Set in 1950s America, The Bell Jar is a witty, cynical and disturbing account of eight months in the life of college student, Esther Greenwood, told in her own words.
The story opens in New York City where Esther, along with eleven other female college students, has won a competition to be a guest editor on a magazine for young women. Given the opportunity to participate in the production of the magazine, and in the swish social and cultural life of New York, Esther is aware that she ought to be having 'the time of her life'. Instead she finds herself plunged into a state of despair and futility, plagued by doubts and anxieties about her ability to achieve success either academically or socially, and increasingly aware of how much she despises Buddy Willard, the fine, clean (but hypocritical) boy who still hopes to marry her.
Returning to her suburban home in New England, Esther finds herself sinking deeper and deeper into a state of depression and confusion. Trapped within the confines of her family; with a widowed mother whom she secretly hates; unable to write, read or sleep; and subjected to horrific electric shock treatment from Dr. Gordon's private shock machine, she finally decides that the only way out of her dilemma is to kill herself. Hiding away in a confined space under the family home, Esther swallows the contents of a bottle of sleeping tablets and falls into a coma. But, rescued by family members, she finds herself a few days later regaining consciousness in the local hospital.
Through the intervention of her college sponsor, the popular novelist Philomena Guinea, Esther is transferred to a private mental hospital where she is put under the care of female psychiatrist Dr. Nolan, whom she gradually comes to trust and confide in. However she continues to feel trapped in a private hell, as if she were stewing in the sour, stale air of a bell jar from which she cannot escape. Deeply antagonistic to all her well-meaning visitors (including her mother), she is subjected to a range of treatments, including daily injections of insulin and a more benign version of shock treatment. With the help of Dr. Nolan's psychotherapy, she is finally released from 'the bell jar'. Feeling both vulnerable and optimistic, Esther celebrates her new-found emotional freedom by losing her virginity with a randomly-chosen partner, and by confirming the end of her relationship with Buddy Willard.
The story ends with her about to pick up the threads of her college life – patched, retreaded and approved for the road – yet knowing that, whatever happens in the future, the experiences she has had will be an indelible part of her internal landscape.