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Catching Mental Illnesses in the Bell Jar

Some of the best literary works are the stories with crazy characters because people can
relate to them. A popular example of this is J.D. Salingers The Catcher in the Rye, which has
been proven to appeal to many serial killers. Another is Sylvia Plaths The Bell Jar. Both of these
books have a main character in a mental asylum trying to work through their problems. While the
protagonists have a lot of characteristics in common, they cope with their mental illnesses in very
different ways. Esther, in The Bell Jar, is aware of her insanity and believes losing her virginity
will play a big role in curing her, so she thinks she can recover while Holden, in The Catcher in
the Rye, sees himself as sane in an insane world and tries to point out the flaws in society that are
really the flaws he cant see in himself.
In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, a smart but poor twenty-one year old girl, is in New
York City for an internship with a fashion magazine in the year 1953. She is engaged to Buddy
Willard, a medical student who cheated on her. Esther spends quite a bit of her time in New York
discussing societys opinion of sex, trying to sort out her own feelings about it, and trying to lose
her virginity in order to get back at Buddy. When the internship is over, Esther returns home and
her physical and mental well-being decrease dramatically very quickly. This descent ends with
her attempted suicide. Her mother finds her and sends her to a mental institution, where Esther
spends her time working towards the exit interview with doctors who will decide if she has
recovered. She moves up through the ranks of the hospital: moving from building to building,
getting more and more privileges as the doctors think they are helping her achieve sanity. At the
Elizabeth McKinney
Dr. Scott
English 3561
4-13-12

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end, though, The Bell Jar fails to tell the reader whether Esther was allowed to the leave the
institution or not.
The Catcher in the Rye centers on Holden Caulfield, a seventeen year old boy growing up
in the late 1940s or early 1950s. He has just flunked out of his fourth school and is slowly
making his way home for Christmashe doesnt want to get home too soon because he doesnt
want to tell his parents that he was expelled again. He spends the weekend in various bars and a
cheap hotel, meeting up with many people including his younger sister, a schoolmates mother,
several old friends, and a prostitute. Holden begins the story by hinting at the fact that he is in a
mental institution, and throughout the novel his mental and physical deterioration is obvious. By
the end of the story, though, the reader is not told whether he has overcome his illness, just as in
The Bell Jar.
It is obvious at first glance that these two novels are very similar. Both characters have a
fascination with death and sex. Esther starts her story with the news of the Rosenbergs, a couple
who was executed because they were Soviet spies. Later in the novel, while she is home, she
realizes she can only read stories about death in the newspaper, such as Starlot succumbs after
68-hour coma (Plath 146), which was similar to her own suicide attempt: she took sleeping pills
and was in a hole in the wall of her cellar for an extended period of time. Holden had a younger
brother, Allie, who died as a child and knew a boy who committed suicide because of bullying.
His death had a big effect on the family, especially Holden. While reading a magazine, he comes
across an article that names cancer symptoms. It says mouth sores that stay for a long time are a
sign of cancer, and since Holden has had a sore for about two weeks, so he would be dead in a
couple of months because he had cancer (Salinger 195-96).

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Another similarity is the way the protagonists are held in their world by their beliefs:
Holdens fascination with the innocence of childhood and Esthers bell jar trapping her,
separating her from the rest of society until she lost her virginity. Esther feels like the jar is
stopping her from growing in the world and experiencing change but Holden wishes some things
wouldnt change: You ought to be able to stick things in one of those big glass cases and just
leave them alone (Salinger 122). Caulfield even implies the same sort of separation: a caul
is a membrane that covers the head of the fetus during birth. Holden wants to be trapped in his
childhood and is unwilling to escape the membrane holding him back. They both see the world in
a critical, analytical light and are quick to judge others. They both attended good schools. Both
are avid liars, feel uncomfortable with homosexuality, and dont trust authority figures such as
teachers and doctors.
While there are many similarities between the two characters, the major differences
between Holden and Esther revolve around how they deal with their illnesses. Esthers illness
makes her feel separate from the rest of societylike she is trapped in a bell jar. She doesnt
quite fit in with the girls in New York with her; she isnt quite as outgoing as Doreen, nor quite
as conservative as Betsy. She often tells people she is Elly Higginbottom, from Chicago in
order to further separate herself from them. She divides people into two categories: virgins/not
virgins. She seems to think the virgin group is very small, and she tries to leave that group so she
can be with the majority of society. This is her first and most critical step towards sanity: she has
a desire to be normal, like everyone else she knows.
Esther realizes she is considered insane by social standards and connects this with her
virginity. She said it weighed like a millstone around my neck (Plath 228). Before she makes
this connection however, she tries to fix her separation, her insanity, by killing herself. She

