The Bell Jar

Unit Plan

Martin Henry
Adapted by Mark Rounds
5 weeks

California Language Arts Content Standards
Standards Addressed in this Unit
2.0Writing Applications (Genres and Their Characteristics)
2.2 Write responses to literature:
  1. Demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the significant ideas in works or passages.
  2. Analyze the use of imagery, language, universal themes, and unique aspects of the text.
  3. Support important ideas and viewpoints through accurate and detailed references to the text and to other works.
  4. Demonstrate an understanding of the author's use of stylistic devices and an appreciation of the effects created.
  5. Identify and assess the impact of perceived ambiguities, nuances, and complexities within the text.
3.0 Literary Response and Analysis
Narrative Analysis of Grade-Level-Appropriate Text
3.3 Analyze the ways in which irony, tone, mood, the author's style, and the "sound" of language achieve specific rhetorical or aesthetic purposes or both.
3.4Analyze ways in which poets use imagery, personification, figures of speech, and sounds to evoke readers' emotions.
Literary Criticism
3.9Analyze the philosophical arguments presented in literary works to determine whether the authors' positions have contributed to the quality of each work and the credibility of the characters. (Philosophical approach)
Supporting Standards


Smiley Select and adapt these learning activities to best meet the needs of your students, and to fit the time available:

  1. Begin this module by reading The Bee Meeting and The Arrival of the Bee Box and compare them to Charlie Pollard and the Beekeepers (from Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams). Discuss the difference between Plath's responses to a single event in her poetry and prose.

  2. Hand out Biography or visit Nanogirl. Plath is already a monolithic figure in modern literary history, yet her novel stands as a work apart. To what extent are we influenced by knowledge of her life in the way we read the book and respond to the characters? See also the New York Times article Sylvia Plath, Forever an Icon and the associated lesson plan

  3. Read the first three pages and discuss the unity of imagery. Electrocution; olfactory bombardment. What is the objective, subjective paradox of the narrative viewpoint?

  4. Read up to the end of chapter 9, the first trimester in the book. Hand out Response Log 1. Response Logs are part of a generic approach to text, which gives the students points of engagement and encourages them to pursue these links along an individual interpretation.

  5. Students in groups choose one of the following characters: Jaycee, Doreen, Esther, Betsy, and Buddy/Marco. Based on the first nine chapters, they scan the text eliciting relevant quotes and ideas. Then they prepare to present a discussion group to the class in role as a group of professors from an American University. You introduce them with sufficient fanfare ("Here we have an eminent group of post-structuralists from Columbia University who are going to talk to us about the role of Jaycee as an early feminist").

  6. Read chapters 10-13. Analyze the references to water and flowers up to the main suicide attempt. How does water as a symbol fluctuate throughout the novel? Hand out Response Log 2.

  7. Students are given an essay question. This should be done weekly and should result in four essays for the topic, with at least two done under timed conditions. The first one can be a question done by all, although I usually give them a choice. The first essay may take some preparation. Other topics that regularly come up are setting, language (especially imagery), narrative structure and degree of social commentary. See the student samples provided for some examples and the evaluator's report for the rubric. Score these essays according to the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam) Response to Literature/Expository Text Scoring Guide.

  8. As the study is conducted it is necessary to continue to develop the students' responses to poetry. With Plath it is particularly important to place the work in its literary context. Many Plath poems can be used. (See A Wind of Such Violence for an online collection of her poems.) The Disquieting Muses is a particularly good example, providing another take on both the sanity of the writer and her relationship with her mother. See these questions on The Disquieting Muses. Hand out Response Log 3.

  9. Once students have finished the novel they are ready to debate some of the issues raised.

  10. As the students are wrestling with the moots they can also tackle Response Log 4.

  11. Read a selection of poetry, including Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters. Also look at Philip Larkin. Develop a discussion on the nature of poetry compared to prose. Has Hughes added to the mystery of Plath or lessened it with his collection?

  12. Look at an extract from The Silent Woman, as biography is quite different from auto-biography. The Bell Jar is neither, yet shares characteristics of both. The novel must be investigated as a novel and not a representation of Plath's life. How does this affect the way we see Esther? It is impossible not to be influenced by our knowledge of Plath.

  13. Students, either alone or in groups, are to choose a poem and present it to the class as a whole. As well as producing something that engages the audience, they must comment on effect and effectiveness in the poem. This poem does not have to be written by Plath, but must relate to the module and its themes (some may like to do a poem by Ted Hughes). They will be marked for this using an assessment rubric taken from the curriculum document.

  14. Having thrown themselves into presenting a poem, students are encouraged to write poetry or prose in response to ideas growing out of the work. This is further explored in follow up.

  15. Finish the unit by having a 'tea and cakes party' where you can discuss the relative poetic merit of the works of Plath and Hughes.

  16. Have a look at some other students' responses to this book from around the world.


Many of the above linked resources are assessment tasks that the students write in a response log, but individual rubrics are not required. The teacher builds a relationship with the student in response to the responses they make.

Formal essay questions are also provided. These essay questions were used for an examination in New Zealand and exemplars with detailed comments about typical responses are provided. These comments will be helpful in scoring papers and also for students to read, especially if they are involved in the scoring process.

You may choose to score papers using the CAHSEE Reponse to Literature Scoring Guide or the New Zealand Essay Marking Schedule. The CAHSEE Scoring Guide uses a 4 point scale so is difficult for students to show growth. The New Zealand Essay Marking Schedule is a 20 point rubric allowing students to more easily demonstrate growth.




Keep a journal of poetic writing that explores responses to the work we study or simply develops the student's poetic voice.