ally who arrives to help the protagonist up from rock bottom.

In Esther’s case, this help comes in the form of Philomena Guinea, her benefactor. According to Wikipedia, Philomena is based on Plath’s real-life benefactor, the author Olive Higgins Prouty, who funded her college studies. When she hears about Esther’s suicide attempt, Philomena swoops in and gets Esther transferred into a private psychiatric hospital where she is put under the care of Doctor Nolan, a young woman who Esther immediately respects.

With Doctor Nolan’s help and some gentler (or more capably administered) electroconvulsive treatments, Esther’s bell jar begins to lift.


Whenever I’m analyzing the plot of a more structurally experimental novel, I start by considering what happens at the climax. A story’s climax is the answer to a question asked in the beginning—and that question comes out of the inciting incident: will the protagonist realize their narrative goal?

Now that the bell jar is lifting and Esther is feeling more like herself again, she talks to Doctor Nolan about birth control. Her breakdown was a significant barrier to many of Esther’s motivations, especially her vow to have sex with someone other than Buddy Willard.

Earlier in the story, she was hoping to meet someone nice, to start a new relationship, but now she is ready to move beyond society’s contrived notions of purity that have held her back and have a one-night stand. On an evening away from the hospital, Esther meets a math professor and accomplishes her goal. However, their intercourse causes her to hemorrhage, and she has to go to the hospital.

While Esther achieves her quest in the end, it does not give her the fulfillment or reprisal she sought. Shortly after this bittersweet victory, her friend commits suicide. This is Joan, a character with whom Esther has much in common. They both dated Buddy. They both excelled in school. And they were both hospitalized for attempted suicide. In fact, they have so much in common, it seems likely that Joan represents a part of Esther who has died in this ordeal, and whom she must leave behind.


Esther’s recovery is coming along so well, it’s now time for her discharge interview. Soon she will be able to attend college and regain control of her life. Compassion and calm are returning to her, evidenced in how she deals with Buddy in this final scene—she reassures him that he had nothing to do with her breakdown or Joan’s, and she reacts with indifference when he asks who might marry her now that she’s been institutionalized. She doesn’t know who will marry her, but since she has been resistant to the idea of marriage all along, this is in itself a small victory—a milestone of independence. And in a final act that allows her to take back control of her sexuality, she calls the math professor and gets him to pay for her hospital bill. In response, he asks when he will see her again. “Never,” she says and hangs up on him.

Esther Greenwood isn’t sure what will come next, and she’s scared, but she’s back in charge of her life.

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.

I am, I am, I am.”

She pauses on the threshold of the interview room, collects herself, and then steps inside.

In conclusion: What makes The Bell Jar a classic novel?

Thematic summary and plot point analysis of the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath committed suicide about a month after The Bell Jar was published. Some have speculated this was precipitated by her husband cheating on her, but clearly she was again grappling with her mental health. Had she not killed herself, I suspect any other novels she wrote would have reached a similar level of fame. Certainly her poetry is highly regarded, even the work she wrote weeks before her death.

The Bell Jar is a masterclass in both prose and voice. Esther Greenwood comes alive on the page with her characteristic insights and metaphors. On top of this, Plath takes us deep into the experience of a mental health crisis with brutal honesty, especially at a time when stigma around a “crackup” was so high. This is likely why she shifted what is essentially a memoir into a novel and published it under a pseudonym.

In many of the analyses and reviews I looked at for this Skeleton, readers facing similar mental health struggles report finding their experiences reflected and validated in this novel. Even though the field of psychiatry has changed considerably since 1963, Plath gives readers a window onto her authentic experience.

However, the novel also faces contemporary scrutiny, and not for the mental health stigma it once contended with. There are several instances of racism that unfortunately diminish Esther’s character. Some might say this is a sad reflection of the time Plath was living in, but there are many other novels from the 50s and 60s that are free from such language and prejudice. Others might say the racist asides and actions are a product of her mental health crisis, that Esther’s breakdown robbed her of compassion. When she kicks a Black hospital worker for delivering a meal with two different kinds of beans, she is definitely disconnected from self and reality. But there is no way to know for sure, and racism in literature is more deserving of reflection and discussion of its impact than it is of apologist excuses.

As such, Esther Greenwood’s character may not sit comfortably with all readers; critique of these issues is warranted, though some may choose to skip the novel rather than bother with critique. Still, Plath was a talented writer with a powerful experience to relay—a loss of self and resurgence that so many people experience in all the forms depression and mental illness may take.

David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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