The Bell Jar

Role Of Women in The Yellow Wallpaper And The Bell Jar Novels

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

“Society is more interested in controlling women than emancipating them” Examine to the extent you agree that this is the case in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Both Sylvia Plath and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were female authors widely celebrated for their innovative literature. Driven by their own struggles to be recognised as accredited writers, they produced ground-breaking works The Bell Jar and The Yellow Wallpaper. These texts are considered to be hugely influential pieces of proto-feminist writing; they give eye-opening insights into what it was like to be a creative female in a largely patriarchal era. Despite being written in different periods, the protagonists in both works appear to be in astonishingly similar circumstances. Through the use of carefully crafted symbolism and metaphors, both writers produced the first person narratives in order to enlighten their readers of their own personal battles with mental illness caused by lack of emancipation. Gilman used The Yellow Wallpaper to discourage ‘rest cure’, the damaging treatment prescribed to her by her male doctor for her “unbearable inner misery”1 of which he believed to be caused by “too much mental activity” and “not enough attention to domestic affairs”. Plath used The Bell Jar as an outlet to relieve her depression, to write her autobiography, and to further reject the norms of society.2

Being published and set at the turn of the 19th century, The Yellow Wallpaper was based on a culture which still largely embraced the tradition of men and women having certain ‘roles’. During this same period however, change was imminent – with the establishment of The NAWSA in 1890, American women were beginning to get the opportunity to change society rather than simply be acquiescent with it. Arguably, this uncertain period is what led the narrator to despair. She seems to be trapped in a position where she wants to express herself, but still has to conform to the expectations of the male dominated society in which she is living. Early on in the text, she states that she desires “less opposition and more society and stimulus”. It is clear that the speaker doesn’t fit this ideal of a traditional female but instead appears to be a character who wouldn’t seem out of place in a more contemporary setting. Upon stating her desire for “less opposition” however, it appears that the narrator hesitates (shown by “–“) and disregards the initial subject. Here the narrator notices herself expressing thoughts that, under John’s patriarchal control, she shouldn’t. Considering this, the narrator attempts to steer her discussion to a more typically feminine topic, “I will let it alone and talk about the house”.

Additionally, to this, the narrator describes herself as feeling “nervous” around her baby. This again is a clear indicator that she is a character who feels trapped by the expectations of women – the oldest and arguably even biological role associated with being a woman has a negative effect on her health. It is made fairly obvious by her frequent praise of other more domestic female figures in the text, such as the babysitter Mary and housekeeper, Jennie, that the narrator feels guilty for not fitting the standard of an ‘idyllic woman’. She states how “fortunate” it is that Mary is “so good with the baby” and describes Jennie as a “dear girl” of whom is “a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper”. The positive adjectives used perhaps stress the fact that she herself is envious of this. The name Mary could also be symbolic of Virgin Mary, who would of course have been considered the ultimate female role model in 19th century Christian England. With this in mind, the narrator’s insecurity cannot be ignored; the speaker is conscious of the fact she doesn’t fit this archetype and feels as though she is a “comparative burden” as a result.

The setting in The Yellow Wallpaper it is feasibly the most important symbol of the narrator’s entrapment. The speaker describes the house as being “quite alone” surrounded by “hedges and walls and gates that lock”. Even the garden, a setting which often symbolises freedom due to the uncontrollable force of nature, is described as having “box-bordered paths” and being “lined with long grape-covered arbors” emphasizing the complete isolation of the narrator’s setting. Furthermore, the bedroom, in which the narrator spends most of her time, is also a presage of her eventual entrapment: The “barred windows”, “nailed down bed”, “rings on the wall” and “gate at the top of the stairs” are evocative of a mental asylum, foreshadowing the narrator’s eventual state of madness due to her deficiency of emancipation. The “immovable” bed may also be a metaphor for the repression of female sexuality in the Victorian era; women were expected to find sex distasteful and repress their desires and so the confinement of the bed may draw a parallel with the confinement of women’s sexual desires. The narrator does attempt to move downstairs to a less constricting room that “opened on the piazza”, unsurprisingly however, her husband “would not hear of it” as there would “not [be] room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another”. Paired with the imprisoning setting, the narrator is also required to be near her husband, this can’t be seen as anything other than a state of complete lack of freedom.

The significance of the “yellow wallpaper” also can’t be overlooked. Since she is trapped in her room, the narrator finds diversion in the wallpaper, of which, she becomes obsessed with and begins significantly to project her inner feelings onto7. The narrator ends up finding a doppelgänger6 in the wallpaper of whom, along with a “great many” other women, is trapped behind “bars” – this is undoubtedly a manifest representation of society’s entrapment of the female gender. The ‘doppelgänger’ tries to escape this wallpaper and “takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” but fails; “nobody could climb through that pattern — it strangles so”. This failure to ‘escape the wallpaper’ suggests the difficulty the narrator found in trying to escape the entrapment of society’s norms and expectations. It is only when the narrator has “peeled” the wallpaper off that she manages to ‘escape’, by which point she seems to be in a totally deranged state, essentially, presenting a rather despondent conclusion that perhaps the narrator never does get emancipated.

Similarly, Esther Greenwood is a female character who, too, suffers mentally due being controlled by society. Debatably however, it could be said that Esther’s situation is more optimistic than that of the speaker in Gilman’s novella. The Bell Jar is set in 1950s America; a post-war society in which women had been given the vote and were readily entering the workplace and/or further education. Furthermore, Esther is on a magazine internship in New York – a city teeming with opportunity and new ideas. Nonetheless, despite these progressive changes, during the 1950s the ‘Rosie the Riveter-esque’ image of women was depleting. Women were re-entering a domestic setting with the rise of the ‘homemaker’; a passive role which constricted them to their houses and more stereotypically ‘feminine’ occupations. Esther herself is shown to be victim to this; her mother’s persistent attempts to urge her into learning shorthand with the justification that she would have a “practical skill as well as a college degree” is a clear demonstration of the idea that a woman’s creativity wasn’t valued by society, but instead, simply her practical function. Shorthand is the essential skill for a female to record a man’s diction – a prospect which blatantly repulses Esther who, unlike Mrs. Willard, isn’t content being a character who will simply end up “flattened out under the husband’s foot like a kitchen mat”.

In parallel to the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper, Esther too, to some extent, appears to not feel any enthusiasm towards progeny – when witnessing a childbirth, Esther perceives it as “unhuman”. Her description of the act seems frank and aloof displaying her disdain for the deed. She describes the birthing chair as resembling an “awful torture table” and looks to observe the unappealing aspect of the birth. She pronounces the new-born to be “the colour of a blue plum”, “floured with white stuff and streaked with blood”. Babies are reliant on others – something Esther doesn’t want to be. Although, it may not be child birth of which Esther disapproves. Moreover, babies appear to be a continuing theme throughout the novel; Esther is even likened to one when describing herself drinking hot milk “the way a baby tastes a mother” – it appears that Esther is equated to an infant due to her lack of freedom. In this instance the image of a baby is used represent her more fragile state of being, however it also is a more optimistic representation in that she appears to be in a condition of recovery. She also compares her skiing, which she states is one of the only times she feels “happy”, to “the white sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly”. Thus, it can’t be said that Esther dislikes childbirth and children, but instead, has an antipathetic attitude towards the idea that women are simply seen by society as machines of reproduction. This idea is backed up when she expresses her aversion to the drug that causes the woman in labour she witnesses to be in a “twilight sleep”. She describes it as being “just the sort of drug a man would invent” and that as a result of forgetting her “terrible pain”, the woman would “go straight home and start another baby” just as society would want her to.

Using the metaphor of “The fig tree” in chapter 5, Plath suggests that there is a finite amount of opportunities for a female in 1950s society. Esther wants “all” of the “figs” however, “choosing one meant losing all the rest”. Plath suggests that in order to lead a harmonious life, a woman can only pick one of the opportunities presented to her. Each female character in the novel could be interpreted as having a “fig” off the tree: Jay Cee – “the amazing editor”, Mrs. Willard, Greenwood and Betsy (of whom “held an ear of corn to show she wanted to be a farmer’s wife”) – “a husband and a happy home and children”, Doreen – “a pack of other lovers with queer names” and Philomena Guinea – “a famous poet”. Plath uses Esther’s character as an instrument to highlight the sexist nature of this prospect. She discovers society’s double standards in Chapter 6 when she finds out Buddy Willard has been leading “a double life”. Buddy’s opportunity to have more than one ‘fig’ is deemed “unfair” and “hypocritical” by Esther who “unable to decide” on a ‘fig’ sees her opportunities “wrinkle and go black”. As the median age of marriage for a woman dropped to 20.3 during the 1950s3, it appears that society anticipated to control women at an even younger age. The Vanitas reminiscent image of Esther “starving to death” proposes the idea that society not only presents a woman with a limited amount of opportunities, but also a limited amount of time in which a she can take advantage of them. Whilst Esther struggles to decide on a course of life, she is being “starved” of the happiness that comes along with it; inevitably she will reach an age at which, by society’s standards, she is too old to pursue any of the paths presented to her.

