How to Read Literature Like a Professor
Dealt the Wrong Hand: 1950s Rape Culture in The Bell Jar
Apocryphally labeled a novel confined to the voracious appetite of mental illness, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath truly explores the societal ills in the role of young women in the 1950s. Despite the inevitable and universal recognition of internal strife, The Bell Jar’s main character, Esther Greenwood, is also faced with peremptory, pivotal physical violence. A young, bright woman in the 1950s, Esther is distressed when encountering the possibility of being raped. The near-rape scene, while violent, poses several devices in Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel; moreover, it functions to represent a deeper issue rather than simply showcase the specific violence of Esther’s plight. Plath carefully engineered the scene’s details, diction, and narration to reveal thematic relevance and societal issues through character violence.
In the first part of The Bell Jar, Esther’s character is portrayed indirectly through her narration as mildly cynical and dreary, yet observant. Perpetuating the character’s development, Esther is apprehensive before meeting a boy whom her friend, Doreen, knows; this boy will accompany her as his date for dancing, drinking, and night behavior. However, the night goes astray and blunders into discomfort, fear, and misogyny–and violence ensues. The violence of the near-rape scene is employed by Plath to generate thematic relevance–especially so in its antagonist, Marco, as a typical misogynist male archetype. He is suave, wealthy in some form, yet dark. This lethal mixture of male character traits is repeated throughout 18th, 20th, and 21st century literature in characters such as Richard Lovelace in the famous epistolary novel, Clarissa; Andy in the bestselling young adult novel, Speak; and even Christian Grey in the infamous, erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey. In all these literary texts, the suave, wealthy, and dark male is most often used to present a problem to a young, naive, and impressionable female character–usually a conflict of a sexual nature. However, for Plath’s purposes of thematic development, an example of Marco’s violent, suave nature is met with Esther’s fist rather than her heart. This almost automatic attack from Esther after being called a “slut” by Marco can be easily juxtaposed alongside Esther’s feelings of dissatisfaction in her world–despite her ability to fight back (Plath 57-58). Esther’s jaded nature is solidified in this violent scene as she previously foreshadowed Marco’s attack and voiced fear of a superficial, sexually-perverse date–allowing a theme of rebellion against convention to be evoked. Instead lapsing into the state of confusion often characteristic of rape scenes, Esther thinks, “It’s happening. If I just lie here and do nothing it will happen.” (Plath 57). Esther’s sense of observation coupled alongside her intuition build the text’s thematic transformation from a story of young woman to the story of her demise. The near-rape scene is essential in revealing thematic development, as it shows Esther’s character remaining perpetually dimmed and slightly dreary despite her situation.
Rape in the 1950s was rarely reported, often misunderstood, and socially under-defined (“Women’s Center”). The term “Rape Culture” emerged in the late 1970s; however, its principles existed in American culture long before (“Women’s Center”). The near-rape of Esther in The Bell Jar shows how a young woman in the 1950s with an unusually obstinate notion toward self-restriction faces a violent attempt at rape. In the novel, Marco “brands” Esther first with a diamond pin, then with his own thumbprint from grasping her wrist, and finally with mud from being thrown face-down into a puddle as a result of his assault. This symbolic “branding” contributes to Plath’s use of Esther as a vehicle to highlight or represent a societal issue for young women in the 1950s. Despite the 19th amendment being in effect, Plath sought to showcase the remaining imbalance between men and women in regards to sex during the time period. She used the character of Esther as a vessel or symbol for many young, bright women faced with unfair, oppressive sexual situations. As the reader has gotten to know the character of Esther, and her struggles, the reader is more likely to see Marco as the “villain” of the scene–effectively indicating Plath’s use of violence to imply a societal issue. Marco’s “women-hating,” misogynistic nature is arguably most evident as he asserts that all women are sluts no matter if they say “yes or no” to sexual advances (Plath, 58). This assertion on behalf of the antagonist makes the male character seem superficial, under-educated, and manipulative. Because Marco was meant to represent many suave 1950s men, Plath indirectly cautions both readers–women and men–about the dangers of rape and the emotional, mental, and physical implications it could have.
The violence of the attempted rape scene in The Bell Jar functions not only as means of plot progression and narrative development, but also as an important catalyst in revealing thematic transformation and societal issues. Specific violence to the character of Esther represents not simply her struggle, but endless other struggles on both literary and cultural levels. Young women in the 1950s were cautioned, entertained, and understood alongside Plath’s work for its vivid scenes of success, violence, mental distress, and cultural pressures. Rape will perpetually exist as an intimate topic of discussion; however, the culture it morphs and changes is forever the responsibility of all.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines. New York: Quill, 2003. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.
“Women’s Center.” Womens Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2014.
