The Role of Color Imagery in The Bell Jar

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Words: 2281 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 2281|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Throughout Sylvia Plath’s depiction of depression in her novel The Bell Jar, even the minutest detail plays a significant role in the development of the main character Esther’s mental breakdown. The most obvious manifestation of Esther’s detachment from reality is her progressive inability to fully grasp what society defines as acceptable social behavior. As a result of this difficulty with accepting the true reality of her surroundings, the main character derives her own version of truth from her interpretations of social interaction as well as descriptions of her increasingly oppressive surroundings. Although Esther’s mental struggle with embodying societal norms can be more obviously glimpsed through her relationships with characters such as Joan and Buddy, the tensions between true reality and that which Esther creates are most effectively and indistinctly depicted through Plath’s use of color imagery. Within The Bell Jar, images of dull or even white color are employed to signify the psychological void or abnormality within a particular thought or interaction, while brightly colored images serve both to contrast with her former depression as well as to highlight the main character’s possibly artificial progression toward what society deems to be the mental ideal.

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One of the first manifestations of this dichotomy of brightly colored and dull images occurs during Esther’s reading of the book sent by the staff of Ladies’ Day. Following a story about a fig tree and an interaction between a Jewish man and a Catholic kitchen maid, Esther asserts that she “…thought it was a lovely story, especially the part about the fig tree in the winter under the snow and then the fig tree in the spring with all the green fruit,” and that she “…wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl under a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig tree” (55). Despite the fact that one of the prime elements of this short story seems to be the social tension between the two characters of different belief systems, Esther is instead drawn to the images of either void or growth that are represented through the colors of white and green, respectively. The main character does not focus on the social elements of the story, but rather selects a certain image and extracts it to describe both her mental state as it is and also as how she wishes it to be. It seems that the snow covering the tree in winter in tandem with its bearing of fruit in spring could be connected to a transition between a dormant, seemingly useless state of being to one of productivity. In Esther’s taking care to clearly demonstrate the difference between the two states in terms of color, the reader is able to gain insight into the main character’s increasing mental oppression. Her desire to “crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl under a fence” seems to suggest her desire to escape from emotional emptiness, represented both by the oppressive black lines of print and the void between them, into a more fruitful environment in which she is better able to connect with normality.

As the novel continues to develop, additional color imagery is employed as Esther attempts to venture into what she deems to be a customary progression toward young adulthood through a series of sexual experiences. The first of these purely negative encounters is her interaction with Marco. Upon meeting him, Esther takes note of his “dazzling white suit,” which, in this employment of white imagery of a void, seems to foreshadow the abnormality of the following interaction (107). Despite the fact that Esther realizes that Marco is a misogynist and is aware of his domineering nature, she contemplates losing her virginity to him in an effort to reverse her depression, stating that “It’s happening…It’s happening. If I just lie here and do nothing it will happen” (109). At this point in the interaction, it is crucial to state that, in an effort to obtain normality, Esther is left rather void of emotion and ultimately reacts in the manner which is expected of her solely for the reason that she believes this reaction is normal. Despite the fact that the above quotation displays a passive attitude toward the attempted rape, Esther rather suddenly reacts as she details that “…[she] fisted her fingers together and smashed them at his nose,” and that, “Marco pulled out a white handkerchief and dabbed his nose. Blackness, like ink, spread over the pale cloth” (109). The color imagery of white and blackness is primarily employed in order to convey that, unlike the brightly colored image of the spring fig tree, Esther’s thought of losing her virginity to Marco is abnormal and unacceptable due to the way he has treated her. Upon her punching Marco in the nose, the color images are described as a dark, colorless stain spreading across a white cloth, representing a void being penetrated by negativity. Parallel to the image of the snow-covered fig tree, the use of color in this scene displays Esther’s mental decline as well as her inability to display the correct reaction to negative behavior for a reason other than a desire to follow what she considers to be the natural progression of adolescence.

The tension between Esther’s personal perspective upon her surroundings and how they truly exist is also represented through color imagery during her suicide attempt. Upon her rescue, Esther states that “[She] felt the darkness, but nothing else, and [her] head rose, feeling it, like the head of a worm…The silence surged back, smoothing itself as black water smoothes to its old surface calm over a dropped stone” (170). During this incidence of the most desperate manifestation of Esther’s depression, the image of impenetrable blackness suggests that, despite her half-hearted attempts to adhere to the expectations of young adulthood, she has become hopeless and has fully entered an ideal world of her own, one that is free of consciousness. In the following pages, however, the promise of normality soon attempts to penetrate Esther’s mentally suspended existence as she expresses that “A chisel cracked down on my eye, and a slit of light opened, like a mouth or a wound, till the darkness clamped shut on it again.” A few moments after this first appearance of light, another beam “…leapt into [her] head, and through the thick, warm, furry dark, a voice cried” (170). Through these quotations, it is evident that the main character feels comfortable in this new world that she has created for herself, but reality still is able to spontaneously infiltrate her damaged mental state. The dichotomy of color in this case, simply expressed as darkness and light, suggests the possibility of her emerging from her depression and ultimately being able to connect with reality through the normalcy of social experiences. Ultimately, however, additional color imagery paralleling her sexual encounter with Marco suggests the difficulty of this transition.