Despite being able to choose paths, the female characters in The Bell Jar aren’t necessarily happy but rather, simply content. Perhaps the only difference between them and Esther is that they made a conscious decision to live the way that they do and ignore the fact that they have sacrificed other desires. Possibly living by the notion that ‘ignorance is bliss’, they have recognised the fact that they can’t have more than one ‘fig’ and accepted it. This idea can be supported by Mrs. Greenwood; a character who passively experienced the tragedies of her life without crying5 . Despite her husband dying and her daughter attempting suicide, she continues to uphold the image of a good woman by all societal standards5. During Esther’s shock treatments, Mrs. Greenwood’s knuckles are described as “bone white, as if the skin had worn off them in the hour of waiting”, it’s clear that Mrs. Greenwood may have internal struggles but has been forced by society to keep them hidden else she may forfeit her ‘comfortable’ life. Additionally, Esther’s seemingly desirable friend Doreen is merely described as being “handed” between men. In choosing a life of sexual freedom, Doreen has surrendered her right to be respected by society.

In both texts, the male peers of the narrators seem to desire control over women. John, the husband of the narrator in Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, seems to play a key part in her lack of liberation. Gilman uses John to symbolise a textbook example of a dominating spouse, a husband who holds absolute control over his wife4. He is described as a “high ranking physician” of whom is “practical in the extreme” and according to the narrator “doesn’t believe that [she] is sick”. It is evident that the narrator’s condition isn’t understood by her husband and his methods for dealing with it will most likely be inappropriate. She states that it is “hard to talk with John about [her] case because he is so wise”. Nevertheless, John’s occupation alone seems to be enough reason to assert his dominance over the speaker. Backed up by the narrator’s brother of the same profession, John pushes the speaker into a silenced and helpless position, surrounded by dominant men. John seems to have a somewhat condescending demeanour towards his wife. Frequently he is shown to infantilise the narrator, referring to her as a “blessed little goose”, a “little girl” and he even at one point “carries [her] upstairs”. It’s undeniable that John has complete control over the narrator; he regulates practically every detail of her life with a “schedule prescription for each hour in the day” which determines when she does “exercise”, what “food” she eats to when and even where she “sleeps” saying that it’s “good for [her]” to “lie down”, perhaps suggesting that it’s “good for [her]” to be in a state of submission. “He hardly lets [her] stir without special direction”.

Despite the fact it may be apparent to the reader that John is trapping the narrator of whom appears to be in a state evocative of brainwash. Pressured by society to worship and thank her husband for eliminating the need to think from her life8, the narrator scolds herself whenever she is in disagreement with him, labelling herself as being “silly” and “ungrateful”. She often blames her “unreasonable” moods towards John on her “nervous condition” while habitually reminding herself that “he loves [her]”. This is also evidenced by her ambiguous language when she states that “PERHAPS” he is the “one reason” she doesn’t “get well faster” likewise when she refers to her medication as “phosphates and phosphites – whichever it is”. The narrator appears to be in a state where she is unable to make up her own mind about such issues and possibly has her mind made up for her by John.

Of course, it could be suggested that John isn’t aware of the fact he is harming his wife as he does seem to genuinely love her. At some points, John appears to support his wife, he makes logical observations and “cautions” her when she begins to hallucinate and see people walking down the “paths” in the garden. It’s even stated that he is “so pleased” when he sees his wife’s condition “improve” – if John wanted to control his wife then it could be argued that he would go along with her delusions and send her into a state of complete insanity to which point she would be totally dependent on him. At another point in the text John even gives the speaker power by telling her that “no one but [herself]” can “help” her out of her fragile state of mind. In this light, John’s strict control of his wife could merely be interpreted as a ‘sign of the times’ – if society didn’t seek to dominate women, John may not be in the position where he was expected to regulate his wife’s activities. His treatment of ‘rest cure’ may simply be what was thought to be the best remedy for his wife’s condition by society’s standards. On many occasions, he displays affection towards his wife and even at one point states that the she is “his darling, his comfort and all he [has]”.

On the other hand, however, the repetition of the determiner “his” may infer that John sees his wife to exist solely for his own benefit. This is also implied when he states that she “must” get better “for his sake” rather than her own. In addition to this, John’s frequent dismissal of the narrator’s deceptions could be interpreted as his way of asserting power over her rather than an attempt to help her think rationally – the narrator states that the fact she has “no reason to suffer” “satisfies” John and that he “laughs” at her for her illness more than once in the text; a patronising and supercilious act to which she is submissive stating “one expects that in marriage”. It would appear in this instance that John has managed to proclaim complete supremacy over his wife, so much so that she accepts his actions and values his thoughts and desires over her own.

For this reason, it could be suggested after all that John doesn’t want his wife to get better. While she is in a state of disillusion, he is in a state of dominance. This would mean he has an excuse to control her every move. His wife’s entrapment is his freedom. This interpretation is supported by many of his actions, in particular, his refusal to move rooms and his prohibition of his wife’s writing – arguably the two largest contributors to her eventual madness. Writing is clearly the narrator’s only form of “relief” in the novella. It’s the only way she can say what she “feel[s]” and “think[s]” without the reprimand of her husband who finds it “absurd” and “hates to have [her] write a word”. John may not object to the narrator writing however, but rather the concept of her being able to express herself. If the narrator is able to express and explore her thoughts, she may end up gaining her own sense of power which would possibly result in her not doing what her husband desires. Jennie, John’s sister and housekeeper, who “hopes for no better profession”, also believes that it was the act of “writing” that makes the narrator “sick”. It could be suggested that Jennie has never had the chance to explore her own desires hence her contentment with her perhaps more limiting occupation. In this instance ‘sickness’ appears to be a dysphemism for ‘emancipation’.

In The Bell Jar, there are a number of characters who play a similar role to John in symbolising society’s male dominance. Constantin, a translator of whom Esther meets through Mrs. Willard is maybe the only male character who doesn’t seek to dominate her in the novel. Even then, the image of “getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee” is enough to stop Esther pursuing the relationship any further than one date. Perhaps the most important of these characters would be Buddy Willard. Again similarly to John in The Yellow Wallpaper, Buddy is considered a character of whom, as well as a result of his gender, has gained status over Esther due to his academy. Despite the fact that to the reader Esther may appear to be as, or even more, intelligent than Buddy, the accreditation that comes along with his attendance at Yale seems to put Esther in his shadow. Unsurprisingly, Buddy, who has been served by his mother his whole life, is described as embodying the traits of the typical “model person”; he is “very scientific”, “handsome”, “athletic” and “kind to his parents” – Esther even admits to, previously, admiring him “from afar”. However, her present description of Buddy appears to be scornful, she seems to look beneath the surface of his pristine outer layer and realises that he shares the same desires as most other men at the time: The desire to dominate and control a female. When Esther, prior to realising she has broken her leg, informs Buddy on their skiing trip that she is “going to do [the slope] again”, he responds “No you’re not” with a “smile”. This sense of schadenfreude that Buddy exemplifies is undoubtedly evidence for the idea that he likes the prospect of Esther becoming dependent on him. He appears to be a selfish and patronising character, frequently demeaning Esther’s passion for poetry seeing it as being inferior to his own medical profession. He refers to poems as merely “dust” and even states “in a sinister knowing way” that Esther will no longer care for poetry once she “has a baby”. The description of Buddy’s tone could imply that he is already expecting to marry and dominate Esther and simply views her to be naïve due to her gender. This is further emphasised when he makes a pitiful attempt to initiate sex with her in chapter 6 by trying to suggest that it would benefit her to “see” a man. He seems to think he knows how to control women, but in Esther’s case, he seemingly has no idea. The only time Buddy appears to be considerate of the women in his life is when he visits Esther in the asylum following Joan’s suicide, however, even this could have an egotistical motive, that of trying to clear his own guilty conscience.

Along with the dominating men in their lives, both Esther’s failure to get accepted into writing school and The Yellow Wallpaper narrator’s confining rest cure may be synonymous in the sense that they both restricted the protagonists from doing what they loved the most; expressing themselves through writing. Despite contrasting circumstances, that of Esther overcoming her mental illness and The Yellow Wallpaper’s protagonist falling further into it, the endings of both novels insinuate, in some form or another, that by persisting with their passions, the narrators may have in fact achieved emancipation. Taking into account that The Bell Jar is in fact a retrospective narrative, it becomes clear that, despite society’s protestations, Esther has managed to become a mother while still being able to write. Not only this, The Bell Jar ends with Esther entering her exit interview at the asylum, an act in itself of which is an obvious emblem of emancipation. Through her own perseverance, Esther escapes and defies Society’s expectations of women and becomes, “perfectly free”.

Still, while it may be suggested that it was in fact the writing that sent the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper into madness, we find the more she expresses and explores her thoughts, the more she begins to “see through” society’s (of whom “John” is a symbol) wish to ‘protect’ women. Instead she recognises it to be a euphemism for control. Through writing, the narrator gains the confidence to “peel” the wallpaper off herself (despite John’s refusal) and escape “in spite” of him. The roles somewhat switch at the end of the novel; John is the one shown to be weak. He is the one being infantilised by the narrator when she refers to him as “young boy” and he is the one who “fainted”. Subsequently this swap in power could essentially mean that the narrator has freed herself from society’s control. More feasibly, a pessimistic meaning can be read into this ending however. The narrator has in fact trapped herself in an eternal state of inferiority to men, her descent into madness results in John fainting “right across [her] path” and consequently, evermore obstructs her route to emancipation.

