Comparison of the Portrayal of Marginalized Groups in the Bell Jar and Maus

Updated on March 29, 2019
Christina Dunn profile image

A strong fan of literature, Christina frequently reads, analyzes, and writes stories and poems.


The portrayal of the marginalized groups in The Bell Jar and Maus, the former being mentally ill people and the latter being Jewish people, directly affect the perception of their experiences, beliefs, and lives.

Through Maus, the Holocaust is seen through the eyes of not only a survivor, Vladek, but his son Art as well. Through both of their perspectives, it is seem how the trauma, grief, and memories are inherited through the generations. Like Esther and her experiences in the asylum, the Spiegelmans' psyche are directly shaped by their marginalization. In both works, the actions of family members, the community, friends, and caretakers create chaos, pain, trauma, and grief, leaving lasting repercussions on the lives of the survivors.

Purpose of the Novels

For Plath, The Bell Jar was a cathartic release. There are numerous similarities between Plath and Esther, from the scholarship to the shock treatment.

Art wrote Maus to document his father's story. Throughout his progress of doing so, he and Vladek bond over this exchange of memories.


Differences in the Portrayal of the Marginalized Groups

  • Perspective
  • Format
  • Sanatorium


Maus has two narrators: the Holocaust survivor Vladek and his son Artie. Through these two we not only see two different sides of the Holocaust, the first and second generation of survivors, we see two different methods of coping. As a second generation survivor, Art feels guilty for not going through the Holocaust himself, and he frequently made efforts to learn about this specific horror in his inheritance; that's why he made Maus. He realized his father's experiences are important and must be remembered.

As the first generation survivor, Vladek's main coping strategy is distance. He tells Art the events that happen from 1935 to 1945, but he doesn't reveal much emotion as he does so. His emotions have to be interpreted from his actions, like burning Anja's journals, and Art's comic "Prisoner on Hell Planet".

In "Prisoner on Hell Planet", Vladek is an inconsolable, grieving mess, and only from Art's perspective do we see this. This reveals Vladek prefers to mentally and emotionally separate himself from his memories.

On the other hand, The Bell Jar only depicts Esther's perspective through the use of stream of consciousness. By the differing sentence structure, fig tree metaphors, and cleaning symbolism, Plath portrays the decline and recovery in Esther's mental health.


The graphic novel format of Maus softens the horrors for the reader, but still thoroughly explains humanity's atrocities. The Bell Jar is a novel that relies on stream of consciousness to show the reader how Esther is thinking and feeling. While explaining her suicide attempts, Esther first speaks of her first attempt at drowning in the sea. Then, it transitions to her next suicide attempt: hanging herself. Once this attempt's failure is clear, she transitions back to her drowning attempt.


Although both novels feature a mental asylum, they become different symbols. In Maus, Anja's sanatorium visit is a calm before the Spiegelmans are brought into the stormy atrocities of the Holocaust. It's part of the Honeymoon chapter and features dancing and fun, the clean before the storm. Anja's sanatorium had a positive, social aspect to it, like a country club, with the doctors and nurses interacting with the patients.

On the other hand, Esther's stay at the mental hospital is a prison where she is tortured with isolation and unsympathetic nurses. Her experiences with Dr Gordon form her fear of being locked up in a state hospital and is a huge influence of her later suicide attempts.

Similarities in the Portrayal of the Marginalized Groups

  • Mental Health Issues
  • Strained Child-Parent Relations
  • Death Seen as a Better Alternative for Life
  • People Who are Hassles are Left Behind
  • Uncaring Witnesses to the Marginalized
  • Money Required for Access to Improvement
  • Necessity of Faking It to Survive

Mental Health Issues

Before Richeu's birth, Anja had pills in her closet because she was too "skinny and nervous". After Richeu's born, she develops postpartum depression, during which she develops suicidal ideation. This results in the family taking her to the sanatorium. This acknowledgment of mental health as something requiring additional assistance in improving contrasts greatly with Esther's mother's reaction to mental illness; she believed mental illness was something one could control and choose not to have.

Strained Child-Parents Relations

Vladek survived the Holocaust partly because he saved everything, from chocolate to cigarettes, so he could use them to barter at a later date. This habit, while prolonging his life then, is no longer necessary in the 1980's, but he doesn't lose this characteristic. As a result, he is very conservative about spending money and completely uses everything at his disposal. This has put him in conflict with Art on multiple occasions, such as when he picks up telephone wire from the ground as they walk. Art just does not have the patience to continually deal with this saving mentality.