The Infinite Complexity of Literature, as seen in Running in the Family
Few aspects of the world are as subjective and as complex as literature. The same piece of literature can take on a virtually infinite number of meanings based upon the interpretation of the individual. This idea has been expounded upon in several literary works, such as How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. Foster’s work addresses and analyzes a wealth of literary tropes and examines their applications in popular literary works. However, the concepts Foster describes can be applied to almost any work of literature. One such work is Michael Ondaatje’s 1982 memoir Running in the Family. The memoir is divided into several sections. The first section, A Fine Romance, primarily describes Ondaatje’s parents. It capitalizes heavily on the use of motifs and symbols, particularly those of death and fish, as well as the context that an understanding of history provides to a literary work.
To begin with, Running in the Family’s A Fine Romance section contains several chapters. The chapter Honeymoon depicts death in a highly unusual manner. As opposed to treating it with humility and grief, as is the norm both in literature and reality, the novel uses ironic prose to downplay the deaths simply as “casual tragedies” (Ondaatje 40). One example can be found on page 41, Ondaatje writes “T.W. Roberts was bitten in the leg by a dog” and goes on to write that “…Later the dog was discovered to be rabid, but as T.W. had left for England nobody bothered to tell him” (Ondaatje 41). This matter-of-factness provides a certain melancholy to the story, portraying a sense of nonchalance amongst the people of the time. In Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor, death in literature is also discussed in the eleventh chapter, …More Than It’s Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence. Foster discusses different uses of death in literature from a storytelling perspective. First and foremost, literary violence can be used to complicate the plot, however it can also be used to create action, or to put characters under stress. While Running in the Family is a memoir depicting real events in the life of Michael Ondaatje, Ondaatje still had control over what to include and not to include. Thus, it can be assumed that by including such casual deaths, Ondaatje aimed to convey an idea to a reader. In this case, the melancholy and nonchalance of contemporary life.
Next, Running in the Family’s A Fine Romance chapter also capitalizes heavily on the use of symbolism, particularly on the symbol of a fish. Mervyn is told “Don’t forget the fish!” (Ondaatje 35). In this instance, the fish is symbolic of responsibility, as fish do require a good deal of responsibility to care of. However, Mervyn chooses to ignore this responsibility just as he ignores the authority in his life he must one day deal with. In essence, the fish represents procrastination. It illustrates that Mervyn is reckless, ignorant, and unbothered by the consequences of his actions. However, he will never truly escape these responsibilities, as they are ever-present, as shown by the fish tank. “I sat up on the uncomfortable sofa and I was in a jungle, hot, sweating. Street lights bounced off the snow and into the room through the hanging vines and ferns at my friend’s window. A fish tank glowed in the corner.” (Ondaatje 21). Thomas C. Foster discusses the use of symbolism quite often in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. One chapter, titled It’s My Symbol and I’ll Cry If I Want To, explores the multiplicity of text created through symbolism. Foster argues that once symbolism has been introduced, it “permits texts to mean more than one thing simultaneously.” (Foster 344). In this instance, Foster’s idea suggests that though Ondaatje is referring to fish, one should only pay attention to the use of the fish as a symbol.
Finally, Running in the Family’s depiction of the real-life events before and during author Ondaatje’s life cannot be read without also considering its historical context. The events of the first section take place primarily during the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, major global events of the time are referenced. In reference to his father’s generation, Ondaatje’s discusses the effect of World War II. He discusses his dad’s youth from the 1920s to the onset of World War II and claims that “until the war, nobody really had to grow up.” (Ondaatje 53). This portrays a carefree lack of responsibility in his generation and allows the audience to better understand how Ondaatje’s father’s generation had more time to form “complex relationships” (Ondaatje 54). However, as Thomas C. Foster claims in How to Read Literature Like a Professor’s twenty-fourth chapter, Don’t Read With Your Eyes, one must “…find a reading perspective that allows for sympathy with the historical moment of the story, that understands the text as having been written against its own social, historical, cultural, and personal background.” (Foster 332). If one is to employ this reading approach to Ondaatje’s work, it becomes apparent that the stories Ondaatje is telling cannot be proven to be entirely accurate, as the knowledge of his father’s “complex relationships” (Ondaatje 54) is known only by personal accounts, many of which are marred by emotion and have lost accuracy due to the tremendous amount of time that has past. Ondaatje recognizes this and yearns to find a more objective account of this aspect of his father’s life, devoid of emotional burden.
Conclusively, every work of literature has an infinite complexity and subjectivity. This has often been commented upon by authors, such as in Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Among other topics, Foster discusses the roles of violence, symbolism, and historical context in literature. These concepts are broadly applicable. One novel where these concepts are specifically put to the test is Michael Ondaatje’s memoir Running in the Family. Ondaatje’s use of death, fish, and his father’s affairs in the 1920s and 1930s allows readers to see Foster’s ideas in action, underscoring just how complex even a simple memoir can be.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. New York: Harperluxe, An Imprint of HarperCollins, 2014. Print.
Ondaatje, Michael. Running in the Family. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011. Print.