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The Bell Jar: an Autobiographical Novel

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

Deterioration: The Reversed Bildungsroman

The Bell Jar is a subtle replica of Sylvia Plath’s own life where she manipulates the elements of an autobiography to essentially recreate her own events leading up to her own suicide. Plath views the world from a feminist standpoint in the novel, where women are subject to degradation and are not given the freedom to express or find themselves. When women during the 1950s counteracted what they were told to do, it eventually led to punishment and shunning. This idea is most commonly reflected in anti-transcendentalism – the idea that nonconformity is a curable illness. However, Plath speaks out to women in The Bell Jar by depicting through the depression and breakdown of the protagonist, Esther Greenwood that trying to exceed society’s expectations as a female in a postwar society will lead to an unsuccessful outcome and the inability to heal. Plath utilizes Esther’s figurative bell jar as a method to show the antisocial angsts that a female suffers as a result of overwhelming anticipations that she is expected to fulfill in her life.

Esther Greenwood sees herself as an ordinary girl who thinks that she has trouble finding her own identity, but she later realizes that her sickness is more chronic than it seems. The beginning of the novel mentions execution of the Rosenbergs, which makes her feel disgusted (Plath 1). This foreshadows what Esther later experiences, which is electric shock from Dr. Gordon because she could not sleep, read, or write. She recounts her experience as feeling terrible and degraded especially because a male doctor treated her in such a brutal manner (Plath 143-144). Esther feels that she is being blamed for having a mental sickness that she cannot heal from. She sees Dr. Gordon as a male villain whom she cannot escape from because he suggests for her to come back again for more shock treatments, but she refuses. Esther gets extremely shocked when she gets a female psychiatrist in a private hospital outside of the city (Plath 186). This detail suggests that it was very uncommon for women in the 1950s to have medical jobs because it is a male-based time period where men are given the most recognition and accolades.

To continue with Esther’s feeling of subservience, she gets invited to a banquet, hosted by a magazine, Ladies’ Day. When she comes home, she gets sick and throws up everywhere. Leuschner recalls that when her friend Doreen comes to take care of her, she tells Esther that the magazine sent a “get-well” card because of the poisoning of some of the food at the banquet. Esther feels that it does not compensate for the mental and physical damage she felt because the magazine people did not concern themselves over matters that seemed trivial to them. Leuschner attempts to show the readers that illness is something insignificant and ignored, especially as a female, and this is what causes Esther to feel a sense of degradation and inequality because she has no say in what she wants and is expected to go by society’s rules. Esther receiving shock treatments and given mere attention while being sick displays the male-dominant society that Esther is forced to live in and that women in her time setting (1950s) were not given any room to voice their opinions because they were subject to immoral resolutions.

Plath uses her book’s title “The Bell Jar” as a figurative symbol in the novel which Esther feels she is underneath constantly because of her inability to meet standard societal expectations. Literally, a bell jar is a bell-shaped glass used to hold fragile items. This symbol is seen throughout the novel when Esther feels weak compared to other women following norms. The bell jar refers to the “shell” that Esther hides under because she is internally conflicted about her own identity when she says she wants to become a poet (Kuhl). The bell jar is her little bubble that prevents her from relating to other people, therefore lacking the ability to perceive the world in a profound manner. Her mother as well as other figures, like Jay Cee have higher expectations for Esther and expect her to become more ambitious about her life to do bigger and better things. One example that Esther witnesses near her home is the life of one of her neighbors, Dodo Conway. Dodo Conway is a Catholic married woman in the novel who had six children. Esther despised children and the thought of getting married, because she feels like she would be getting false hopes of her married life and would not have true happiness (Plath 83, 116-117). Esther is portrayed as a nonconformist in the novel who tries to rebel against being on the lower spectrum of the social class or the idea of being an ideal woman in reaction to Dodo Conway’s “so-called perfect life”.

To further implicate Esther’s views on oppression of women in her society, she starts to become more and more depressed because she feels she is not fulfilling her expectations as a young woman. Later in the novel, she contemplates many methods of suicide, including drowning, cutting, hanging herself, and overdosing on sleeping pills (Plath 147, 169). When she resorts to overdosing, she is unsuccessful because she is later revived by the hospital. This mental breakdown of Esther’s mind leads to her own success that she strives for beyond what women are meant to do in the 1950s. Esther giving up in her dream shows that she is extremely passionate about her ambitions and being intellectual (Kuhl).

One of the characters that seem to foil with Esther is the woman in charge of Ladies’ Day Magazine, Jay Cee. Budick notes that Jay Cee shows some masculine characteristics in herself, such as being stern, strict, and straightforward. Jay Cee is an example of someone who is submissive to society because she exemplifies what women should be rather than finding her own talents and nature. Budick also mentions that Esther sees Jay Cee as sort of a mother figure and she wishes Jay was her mother because she would want to learn from her on how to become a perfect woman and make a difference to society. On one hand, Esther attempts to alleviate the pressure of people around her that are trying to instill these “qualifications” that she is trying to adapt to, but on the other hand, she attempts to find her true and fitting identity (Bloom).

The long-term aftermath that Esther suffers after her suicide attempt is going to multiple psychiatric hospitals and being forced into isolation, which leads into a deeper catastrophe. When Esther reaches the psychiatric ward, she is put with another Italian woman who giggles at everything; she is described as having a mental disorder and having abnormal social skills (Plath 176). The male doctors continuously kept on coming and introducing themselves with fake names, such as Dr. Pancreas and they did not really help Esther heal at all because they could not understand why a woman who had so much going for her would decide to take her own life. During her stay, she is treated like an insane person, even though she exhibits characteristics of a normal human being. For example, when Esther is given a place to eat with all the other patients, one of the nurses micromanages her actions, and another Negro man who works there mocks Esther; this causes her to feel that her intelligence is being insulted (Plath 180-181).

In addition to Esther’s poor treatment at the psychiatric ward, she is also ignored by many of the nurses. When a nurse come in to take her temperature, Esther accidentally knocks down the box of thermometers that were put on her bed, and the nurse gets angry, claiming that Esther does it deliberately. She is taken to another room to be locked up instead of given a warning or a better resolution (Plath 182-183). Esther is constantly transferred from hospital to hospital, and this worsens her condition because her life becomes more mundane than it was before. Furthermore, every hospital that she goes to, she is always locked up further and further away because the doctors misdiagnose Esther’s condition rather than help and communicate with her (Leuschner). Esther does not fully get better from this, and later when she goes to Belsize, the best hospital for treatment, for electroshock therapy, she is partially healed, but now she has to figure out how to distinguish between what she sees under the bell jar and what she has the ability to see.

Although The Bell Jar mirrors Plath’s own deterioration and suicide attempt, it essentially speaks out for women of the 1950s generation because of customs that women are forbidden to defy. Esther’s actions show the consequences of rebelling against society for freedom of choice and the desire for individuality, but she also shows the downfalls of conforming to submissiveness, such as the false ideology of concurrently having a perfect marriage and career and having background knowledge and experience on sex. The novel reveals a double standard from a female’s perspective because women are initially toys to the males in terms of sex, and males are not given the same provocative recognition that women receive because they are meant to serve the men. Going against the norms of society is what Plath tries to reiterate as a way to strike back against a male-dominant society, but it can also cause gruesome internal and external destruction.

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Sylvia Plath’s Presentation of Feelings and Standards on Women as Described in Her Book, The Bell Jar

December 9, 2020 by Essay Writer

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath was written semi-autobiographically to verify and express the validity of emotions and to bring a contemporary view of the expectations of women in the 1970’s. The Bell Jar has had such a wide range of meaning from the time it has been published until now because it dealt with multiple taboo topics at the time, in the 1960’s and 70’s. As it is well known, the author of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, struggled significantly with mental illness and the unrealistic standards women were supposed to be molded into. She expressed her thoughts on controversial topics through her writings. Though Plath was extremely praised academically, as was Esther Greenwood, her semi-autobiographical self in The Bell Jar, they both did not aim to fit into the cookie-cutter mold of the unrealistic, female homemaker of that time period. Plath and Esther both shared the characteristic of a glum, analytical mind which benefitted their subject matter but deteriorated their emotional limit. Plath had a great awareness of her disorders, while still having the outstanding capabilities to far exceed academic prowess. In The Bell Jar, there is much content to discuss the meanings, restrictions and expectations of women with mental disorders, shock therapy treatment, women in the spotlight, women in academia, and self perception. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is pertinent as a piece of literature because it revolutionizes the behaviors and perceptions for the people in the 1970’s and continues to be used as a confirmation of these behaviors and perceptions, currently.

Some people may not agree and could argue that The Bell Jar was just spewing of a bourgeois and privileged woman with a need for attention and that it has no meaning to the time period. However, that is false. Plath did not enjoy unwarranted attention and found solace in loneliness, which largely influenced her writing. A professor of women in literature, Mrs. Millsap-Spears states, “Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar, seem to go in out of style”. This is a loose statement because it does not have an ultimate source of evidence to support the sales from and since the date of publishing. Though Plath had an indulgent life lead by her prowess as a writer, intimidating scholarly success and attractive wife of famous, handsome poet, Edward Hughes, she was constantly dissatisfied with herself or a moment in her life, her writings more than prove that. Plath strived to elaborate and instil her meanings among her writings. The Bell Jar illustrated her life vividly through her use of characters inspired by her acquaintances, however bleak and unsaturated with hope it may have been. Both Plath and Esther had an extensive psychological history and struggled with depression at a young age. Thus, the subject of her writing was often herself as a method of release. Esther, the main character from The Bell Jar, is a semi-autobiographical version of Plath. All of the works by Plath, especially The Bell Jar, display her vulnerability as relatability for anyone who can connect with the expression of her writings. The Bell Jar is meaningful because it lent the opportunity to others to understand her point of view or to relate to it.

