The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar, though different in their themes and styles, both present the coming of age of their characters thoroughly. Though the protagonists of both novels completely contrast each other, they are both put in similar situations through a lack of identity, isolation from society and an absence of purpose in life. The key point of both coming of age tales is expressed through the ultimate idea of growing up and entering the adult world. The central idea of growing up is expressed in both novels through the characters’ struggles in figuring out what they want, understanding and dealing with death, and examining their relationships with their peers, parents and other adults. Both coming of ages are reached once the characters escape their set views and open up to looking at things in a different light from a maturity and sensible aspect of things.
Although both novels are coming of age novels, I feel that Holden Caulfield will never quite seem the same after meeting Esther Greenwood.
Robert McCrum summaries what is essential to the Bell Jar as follows:
Plath’s essential theme, a staccato drumbeat, is Esther’s obsession with the opposite sex. At first, released from her mother’s repressive scrutiny, she decides to lose her virginity (a “millstone around my neck”) to Constantin, a UN Russian translator, but he’s too sensible to fall for her. Then, having failed on another date, in which she is labelled a “slut”, she hurls her clothes off her hotel roof, and returns home for a suicidal summer, a worsening depression which she compares to suffocating under a “bell jar”. Esther’s predicament, more generally, is how to develop a mature identity, as a woman, and to be true to that self rather than conform to societal norms. It’s this quest that makes The Bell Jar a founding text of Anglo-American feminism.
Associated with this, Naomi Elias discusses the myth around Plath and the novel:
Though The Bell Jar traffics in many themes, including classism, sexism, and mental illness, it has become synonymous with depressed and/or moody women. On film and television specifically, it has become a popular visual and textual prop to code an exclusively female experience of sadness.
Let alone Plath as the person.
How could I write about life when I’d never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing? Page 125
My mother smiled. “I knew my baby wasn’t like that.” I looked at her. “Like what?” “Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital.” She paused. “I knew you’d decide to be all right again.” Page 148
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream. Page 231