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attempts suicide many times, and even discusses preferred methods with other people. When
suicide doesnt work, she focuses on losing her virginity in order to get better. When she does
lose her virginity, she loses a lot of blood and ends up in the hospital, but she doesnt feel any
different at first. Finally, she decides the blood was my answer. I couldnt possibly be a virgin
anymore. I smiled into the dark. I felt part of a great tradition (Plath 229). This tradition is the
group of non-virgins she has now joined, and in her mind, this means she has rejoined society. In
fact, not long after this incident, she is given an exit interview, a chance to leave the asylum.
On the other hand, Holden, unable to accept that he is mentally disabled, turns his
disorder toward the world and points out what is wrong with society. Holdens illness has him
convinced that every person, save a select few, such as his little sister Phoebe and his old teacher
Mr. Antolini, is a phony. This phoniness is what fuels his distrust and keeps him focused on the
innocence of childhood. He tells Phoebe he wants to be the catcher in the rye to protect
children from growing up and entering the phony adult worldhe imagines himself standing at
the edge of the cliff separating childhood and adulthood, reaching out and catching the kids who
try to jump or fall over the edge, or rush too quickly into the adult, phony world (Salinger 173).
He thinks children lose their innocence when they become adults because every adult he knows
is phony or a flit. Even Mr. Antolini, who is the closest thing Holden has to a mentor or even
a father, disappoints and betrays Holden when he pats Holden on the head while Holden is
sleeping, which Holden takes to be a flitty gesture (Salinger 192).
Holden is continuously let down by adults: his parents dont know how to take care of
him properly, people act in phony wayspretending like they are awesome or humble when they
are not, people who only care about attractive people, and actorsand the perverts of the
world who write fuck you on the walls of Holdens sacred places: his school, which is now

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Phoebes school, and the museum. All of these people bother Holden because they do the same
things he does. He doesnt take care of himself throughout the novelhe is constantly drinking,
he hardly eats, and he doesnt sleep for more than a few hours during the entire novel, which
spans Saturday through Monday. He is a phony because he acts like he isnt intelligent or literate
even though he is very well-read, he will date a girl who is attractive even if he doesnt like her
such as Sally Hayesand he acts out battle scenes at least twice in the novel, as well as
attends or talks about several movies or shows which he says he despises because the actors are
phony. He also swears constantly in front of anyone, even his little sister, who he says he is
trying to protect from all the fuck you vandalism in the world. Holden mirroring his version of
society is a result of his mental illness and it has overcome him so completely he cannot escape
it.
Both characters struggle with fitting into the world as they see it, while in reality, they are
seeing it in a different light than most people because of their illnesses and the presumptions that
come with it. Esther is able to at least disguise her illness enough to be a normal, functioning
member of society by the end of the novel but Holden has yet to realize he is the problem, not
the society he sees. Novels like these are popular because people can relate to the characters
struggles; teenagers especially have the same thoughts that Esther does about virginity and the
same concerns with growing up into the phony adult world that Holden has or just trying to fit in
with the people around themoften by hiding their true selves. Reading about the protagonists
trying to overcome their issues hits home with many people who are struggling with their own
problems. When it is not made clear whether the character recovers or not can be disheartening
for many, but it is the way the story ends, with hope, that readers like most because it gives them
something to hold on to and strive for.

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The narrators tell their story to get it down on paper, to try to prove they arent crazy. The
authors prove that the characters are crazy by having them work actively through their problems,
like Esther, or by avoiding their problems until there is no other option, like Holden. They use
themes like the corruption of society and rebirth by treatment in an asylum to get their message
across further, which leaves readers with another story of insanity for generations to come to
read, study, learn from, and relate to.

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