In The Bell Jar, the expectations of women are very easy to pin-point and asses. Esther distinguishes phases of initial romance and the aftermath of marriage as it appeared to be in the 1960’s. The main objective for women in this time period would be to marry, have children, and take care of the home. According to Tevaana, an online collaborative civic group, the oppression of the women in the 1960’s and 70’s was extremely harsh. Specifically, wives would be subject to their husbands bidding (Tevaana). In The Bell Jar, Esther states “And I knew in spite of all those roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat” (Plath 85). Esther also alludes to being processed twice over and stamped for approval of marriage, like a manufacturer would (Plath 244). These are few of the many examples in The Bell Jar that present how the ideal woman would appear to be, a homemaker hidden behind her husband. Plath did not just write these thoughts for the defense of women struggling, she too lived in the shadow of her husband. That first-hand experience made writing about the struggle for independence from men more fiery and motivated. The Bell Jar verifies this extremely ill concept of submission to males and the expectations of females. At the time The Bell Jar was published, it was very outlandish to lead to the assumption, even in semi-fiction, that the expectations of women were plainly absurd and more so unfair. The Bell Jar is meaningful in this way because Plath is clearly communicating that this standard is ridiculous, eloquently doing so. Plath brought to light this relatable topic of concern with her writing and even women in the 21st century can relate to this.

In The Bell Jar, Esther often considers men as disappointments or dishonest. The limitations and expectations of women at the time led men to become more dominant and controlling of women. Many men exuded a conceited demeanor and made women appear to be their lessers. Diane Bonds, an assistant dean at Emory University of Atlanta, states, “The novel presents the transformation of Esther Greenwood from a young woman who hates the idea of serving men in any way to one who appears to earn her exit from the asylum by committing herself…”(Bonds 2). Esther has many points to make of men of this time, mostly of fault. She narrates her thought, “There I went again, building up a glamorous picture of a man who would love me passionately the minute he met me and all out of a few prosy nothings” (Plath 52). She goes on to say that if you expect nothing, you will never be disappointed. Also, that the closer she got to men, she saw their faults so largely that they simply did not mesh with her. Plath and Esther are doubles, the real person and the reflections of her thoughts as Esther. Esther is independent and never wants to be wedded to a man, the “infinite security” of this type of relationship does not appeal to her because she does not wanting to be stuck standing in the doorway of opportunity without the ability to move forward through it. In this manner, The Bell Jar instills the idea that it is perfectly alright to not follow the ideals of society as a whole. To be an independent woman, unmarried, and going towards an exciting future is what is important for women to understand.

The Bell Jar largely deals with the topic of self-loathing and self harm. Esther is Plath’s exact reiteration of her experiences with self harm, suicidal thoughts and attempts. An extensive portion of the book takes place while Esther is hospitalized for a particular suicide attempt. At the time electric shock therapy was a new method for treating depressed and self-harming patients. Though The Bell Jar is semi-fictional, Esther’s account of her self harm and treatment, is the exact experience Plath had endured in her life. A particular suicide attempt recalled in The Bell Jar, Esther takes us through the long, plotted task of burying herself in a cellar, hiding herself in a small corner surrounded by a shield of wooden logs and taking an excessive amount of sleeping pills, accidently too many (Plath 167-169). Esther was found several days later and then admitted to a psychological ward where she received shock therapy for what seems to be a second or third time, as it is described. In 1975, Raymond G. Romanczyk and Elizabeth R. Goren with the American Psychological Association conducted a study of a patient with multiple self harm issues, being treated for 10 months with electric shock therapy and other treatments of a different nature (Romanczyk 1). While this type of treatment proved only “moderately successful” most other studies resulted the same way (1). The method of electric shock therapy was and still is terrifying. Controlling self-harm impulses by inflicting pain upon a person in order to somehow coagulate their brain into a different realm of thought was just contradicting. Esther has experienced this type of treatment more than once and yet her depression grew. If Esther is the true rendition of Plath, difficulty with depression did not only grow, but became more serious than before. Plath’s meaning in sharing this experience is to provide, not a sense of pity from the reader, but to honestly display how corrupt and unnecessary this method of treatment was because of it’s lack of effect.

The beginning of The Bell Jar starts with Esther at a gloriously lavish celebration of women in contest of writing for a particular magazine in New York. Right at the start we can grasp an idea of Esther’s abilities for success. In the beginning chapters, Esther makes a friend just from her exuding her intelligence naturally. This acquaintance, Doreen, made her feel “Sharper than the other girls” (Plath 5). Esther, being Plath’s double, shares all of her characteristics of intelligence and precise writing. Esther appreciates superficial things like clothing, expensive meals, and makeup, but she was not overwhelmed by them. Esther’s intelligence was high and her mind was very experimental and different from other women, or people in general. Her college dean made exceptions for her studies, this was because her writing was so intriguing. Linda Wagner of Michigan State University says that, “No incident is included which does not influence her maturation” (Wagner 1). This is extremely true. Esther is a self-servicing, efficient woman, who through her accomplishments betters herself academically and scholarly. Esther also does not limit her education to writing. Esther was well rounded and interested in many subject, especially math, chemistry, and even foreign languages. The Bell Jar encouraged women to be knowledgeable and successful in studies, that it will help, in time, to prove women equal and in league with men. In this case, knowledge is power.

Self esteem and self perception is also a common topic within The Bell Jar. Esther often is observant of herself, realizing new characteristics or viewing herself in an unflattering way or negatively, very few times positively. She would peel back the layers of people analytically and critically thinking about their smallest gestures. Even when Esther looks at others, she perceives them in a particular way that is tinkered and thought about wholly. In The Bell Jar, Esther states, “I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it” (Plath 77). Esther follows this statement with a memory of a story about a fig tree in which each fig represents a different future, she eventually watches them all drop at her feet because she cannot simply decide what she wants. This story directly deals with her career, personal relationships, and positive outlook slowly drifting to darkness because she is not able to decide on a particular path. The fig tree dies which is relatable to her depression stopping her from fully committing to her desired future. Caroline Smith, a college literature professor infers that from this example in the text from The Bell Jar, that this ultimately means Esther does not believe there is a way to mix both a lavish, celebrated career as a poet and be a happy homemaker (Smith 2-3). Esther’s fears directly correlate to Plath because of the semi-autobiographical nature. The meaning of her self doubt it unique and personal. Sharing these emotions in The Bell Jar relays the opportunity to relate and communicates that all options are available. However, when time keeps moving the options will run out, one by one. In life, you must know what you want in order to receive or take what you want.

Sylvia Plath’s, The Bell Jar has most certainly endured the test of time and is still considered classic literature today. The Bell Jar is often still used in psychological studies and literary analysis’, and referenced often. As in this paper, the sources used have a range of years, however it proves that Plath’s writing is still discussed and analyzed today because it is important. Sylvia Plath’s, The Bell Jar deals with multiple issues that are still present today, making its importance truly timeless. The Bell Jar deals with female roles, perception, mental health, and relevance. The semi-autobiographical novel also communicates that unrealistic standards do exist, but you do not have to abide by them. Mental health can be a hinderance and a productive source of creativity but can ultimately lead to a crossroads of whether or not to persist in an area of study. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is pertinent as a piece of literature because it revolutionizes the behaviors and perceptions for the people in the 1970’s and continue to do so now.

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The Role of Food In Ms. Greenwood’s Downfall