The conflict between Ester and her mother is also driven from marginalization. Her mother refuses to acknowledge the mentally ill aspect of her daughter. When Esther tells her she won't be going to Dr Gordon again, her mother responds with joy, saying she knew Esther would choose to be better. Later, while Esther is in the mental hospital, her mother asks her what she did wrong with raising her, not realizing mental illness can have uncontrollable causes.

Death Seen as A Better Alternative to Life

Esther bluntly tells Dr Nolan in the mental hospital if she is forced to undergo shock therapy again, she'll kill herself.

In Maus, Maus Tosha chose to poison herself and the children she was taking care of so they couldn't be transferred to Auschwitz.

People Who are Hassles are Left Behind

In Srodula, Anja's parents are left behind to be shipped off to Auschwitz because they were too old to make it past the guards.

According to Esther, after a while mentally ill people not showing enough progress are given up on, locked away, and left behind in a state hospital, a "big cage in the basement", because "the more hopeless you were, the further away they hid you".

Uncaring Witnesses to the Marginalized

A Nazi known as "the Shooter" shoots random Jews for entertainment in Maus, and in The Bell Jar the nurses are completely unsympathetic to Esther's situation in the mental hospital. For example, one of two nurses caring for Esther while she broke the mirror in the state hospital were more concerned about bad luck from the broken mirror than the psychological shock of Esther seeing her own battered and bruised face.

Money Required for Access to Improvement

Esther needed a benefactor to pay for her to gain access to what eventually helps her improve her mental health, which is the private hospital with Dr Nolan. Here she received better care from the medical staff compared to her previous experience with Dr Gordon.

In multiple occasions in Maus a barter system is implemented. For example, Haskeel helps Anja and Vladek escape the transport to Auschwitz from Srodula because they had valuables on them. Later, Vladek pays the Pole Motonowa to hide them in her house. Vladek is only able to survive using this system.

Necessity of Faking it to Survive

Esther initially hides her mental illness by saying what people want to hear. She told Jay Cee that she'll sign up for a foreign language, and she told Mr. Manzi she loved chemistry and physics. Keeping up this facade works for her, but only for a while.

On the other hand, Vladek has to pretend to be Polish, not Jewish, during a portion of his escape from the concentration camps. During the panels portraying this he has a pig mask In order to survive society, both Esther and Vladek have to pretend to be things they're not.

"We Didn't Start the Fire" Cover with Adapted Lyrics

The original individual oral presentation was supplemented with a cover of "We Didn't Start the Fire" with lyrics relating to the plots of The Bell Jar and Maus. The lyrics were the following:

"I want to tell your story" true

With Nazi symbols over you

Richieu's born, Anja breaks, sanatorium

"Demons take the factories", hanged Jews for all to see

"Juden Raus!", German routes, Auschwitz's crematorium

Vladek survives 'cause he saves, all the things, all the days

They're on their own, had no home, and paid for security

Family baggage inherited, Art doesn't change the narrative

Father-son relations strained, survivor's guilt's a surety


We didn't start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world's been turning

We didn't start the fire

No we didn't light it

But we tried to fight it

Empty achievements, Bottle Babies, shock treatment

The "more hopeless" hid away, and Daddy's really dead

Isolated, violated, suicide's oscillated

Bell Jar Trap's portable, and it's not all in your head

'Disappointed, mother dear? No, my symptoms won't disappear'

At the beach, against the norm, I present "Women Scorn"

Body betrayal, what a pest! Catholic nun? Asylum guess

Mirror breaks, lacking grace, trouble in the basement


Past turns to today, Esther is the display

No sympathy in the meds, Jewish people torn to shreds

"Not God, but Swastika", still hope in the Parshas Truma

Burned journals, Anja died, Vladek broke down inside

Shot for sport, rodents, No support, Hell Planet

"I'm ok, how 'bout you?", Lolek doesn't hide in shoes

Truth in concentration camps, against their worlds, they had danced

Anja says "let me die too", suicide is so taboo


Artie wears a mouse mask, recovery's a hard task

Personal abrasion, Nazi Cat world invasion

Art's guilt, Vlad's grief, Esther's mom has disbelief

Honeymoon, tightened noose, OD and blood oozed

Their past holds on fast, mouse traps, and the Glass

Memories stored away, what else do I have to say?


"Herr Doktor, Herr Enemy", I'll fight you as my legacy

Phone wire, 2nd Gen, Bell Jar may come again

Coping scars on their souls, slightly cracked but still whole

Drowning, pills, medication, "Life's a struggle", liberation

Persistenlty haunting habits, refusing to bury hatchets

No "out of sight, out of mind", Forgive and Forget's just maligned

Electro Shock, Jews dead, Vlad's tired, emotions bled

No returning to before, I can't take it anymore


© 2019 Christina Dunn


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