The Bell Jar

Book: By Sylvia Plath.

Inciting Event: After losing focus during her paid internship with a famous woman’s magazine, during her summer break from college, Esther is confronted by the editor about her future—and she passively resists the choices open to her as a woman.

The structural turning point here is subtle and best seen in hindsight within the big picture of the entire story. This is where we first sense Esther’s unease within the adult world and her resistance to facing the choices and work she must soon commit to.

First Plot Point: While flirting with a “simultaneous reporter” from the UN, Esther reflects back on her only real romantic relationship, with Buddy Willard, once a medical student and now a tuberculosis patient.

There isn’t actually a solid turning point here, but we dig down deeper into Esther’s problems, which include resistance to marriage just for the sake of marriage.

First Pinch Point: After nearly being raped by a “woman hater,” Esther returns home for the summer, tries to write a book, and discovers she can’t seem to concentrate.

Really, this is the true departure from the Normal World—both in the sense of shift from the initial setting and Esther’s devolvement into a nervous breakdown. The timing, however, dictates that it’s too late to be the First Plot Point. Instead, it functions as an emphasis of the antagonistic force, as it swivels her toward the Midpoint.

Midpoint: Esther visits a psychiatrist, who administers shock therapy. She has finally succumbed to her nervous breakdown, and the story turns the corner into full view of the subject matter that has (cleverly) been lurking just out of sight up until this point.

Second Pinch Point: Esther begins contemplating (and attempting) various methods of suicide. After taking sleeping pills, hiding in a hole in the cellar, and disappearing for several days, she is committed to a sanitarium.

The pinch points are all about ramping up the stakes, which this one does fabulously.

Third Plot Point: Esther begins receiving the shock treatments she fears so much.

Climax: Joan, another patient and a girl Esther used to know, commits suicide, providing a eerie contrast to Esther’s slow climb to recovery.

Climactic Moment: Esther is released from the hospital and allowed to return to college.

Resolution: As she drives away, she contemplates the possibility that the “bell jar” of insanity might descend upon her again at any moment.

Notes: For the most part, this is a brilliantly plotted novel that keeps its turning points tight and pertinent. It’s the kind of story that takes several readings to appreciate, since its focus is insidious rather than clear. On a first reading, it isn’t always apparent which events are the true turning points, but the structure solidly, slowly, and surely keeps building and building, never quite looking the reader in the eye, but present and powerful for all that.

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