August 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

Throughout Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, we are faced with Esther Greenwood’s continual downfall as her mind sinks deeper into depression; however, Esther’s one nearly consistent source of enjoyment is found in food. Esther’s experience in New York City is highlighted with rich foods like stuffed avocados and bowls of caviar. Not only do these indulgences serve as an escape for Esther, but food also represents the choices that Esther is presented with in her life. The difference between her choices in life and her choices with food is that when she chooses to eat two plates of chicken and caviar, the stuffed avocados do not disappear from the table. However, once she chooses to marry Buddy Willard, she is no longer able to go to Europe and fall in love. Food offers Esther the ability to make one choice without eliminating others – something that life is not allowing her. This simple fact gives her an escape from the decisions she is being forced to make.At the beginning of Chapter Three, Esther states quite plainly, “I’m not quite sure why it is, but I love food more than just about anything else” (24). Esther is declaring that food gives her something that nothing else can satisfy, something that satisfies more than just hunger. Although she says that she cannot specifically say what it is she loves so much about food, it is easy to see that food offers her innumerable choices that never cancel each other out; some of them even fulfill a sense of nostalgia. Esther mentions that she can eat as much food as she wants without gaining weight, which just further illustrates the fact that Esther can indulge in anything without having any consequences. The limitless possibilities of food entice Esther and lures her away from the complications and finality of decision making that she is faced with. One of the great metaphors in The Bell Jar is the way that Esther compares her life to a fig tree. “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree from the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked…I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose” (77). The image that this brings to the reader is at first a very beautiful one, but then we see Esther wither away in indecision. The fact that her possible futures are “fat purple figs” shows, once again, the importance of food in her life and how it can represent decisions. However, Esther is only allowed to choose one of these beautiful fruits, unlike the bountiful selection she has when choosing what to eat. Shortly after her “vision of the fig tree and all the fat figs that withered and fell to the earth,” (78) she was able to eat and consequently felt “immensely better” (78), again proving the comforting qualities that food gives Esther. Ms. Greenwood is essentially using food in an escapist way that comforts her and relieves her otherwise inescapable problems. Not only does food represent all of the choices that she is not able to make, but it also gives her a way to experience some of the things she felt she was missing out on. In particular, when Constantin takes her down to his restaurant that “smelt of herbs and spices and sour cream” (77) she is effectively transported somewhere that she has never been. The restaurant was hidden away in a sort of cellar and the walls were plastered with travel posters that sweep the mind away to far off destinations. Not only does this environment take her away, but the food that follows consoles her to the point that she decides to let Constantin to seduce her (77), something she surely would not have done without the intoxicating environment and comforting food. Avocados are another consoling food for Esther and have a special place in her heart. They bring up memories of her grandfather and her childhood, apparently the only time she remembers being truly happy. “Avocados are my favorite fruit…He [her grandfather] taught me how to eat avocados by melting grape jelly and French dressing together in a saucepan and filling the cup of the pear with the garnet sauce. I felt homesick for that sauce. The crabmeat tasted bland in comparison” (28). This section brings the reader back to Esther’s humble childhood especially when she announces that she feels “homesick for that sauce” because you can really feel her yearning. Also, her comparison of the crabmeat to the simple sauce shows that although she relishes the haute couture of New York City living, she will always appreciate the simplicity of her childhood. Doreen’s parting gift to Esther was two-dozen avocados. The fact that Doreen knew of Esther’s affection for these fruits demonstrates how Esther is nearly defined by her strong love of food. These 24 avocados took up all of Esther’s suitcase, leaving room for only The Thirty Best Short Stories of the Year, a white plastic sunglasses case and no clothes whatsoever. If we look at Esther’s suitcase as a proportionate metaphor to what she finds most important in her life, food would be considered number one. Esther also seems to have a strange fondness for the avocados in her suitcase since she describes their shifting weight as how “they cannoned from one end to the other with a special little thunder of their own” (113). She seems to almost admire the power of fruit that she is carrying and seems proud to have them. Esther’s emotional ties with food are especially clear when she is evaluating her relationship with avocados.When Esther arrives home after her internship in New York City, she almost immediately finds out that she did not make the course that she had been hoping to take. One of the first things she does after that is “drop a raw egg into a teacup of raw hamburger, mix it up and [eat] it,” (119) something that seems very strange and quite disgusting. The two ingredients, hamburger and eggs, are American staples and a common find in any kitchen during the fifties. This drastic change from fancy New York dining to domestic cuisine signifies the change that Esther is about to undergo. Also, the fact that both of these ingredients are raw alludes to Esther’s ideology about the current world she is forced to live in. “Raw,” as defined by The New Oxford American Dictionary, is “frank and realistic in the depiction of unpleasant facts or situations,” which is exactly the way Esther sees the world around her. She will not accept the sugarcoated version that society is trying to sell her. Ideas about how the perfect life is getting married and having children do not appeal to Esther and she sees straight through the façade. As Esther continues to fall deeper and deeper into her depressive state, she nearly quits eating altogether. She also stops sleeping and reading, two other very essential things in her life. The absence of her enthusiasm for food shows how far the depression has taken her. Since she no longer indulges herself in food and no longer has any desire to, she is not able to escape from the problems that haunt her. Throughout her whole experiences in three different mental institutions, food is only mentioned once or twice, and it is not in very appealing contexts. During the chaotic dinner scene in one of the institutions, Esther notes “Now I knew perfectly well you didn’t serve two kinds of beans together at a meal. Beans and carrots, or beans and peas, maybe, but never beans and beans. The Negro was just trying to see how much we would take” (181). Her mental note of this shows the reader that she still has some respect for food and knows the proper taboos that surround them. Food has not completely left her consciousness. However, Esther is being exposed to food that she describes as “stiff, green straws [green beans]” (181) or “stone cold and stuck together in a gluey paste [macaroni]” (181) which is not the creamy avocados she is used to. The low quality food served at the institutions offers her no escape and does not present any desirable options for her.One of her first experiences out of the institutions is her date with Irwin where she drinks beer and devours escargot. “I picked up my empty snail shell and drank the herb-green juice. I had no idea if this was proper, but after months of wholesome, dull asylum diet, I was greedy for butter” (227). This dinner, combined with Esther’s newfound freedom and confidence in contraception, quickly leads to sex with Irwin. Although it is a much less exciting and far messier experience than Esther intended it to be, it shows that food not only gives Esther comfort, but also gives her poise and confidence. The revitalizing effects that food has on Esther are undeniable and are clearly seen throughout The Bell Jar. Not only does food offer Esther an escape to a different time or place, but it also gives her a variety of options to choose from and the best part is that she can choose more than just one. Food commonly brings up emotions for many people, not just Esther. Especially in American society, food is glorified and seen as a solution to many people’s everyday problems. Esther is not alone in seeking out food to resolve her daily issues and it is a much healthier outlet than alcohol or other substances. Food, however, does not prevent Esther’s depression from spiraling out of control – once it hits, her appetite is gone. It is only when the bell jar is suspended a few feet above her head (215) she is able to take pleasure in the comforts that food offers her. It is impossible to know whether food will be able to sustain her mind if the bell jar descends once more and she is forced to actually face the decisions she has been avoiding in her life.