Further employing this negotiation between true and perceived reality through images of darkness sporadically penetrated by light, Esther has a similar experience to her attempted suicide during electro shock therapy. Despite the fact that the treatment occurs after her suicide, Esther also begins the scene in silence and darkness that is interrupted by color flashes meant to represent an attempt to fully connect to normal society. As Esther receives the treatment, she shuts her eyes and there is “…a brief silence like indrawn breath.” She then describes that the machine “…shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed [her] till [she] thought [her] bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant” (143). Much like the light that penetrates the darkness of Esther’s attempted suicide, flashes of colored light enter the darkness during electroshock therapy, though this time a color is specified. The colored light penetrating darkness seems to represent the difficulty and discomfort associated with combining these two psychological states as well as the required intensity to successfully negotiate between Esther’s consciousness and that which others are attempting to instill in her. Due to the fact that, in both the treatment and the suicide attempt, the color imagery is not consistent, the transition to normality manifests itself in different, ineffective ways and Esther’s depression is still able to dominate her impression of her surroundings.

Following these instances of interaction between normalcy and abnormality through color imagery, Esther again describes of her exploration of personal sexuality and social normality in these same terms. In her losing her virginity to an academic named Irwin, Esther expresses her newly acquired feelings of belonging.

…the stories of blood-stained bridal sheets and capsules of red ink bestowed on already deflowered brides floated back to me…it occurred to me that the blood was my answer. I couldn’t possibly be a virgin anymore. I smiled into the dark. I felt part of a great tradition. (229)

In addition to the main character’s clear acknowledgment of the fact that she is now part of a sort of sisterhood which includes all normal women, this assertion is also emphasized through her mention of the vibrant color of red ink. Following this passage, it seems that, unlike the blood expelled during Esther’s encounter with Marco, the blood involved here will be brightly colored, signifying an entrance into the normal world. The converse image of her smiling into the dark, however, which is reminiscent of her suicide attempt, foreshadows the negative events that are to follow. When Esther looks at the blood and communicates that “when [she] held [her] hand up to the light streaming in from the bathroom, [her] fingertips looked black,” and later details her application of “…a fresh section of white towel” (229), the possibility of her normal entrance into her image of ideal femininity is immediately refuted. Much like the image of blood earlier described during her violent encounter with Marco, as well as the white color of his suit, the colors black and white play a significant role in relating the abnormality of the interaction. Despite the fact that Esther believes that all of her mental separation from normal society will be alleviated after losing her virginity, the color imagery used here seems to suggest a failure in this regard because of the towel as a representation of a void penetrated by seemingly black blood which seems to symbolize a colorless and empty interaction. Ultimately, though an opportunity for normalcy is presented through this encounter, the color imagery involved suggests that it is rather an unpleasant experience that negatively impacts her mental recovery.

Despite the fact that Esther frequently struggles with negotiating between her desire for normalcy and the limitations of her depression, she seems to be able to overcome this difficulty, at least externally, prior to her interview with the doctors at Belsize. As she waits outside the boardroom door, she scrutinizes her clothing for any signs of mental weakness by stating that “[Her] stocking seams were straight, [her] black shoes cracked but polished, and [her] red wool suit flamboyant as [her] plans. Something old, something new…” (244). In contrast to the blood that should have appeared red during her attempts at sexual normality, the red wool suit depicted here represented a brightness that has never before been achieved during Esther’s mental struggle. In this case, the bright color of the suit symbolizes her ability to mentally adapt to what society will expect of her upon her entering it, as well as her ability to acquire “something new” in her personality that allows for social success. Another aspect of this quotation, however, seems to negate this possibility for triumph over her former depression, namely her cracked but polished black shoes. In other passages including black color imagery, Esther is faced with a potentially destructive social challenge that forces her to struggle with different interpretations of her surrounding. The presence of these cracked but shined shoes, especially taking into account their color, seems to suggest that, despite the fact that Esther adopts a colorful exterior, there are still aspects that have yet to recover and may return to their former, unpolished state at the slightest provocation. The portion of the quotation that states “something old, something new,” then, seems to present a final critique upon the negotiation between the mental and actual worlds in that, no matter the brightness of possibility, the potential for regression constantly threatens under a polished veneer. Despite the fact that Esther explicitly expresses this fear of a future struggle with abnormality, the color imagery in this scene, when considered with its interaction with its past manifestations, makes this argument all the more clear.

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Although there are different levels of both color and darkness included in each of the scenes mentioned above, the dominance of either one or the other seems to directly correspond to Esther’s progress in approaching mental normality. In subtly using this imagery throughout several pivotal scenes in the novel, Plath is able to depict the true nature of mental illness more effectively. Despite the fact that the reader can most easily perceive the main character’s level of depression from the major events and relationships in the novel, a less obvious, private aspect of Esther’s depression is displayed through contrasting dark and light color imagery. This tactic seems to suggest that, in addition to the tangible aspects of depression, there are also less apparent, but equally relevant emotions that can be glimpsed only with more careful scrutiny. The nature of mental illness, then, is less defined by large, obvious indicators of depression and more so by the intricacies that often escape human attention.

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The Role of Color Imagery in The Bell Jar. (2018, May 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from
“The Role of Color Imagery in The Bell Jar.” GradesFixer, 27 May 2018,
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