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The Color of Abnormality

August 2, 2019 by Essay Writer

Throughout Sylvia Plath’s depiction of depression in her novel The Bell Jar, even the minutest detail plays a significant role in the development of the main character Esther’s mental breakdown. The most obvious manifestation of Esther’s detachment from reality is her progressive inability to fully grasp what society defines as acceptable social behavior. As a result of this difficulty with accepting the true reality of her surroundings, the main character derives her own version of truth from her interpretations of social interaction as well as descriptions of her increasingly oppressive surroundings. Although Esther’s mental struggle with embodying societal norms can be more obviously glimpsed through her relationships with characters such as Joan and Buddy, the tensions between true reality and that which Esther creates are most effectively and indistinctly depicted through Plath’s use of color imagery. Within The Bell Jar, images of dull or even white color are employed to signify the psychological void or abnormality within a particular thought or interaction, while brightly colored images serve both to contrast with her former depression as well as to highlight the main character’s possibly artificial progression toward what society deems to be the mental ideal. One of the first manifestations of this dichotomy of brightly colored and dull images occurs during Esther’s reading of the book sent by the staff of Ladies’ Day. Following a story about a fig tree and an interaction between a Jewish man and a Catholic kitchen maid, Esther asserts that she “…thought it was a lovely story, especially the part about the fig tree in the winter under the snow and then the fig tree in the spring with all the green fruit,” and that she “…wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl under a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig tree” (55). Despite the fact that one of the prime elements of this short story seems to be the social tension between the two characters of different belief systems, Esther is instead drawn to the images of either void or growth that are represented through the colors of white and green, respectively. The main character does not focus on the social elements of the story, but rather selects a certain image and extracts it to describe both her mental state as it is and also as how she wishes it to be. It seems that the snow covering the tree in winter in tandem with its bearing of fruit in spring could be connected to a transition between a dormant, seemingly useless state of being to one of productivity. In Esther’s taking care to clearly demonstrate the difference between the two states in terms of color, the reader is able to gain insight into the main character’s increasing mental oppression. Her desire to “crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl under a fence” seems to suggest her desire to escape from emotional emptiness, represented both by the oppressive black lines of print and the void between them, into a more fruitful environment in which she is better able to connect with normality. As the novel continues to develop, additional color imagery is employed as Esther attempts to venture into what she deems to be a customary progression toward young adulthood through a series of sexual experiences. The first of these purely negative encounters is her interaction with Marco. Upon meeting him, Esther takes note of his “dazzling white suit,” which, in this employment of white imagery of a void, seems to foreshadow the abnormality of the following interaction (107). Despite the fact that Esther realizes that Marco is a misogynist and is aware of his domineering nature, she contemplates losing her virginity to him in an effort to reverse her depression, stating that “It’s happening…It’s happening. If I just lie here and do nothing it will happen” (109). At this point in the interaction, it is crucial to state that, in an effort to obtain normality, Esther is left rather void of emotion and ultimately reacts in the manner which is expected of her solely for the reason that she believes this reaction is normal. Despite the fact that the above quotation displays a passive attitude toward the attempted rape, Esther rather suddenly reacts as she details that “…[she] fisted her fingers together and smashed them at his nose,” and that, “Marco pulled out a white handkerchief and dabbed his nose. Blackness, like ink, spread over the pale cloth” (109). The color imagery of white and blackness is primarily employed in order to convey that, unlike the brightly colored image of the spring fig tree, Esther’s thought of losing her virginity to Marco is abnormal and unacceptable due to the way he has treated her. Upon her punching Marco in the nose, the color images are described as a dark, colorless stain spreading across a white cloth, representing a void being penetrated by negativity. Parallel to the image of the snow-covered fig tree, the use of color in this scene displays Esther’s mental decline as well as her inability to display the correct reaction to negative behavior for a reason other than a desire to follow what she considers to be the natural progression of adolescence. The tension between Esther’s personal perspective upon her surroundings and how they truly exist is also represented through color imagery during her suicide attempt. Upon her rescue, Esther states that “[She] felt the darkness, but nothing else, and [her] head rose, feeling it, like the head of a worm…The silence surged back, smoothing itself as black water smoothes to its old surface calm over a dropped stone” (170). During this incidence of the most desperate manifestation of Esther’s depression, the image of impenetrable blackness suggests that, despite her half-hearted attempts to adhere to the expectations of young adulthood, she has become hopeless and has fully entered an ideal world of her own, one that is free of consciousness. In the following pages, however, the promise of normality soon attempts to penetrate Esther’s mentally suspended existence as she expresses that “A chisel cracked down on my eye, and a slit of light opened, like a mouth or a wound, till the darkness clamped shut on it again.” A few moments after this first appearance of light, another beam “…leapt into [her] head, and through the thick, warm, furry dark, a voice cried” (170). Through these quotations, it is evident that the main character feels comfortable in this new world that she has created for herself, but reality still is able to spontaneously infiltrate her damaged mental state. The dichotomy of color in this case, simply expressed as darkness and light, suggests the possibility of her emerging from her depression and ultimately being able to connect with reality through the normalcy of social experiences. Ultimately, however, additional color imagery paralleling her sexual encounter with Marco suggests the difficulty of this transition. Further employing this negotiation between true and perceived reality through images of darkness sporadically penetrated by light, Esther has a similar experience to her attempted suicide during electro shock therapy. Despite the fact that the treatment occurs after her suicide, Esther also begins the scene in silence and darkness that is interrupted by color flashes meant to represent an attempt to fully connect to normal society. As Esther receives the treatment, she shuts her eyes and there is “…a brief silence like indrawn breath.” She then describes that the machine “…shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed [her] till [she] thought [her] bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant” (143). Much like the light that penetrates the darkness of Esther’s attempted suicide, flashes of colored light enter the darkness during electroshock therapy, though this time a color is specified. The colored light penetrating darkness seems to represent the difficulty and discomfort associated with combining these two psychological states as well as the required intensity to successfully negotiate between Esther’s consciousness and that which others are attempting to instill in her. Due to the fact that, in both the treatment and the suicide attempt, the color imagery is not consistent, the transition to normality manifests itself in different, ineffective ways and Esther’s depression is still able to dominate her impression of her surroundings. Following these instances of interaction between normalcy and abnormality through color imagery, Esther again describes of her exploration of personal sexuality and social normality in these same terms. In her losing her virginity to an academic named Irwin, Esther expresses her newly acquired feelings of belonging. …the stories of blood-stained bridal sheets and capsules of red ink bestowed on already deflowered brides floated back to me…it occurred to me that the blood was my answer. I couldn’t possibly be a virgin anymore. I smiled into the dark. I felt part of a great tradition. (229) In addition to the main character’s clear acknowledgment of the fact that she is now part of a sort of sisterhood which includes all normal women, this assertion is also emphasized through her mention of the vibrant color of red ink. Following this passage, it seems that, unlike the blood expelled during Esther’s encounter with Marco, the blood involved here will be brightly colored, signifying an entrance into the normal world. The converse image of her smiling into the dark, however, which is reminiscent of her suicide attempt, foreshadows the negative events that are to follow. When Esther looks at the blood and communicates that “when [she] held [her] hand up to the light streaming in from the bathroom, [her] fingertips looked black,” and later details her application of “…a fresh section of white towel” (229), the possibility of her normal entrance into her image of ideal femininity is immediately refuted. Much like the image of blood earlier described during her violent encounter with Marco, as well as the white color of his suit, the colors black and white play a significant role in relating the abnormality of the interaction. Despite the fact that Esther believes that all of her mental separation from normal society will be alleviated after losing her virginity, the color imagery used here seems to suggest a failure in this regard because of the towel as a representation of a void penetrated by seemingly black blood which seems to symbolize a colorless and empty interaction. Ultimately, though an opportunity for normalcy is presented through this encounter, the color imagery involved suggests that it is rather an unpleasant experience that negatively impacts her mental recovery. Despite the fact that Esther frequently struggles with negotiating between her desire for normalcy and the limitations of her depression, she seems to be able to overcome this difficulty, at least externally, prior to her interview with the doctors at Belsize. As she waits outside the boardroom door, she scrutinizes her clothing for any signs of mental weakness by stating that “[Her] stocking seams were straight, [her] black shoes cracked but polished, and [her] red wool suit flamboyant as [her] plans. Something old, something new…” (244). In contrast to the blood that should have appeared red during her attempts at sexual normality, the red wool suit depicted here represented a brightness that has never before been achieved during Esther’s mental struggle. In this case, the bright color of the suit symbolizes her ability to mentally adapt to what society will expect of her upon her entering it, as well as her ability to acquire “something new” in her personality that allows for social success. Another aspect of this quotation, however, seems to negate this possibility for triumph over her former depression, namely her cracked but polished black shoes. In other passages including black color imagery, Esther is faced with a potentially destructive social challenge that forces her to struggle with different interpretations of her surrounding. The presence of these cracked but shined shoes, especially taking into account their color, seems to suggest that, despite the fact that Esther adopts a colorful exterior, there are still aspects that have yet to recover and may return to their former, unpolished state at the slightest provocation. The portion of the quotation that states “something old, something new,” then, seems to present a final critique upon the negotiation between the mental and actual worlds in that, no matter the brightness of possibility, the potential for regression constantly threatens under a polished veneer. Despite the fact that Esther explicitly expresses this fear of a future struggle with abnormality, the color imagery in this scene, when considered with its interaction with its past manifestations, makes this argument all the more clear. Although there are different levels of both color and darkness included in each of the scenes mentioned above, the dominance of either one or the other seems to directly correspond to Esther’s progress in approaching mental normality. In subtly using this imagery throughout several pivotal scenes in the novel, Plath is able to depict the true nature of mental illness more effectively. Despite the fact that the reader can most easily perceive the main character’s level of depression from the major events and relationships in the novel, a less obvious, private aspect of Esther’s depression is displayed through contrasting dark and light color imagery. This tactic seems to suggest that, in addition to the tangible aspects of depression, there are also less apparent, but equally relevant emotions that can be glimpsed only with more careful scrutiny. The nature of mental illness, then, is less defined by large, obvious indicators of depression and more so by the intricacies that often escape human attention.

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The Bell Jar and the Sexual Politics in the American 1950s

June 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar (1963), is conspicuously autobiographical. The story follows the fictional character, Esther Greenwood, during her summer spent in New York City working for a prestigious fashion magazine and back in Massachusetts struggling with her severe depression at home, and the months spent in a mental institution. It is obvious that the materials of the book are derived from the life of young Plath herself. Upon return from a strenuous stay in New York City where she had been a guest editor at the Mademoiselle Magazine, Plath almost succeeded in killing herself with sleeping pills, which led her to a difficult period of recovery involving electroconvulsive shock treatment and psychotherapy. However, apart from being a record of the writer’s traumatic experiences in her own life, the book also gives a vivid account of the heroine’s dilemma as woman living in the American 1950s, when heterosexuality was highly predominant as the social norm. In other words, Plath’s novel is not only a female writer’s autobiography but also a text which offers one part of the American sexual politics’ genealogy. My aim in what follows, then, is to read The Bell Jar in its social-historical context. Before examining the novel, a few general remarks about female life in the American 1950s seem appropriate. During the World War II, when munitions industries were suffering from the shortage of hands, a great deal of American women were urged to help their country with its military jobs. But no sooner had men come back from the front than they drove away women from the labor market. Accordingly, women had to submit to becoming housewives. The result was that “the average marriage age of women in America dropped to 20 . . .” by the end of the decade after the war and “girls went to college to get a husband” (Friedan 16). Of course, there existed women who were discontented with such status as housewives. Yet the political repression of the McCarthy era did not allow them to hanker for individual rights nor to organize an independent network which would secure woman’s work place in the civil society. In the name of protecting the nation from communist infiltration, the federal government manipulated their people to embrace social conformity, and so far as women were concerned, they went back home so as to retain their family members’ happiness. Turning now to The Bell Jar, we can easily perceive that the author, Sylvia Plath, too, was one of those American women whose mentality was nurtured in the 1950s. Her alter ego, Esther Greenwood, feels in New York City that she is in danger of being seduced by nonheterosexual relationships which are apparently a taboo for a woman who is waiting for the right person as her life’s partner. To give an example, Esther is dissatisfied with the Amazon Hotel where she shared her New York adventures with other eleven student editors. She regards a proper hotel as a place “where there are both men and women mixed about here and there on the same floor”; that only the twelve girls are put into “the same wing on the same floor in single rooms” (4) means to Esther that they are cut off from the heterosexual world. Also, Doreen from “a society girls’ college down South,” Esther confesses, becomes “one of [her] troubles” (4) since Doreen has a great charm for both man and woman. That the Southern girl has “an amused and mysterious sneer, as if all the people around her were pretty silly” (5) denotes the fact that she embodies the legend of the Southern belle. In order to sustain the once-flourished agricultural Southern society founded on the basis of noblesse oblige, the women living in the male-dominated traditional community are required to be cultivated and attractive in appearance but to be obedient and chaste enough at the same time. To sum up, Doreen’s odd “sneer” symbolizes the double standard forced on the Southern belle who sacrifices herself to gratify the Southern ideal of perfect womanhood. Because she is in company with Doreen “wearing a strapless white lace dress zipped up over a snug corset affair that curved her in at the middle and bulged her out again spectacularly above and below” (8), Esther can have a drink with such a well-known disc jockey as Lenny Shepherd; besides, Esther herself is attracted to the female friend “like a magnet” owing to “a whole life of marvellous, elaborate decadence” (5) Doreen displays. The double standard existing within Doreen makes it possible to captivate both Lenny and Esther; the latter, needless to say, is allured by the refined part lurking in the bottom of the Southern belle’s heart. Hence to defend herself from the “trouble,” namely, not to be involved with the Southern belle too much, Esther defiantly rejects helping Doreen who groans in her drunkenness:
I felt if I carried Doreen across the threshold into my room and helped her on to my bed I would never get rid of her again. . . . I decided the only thing to do was to dump her on the carpet and shut and lock my door and go back to bed. (23)Here, Esther, who is too conscious of her heterosexual habitude, tries not to ruin herself by a close relationship to a female friend, that is, by nonheterosexuality. The attitude towards the Amazon Hotel and Doreen which Esther projects in this manner is the author’s, too. Plath felt uneasy about being unmarried: to remain single meant a nonheterosexual tendency in the American 1950s common sense. Both her journals and letters in her single days disclose her tremendous concern about dating, boyfriends, and future marriage. And one scene from The Bell Jar serves as an evidence of this obsession with becoming a desirable woman. Plath’s alter ego mentions the impact a Yale student’s invitation letter to a Prom gives upon her and the other female students around her:
After Buddy had gone I opened the letter. It was a letter inviting me to the Yale Junior Prom. . . . I found myself hugging the senior on watch.When she heard I was going to the Yale Junior Prom she treated me with amazement and respect. . . . The seniors on my floor started speaking to me. . . . (62-3)In the heterosexual world which moves around men like Buddy Willard, female students’ status in dormitories is eventually dependent on whether they are going out with some nice guy. Their own academic or personal abilities are never valued after all. To be paired mattered a great deal to young women.In actuality, when she married a toward-be-ideal-partner, Ted Hughes, Plath triumphantly began having a sharp tongue. One of her poems written in the year of her marriage describes a single woman:
. . . . Turned bitterAnd sallow as any lemon,The other [i.e. a single woman], wry virgin to the last, Goes graveward with flesh laid waste,Worm-husbanded, yet no woman. (“Two Sisters of Persephone”)From a heterosexual viewpoint which occupied Plath’s mind, to get married‹and in consequence, to bear a child‹was the ultimate purpose of being female; an unmarried woman was no more than the scum of society. Yet what is to the point is that young Plath, who was extraordinarily talented in writing and therefore ambitious of fame, was also doubtful of the norm prevalent in her age. To put it another way, she was torn between her desires of becoming an ordinary housewife and winning fame as a writer. The way she represents the execution of the Rosenbergs in the opening section of The Bell Jar is helpful to understand this point:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. . . . The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers‹goggled-eyed headlines staring up at me on every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves. (1)Esther knows very well that there is no relation between her and the couple executed for espionage in Sing Sing prison’s electric chair. Just the same, Esther is obsessed by the news about the RosenbergsÅCwherein we find the author’s tremendous interest in the Rosenbergs’ death. Also in the only journal written down during her stay in New York City, the news of the young married couple’s execution calls Plath’s attention. It is important to investigate the reason why Plath was so intrigued by the news.The key to examine the question lies behind the procedure of the Rosenbergs Trail, especially, the one of Ethel Rosenberg. Ethel, unlike her husband, Julius, was executed not only for espionage but for her inadequacy as mother. The minor details about the trial itself is unnecessary in this study, but explicitly, the U. S. government sentenced her death because she failed in achieving the female role as a mother.Ethel Rosenberg was originally arrested as a means to make her husband, Julius, open his mouth on his connection to the espionage work for the Soviet Union of which the U. S. government was convinced. The then head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, “urged his Bureau employees to aggressively attempt to build a triable case against Ethel,” going on to say “if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities, it would be possible to proceed against other individuals . . . proceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in this matter” (Radosh and Milton 99). However, in the case of Julius with an unyielding will, his wife’s threatened prosecution unexpectedly strengthened his determination not to cooperate with the FBI: the “lever” did not work. As a result, the authorities were obliged to commit themselves to prosecute Ethel as an accomplice in the espionage conspiracy, and to dodge public reproach against such an inhuman conclusion prepared for a young mother, they had to frame up a story that Ethel was a bad mother. In the 1950s, as mentioned earlier, the pressure on women to marry and raise children was paramount: many young women abandoned their careers or studies one after another to perform their stereotyped sex-role. Ethel Rosenberg, who got married when she was twenty-four, was a proper woman from the 1950s point of view. Still, the problem was that she was greatly active in political causes and thereby she was regarded negligent in raising children. After finishing school, she worked at a shipping company for four years until she quit the job to become an organizer of a strike of women workers; she joined the Young Communist League; and she eventually became a member of the American Communist Party. Though she gave up participating political activities after her marriage owing to her physical weakness, her activism during her single life constructed her image as a deviant woman. One of the juries who insisted her guiltiness condemned Ethel from the 1950s ideology concerning sexual politics: “I had two daughters at the time, and it bothered me how they would subject their children to such a thing. I just couldn’t understand it” (qtd. in Brennan 59). S/he completely believed the accused, Ethel, to be a bad mother, controlled by the demagogic image the authorities made up. And of the final judgement by Judge Irving Kaufman, the same may be said. He proclaimed at the court: “Love for their [Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s] cause dominated their lives‹it was even greater than their love for their children” (Nizer 367). Ethel was electrocuted as she failed in furnishing her children with a good home. Evidently, the image of Ethel as a bad mother did work “as a lever” to persuade the public to believe that she deserved death. Now it is evident that Plath found her double in Ethel Rosenberg, because of which she was glued to the news to such an extent that “she [was] sick at the stomach” (Journals 82). Being single at that time, Plath had been quite anxious if she would be able to find a befitting mate to marry and to have a child. Though a widow, her mother, whom Plath followed as a reasonable female role model, had successfully married her professor and had two excellent children. And Plath’s hometown seemed to have a woman who became the model for Mrs Willard (the mother of Esther’s boyfriend) in the novel, and she had also married her professor, raised superior children, and even owned her own sexual policy: “What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from” (74). Surrounded by these older women, who were typically successful women from the viewpoint of the sexual politics in the American 1950s, Plath must have been upset, or felt herself deficient as a woman.Under such conditions, a woman, who had already been married but was presumed to have failed in caring for her children, was killed. It is plausible that Plath’s apprehensions for future as woman increased suddenly. Furthermore, despite the differences in their background, both Ethel Rosenberg and Sylvia Plath were similar to each other on the point that they were being true to their respective goal in their life: the former committed herself to political causes, and the latter, to the writing. Having sacrificed her family life for her own interest, according to the authorities, Ethel Rosenberg was to be electrocuted. The likeness between the two readily frightened young Plath. If she had chosen marriage, she would not be able to live a family life which would satisfy the norm the American society expected of her; if she had chosen to become a writer or to become both a writer and a mother, the choices signified extinction, namely, death, in the 1950s American ideology as the Rosenberg case had shown. Accordingly, Plath was farther perplexed if she should choose to marry or to become a writer, and inevitably began to feel there was no way out. And various ambitions young Plath had imagined rapidly tumbled down in New York City once she witnessed through mass media a capital punishment passed on to Ethel Rosenberg, a bad mother.Plath’s double in the novel, Esther, delineates the sign of emotional changes in her by using the metaphor of figs:
From the top of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet . . . and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. (80)”A central image of the book, the fig tree bearing ripe figs,” to quote Wagner-Martin, “depicts the female dilemma of the 1950s” (185). It may well be that “the dilemma” which has been enclosed within Esther/Plath is revealed by the death of Ethel Rosenberg.Needless to say, not every woman felt in a similar way as Esther/Plath did. There was a young woman like Hilda, who is one of the twelve guest editors in The Bell Jar. Esther and Hilda exchanges words on the Rosenbergs’ death which end in a cross-purposed misunderstanding:
. . . I said, ‘Isn’t it awful about the Rosenbergs?’The Rosenbergs were to be electrocuted late that night. ‘Yes!’ Hilda said, and at last I felt I had touched a human string in the cat’s cradle of her heart. It was only as the two of us waited for the others in the tomb-like morning gloom of the conference room that Hilda amplified that Yes of hers.’It’s awful such people should be alive.’ (105)To apprehend Hilda’s statement as a mere political declaration would be quite superficial. For the issue brought up in this passage includes more than a simply political one. As her way of moving “like a mannequin” (104) implies, Hilda is totally passive in doing anything. It is inconceivable for her to doubt the ideas flooding around her. The government says the Rosenbergs are spies who tried to put the U. S. trouble; so Hilda is “so glad they’re going to die” (104). The episode of Ethel Rosenberg’s failure in raising her children also has the backing of the American public; so Hilda also adapts herself to the major way of thinking. Unlike Esther/Plath, Hilda never troubles herself by associating herself with a strange condemned criminal. While Hilda, who seems to be too simpleminded, successfully adjust herself to the 1950s American code with regard to the sexual politics, an educated woman like Esther/Plath is doomed to self-destruction. Thus, in the American society in the 1950s which regarded heterosexuality as natural, Esther/Plath gradually lost herself. One of the letters to Plath’s mother from New York City suggests her affliction: “. . . Life happens so hard and fast I sometimes wonder who is me . . .” (Letters Home 116). Wavering between heterosexuality and nonheterosexuality, Esther/Plath was deeply distressed when arriving home in Massachusetts; the agony of choices between heterosexuality and nonheterosexuality continues after the summer, too. Failing in killing herself at home, the author’s alter ego, Esther, is first sent to a local hospital and next to a private one. It is in that private hospital that she happens to encounter her old rival in love, who is named Joan. Joan Gilling, from the same town with Esther, “was a big wheel‹president of her class and physics major and the college hockey champion” (61), and more than that, one of Buddy Willard’s closest friends. In that respect, Joan is a nuisance for Ethel who is trying to win Buddy as her husband. Either Joan or Ethel is supposed to get married to the Yale student. But now, the old rival in love is offensive to Esther’s eyes in a different meaning: Joan is nonheterosexual and seduces Esther to a nonheterosexual circle. In the conversation with Esther, Joan frankly reveals that she did not like Buddy but his family‹especially, Mrs Willard. And to Esther’s surprise, Joan has an affair in the ward with another patient called DeeDee, and finally announces that she likes Esther better than Buddy, against which Esther coldly resists:
‘I like you.”That’s tough, Joan,’ I said, picking up my book. ‘Because I don’t like you. You make me puke, if you want to know.’And I walked out of the room, leaving Joan lying, lumpy as an old horse, across my bed. (232-3)For Esther, who makes an effort to adjust herself to the ideology of the American 1950s, a woman like Joan is nothing but a dangerous character: she lures Esther into the nonheterosexual tendency. Ironically, however, it is the nonheterosexual world that extends to Esther a helping hand after her suicidal attempt. Indeed, her mother, who lives on a small salary, is financially helpless; what she can afford might be to throw her daughter into a “big state hospital in the country” (196) that would hardly offer careful nursing. But in place of her mother, Esther’s benefactor, Philomena Guinea, whose “books [earn] . . . millions and millions of dollars” (42), rescues her and takes her to an excellent private hospital. Although it is unclear whether the female benefactor is nonheterosexual, what her support shows is her tenderness toward a sick college girl. “Is there a boy in the case ?” (196): Mrs Guinea asks Esther’s mother when reading about Esther’s suicide attempt in a Boston paper. As Esther herself acknowledges, “if there was a boy in the case, Mrs Guinea couldn’t, of course, have anything to do with it” (196). Then, it is no exaggeration to say that Philomena Guinea is firmly determined to aiding woman in finding a way out of trouble. The rich benefactor lays stress upon bonds between females, namely, nonheterosexual ties.The chief doctor Esther meets after a male one, Dr. Gordon, who has given her an awful electroconvulsive shock treatment, is Dr. Nolan, and the relationship between the patient and the doctor should not be overlooked, either. In the first place, Esther cannot help but hide her surprise when she is told that her doctor is a female:
When I enrolled in the main building of the hospital, a slim young woman had come up and introduced herself. ÅeMy name is Doctor Nolan. I am to be Esther’s doctor.’I was surprised to have a woman. I didn’t think they had woman psychiatrists. . . . She wore a white blouse and a full skirt gathered at the waist by a wide leather belt, and stylish, crescent-shaped spectacles. (197)In the American 1950s, the number of female doctors must have been very small. Despite the fact, the private hospital has some female doctors. Esther confronts here a new community freed from the heterosexual norm which controls the American society. And she becomes a patient of Doctor Nolan, who looks like an ordinary woman‹not a prim woman with professionalism‹unlike another female psychiatrist, Doctor Quinn, with “an abstract quality that . . . [gives her] the polar chills” (236). Because of the comfortable nonheterosexual bonds she finds to Doctor Nolan, Esther can leave the hospital earlier than expected. Not to speak of her way of curing, Doctor Nolan’s way of exiting itself cured Ethel’s depression beyond the heterosexual limitations. Lastly but most importantly, the observation of the influence of Joan’s suicide upon Esther should not be omitted. The book does not make it explicit why Joan commits suicide, but such a reason is insignificant here. More noteworthy is the fact that Esther recovers from her depression, stimulated by the tragic death of her friend, Joan. On the day of Joan’s funeral, Esther does not hesitate to attend the ceremony nor mourn her friend’s death. On the contrary, she gets back her lost self during the ceremony: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am” (256). Joan’s death, though the suicide itself is no solution at all, throws a light on at least Esther’s wavering mind. For Joan is nonheterosexual. Esther is convinced that nonheterosexuality brings death to woman: so far as she lives in the heterosexual world, her life is saved. Hence the protagonist’s sexual anguish comes to end. She decides to go back to the world regulated by the heterosexual disciplines. The events in the private hospital, as well as other incidents depicted in The Bell Jar, are thoroughly based on Plath’s own experiences. At McLean Hospital in Belmont where a famous novelist, Olive Higgins Prouty, recommended, she met Dr. Beuscher, and a nonheterosexual relationship between the two women smoothly remedied her depression. As Esther does in the book, Plath received electroconvulsive shock treatments several times with her own consent, which accelerated her recovery. As for a friend like Joan in the novel, there seems to be no record.2 It is plausible that Plath made up a Joan-figure from scattered events she heard, saw, or experienced herself. But reading the story about Joan in view of the construction of the novel, her suicide is emblematic enough to let Esther recover from her disease. Esther/Plath, whose depression was caused by her sexual confusion, rediscovers herself in the nonheterosexual circle–by giving up a nonheterosexual inclination. Now one final point should be made about “the bell jar.” Esther/Plath talks to herself: “. . . I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. How did I know that someday‹at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere‹the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (254) Before leaving the hospital, she certainly gets herself back. Why does she have to be scared of “the bell jar” which seems to suffocate her? A key to answer this question resides in the electrocution of Ethel Rosenberg again. Even after having revived in the nonheterosexual safety and decided to go back to the heterosexual circle, Esther/Plath is still worried if she should be incidentally allured by the nonheterosexual circle and in danger of being annihilated‹like Ethel Rosenberg. She is after all a woman living in the American society of the 1950s, who is threatened by the norm of the sexual politics of her days, that is, “the bell jar.”Reportedly, Ethel Rosenberg died twice: while her husband, Julius, died immediately at the first volts of electricity, she needed more jolts after the first one. This information is quite symbolic, because Esther/Plath also goes through a similar experience. Unable to adjust herself completely to the sexual politics of the 1950s, she is electroshocked. But the first therapy failed, and she needs more shocks to recover from depression‹depression caused by her torment concerning the choice between heterosexuality and nonheterosexuality. And unlike the nonheterosexual Joan, who is destined to be extinguished, Esther/Plath can fortunately be freed from death and the mental institution this time. But “the bell jar” incessantly tries to cover and suffocate the women who are likely to be close to nonheterosexuality; among those is Esther/Plath herself. It is necessary for her, then, to take great care not to be assaulted by “the bell jar” again. The story of The Bell Jar, in short, ends without a guarantee that the sexual politics will never afflict another Esther/Plath. The problem brought by the sexual politics in the American 1950s remains unsolved within the protagonist and the author.In this way, Plath reveals in the novel The Bell Jar her own difficulty in living in the American 1950s, when heterosexuality was considered to be normal. She was not a lesbian; but at the same time, she was not thoroughly against building up relationships among the females. Such an obscure attitude towards the sexual politics, however, was inexcusable in the conservative society that demanded heterosexuality of people. It can be concluded, in that sense, that Plath’s alter ego, Esther, is one example of the 1950’s American women who endeavored to prove their own heterosexual tendencies. Using her own tragic experience, Plath translated in The Bell Jar one of the female problems begotten by the sexual politics that thrived in the American 1950s. Notes:1 Adrienne Rich contends in her “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” that “the failure to examine heterosexuality as an institution is like failing to admit that the economic system called capitalism or the caste system of racism is maintained by a variety forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness” (216), and discusses that heterosexuality is problematic. What is meant by heterosexuality, according to this radical feminist, is not only a physical impulse but a social institution which tries to suppress woman. I hardly share this opinion. For Rich’s view of “compulsive heterosexuality” indicates that private heterosexual relationships should be totally denied and that the relationships are to be replaced by homosexuality. It is too far-fetched to demand all women that they become lesbians. Therefore, to evade misunderstanding, I use the term “nonheterosexual(ity),” instead of “homosexual(ity),” when implying the relationships characterized by a tendency to direct either emotional or physical desire toward the same sex. It has to be noted “nonheterosexuality” does not necessarily imply “homosexuality,” an exclusive activity with another of the same sex. The term “nonheterosexuality” in this study signifies solid relationships among the same sex (between females, in particular).2 Neither of the fairly recent autobiographies by Linda Wagner-Martin and Anne Stevenson refers to this point. Works CitedBrennan, Sheila M. “Popular Images of American Women in the 1950s and Their Impact on Ethel Rosenberg’s Trial and Conviction.” Women’s Rights Law Reporter 14 (1992): 41-67.Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. Twentieth Anniversary Edition. 1963. New York: Norton, 1983.Nizer, Louis. The Implosion Conspiracy. New York: Doubelday, 1973.Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. 1963. London: Faber, 1966.—. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough. 1982. London: Anchor-Doubleday, 1998.—. Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963. Ed. Aurelia Schober Plath. 1975. London: Faber, 1999.—. “Two Sisters of Persephone.” Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. 1981. London: Faber, 1989. 31-2.Radosh, Ronald, and Joyce Milton, eds. The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth. 1983. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997.Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5 (1980): 631-60. Rep. In Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi. New York: Norton, 1993. 203-24.Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: Simon, 1987.Works ConsultedAxelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.Bronfen, Elizabeth. Sylvia Plath. Writers and Their Work. Plymouth, UK: Northcote, 1998.Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: Free-Simon, 1989.Garber, Marjorie, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds. Secret Agents: The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism, and Fifties America. New York: Routledge, 1995.Schrecker, Ellen. “The Impact of McCarthyism.” 1995. Black Listed: An Audio Drama about the Hollywood Blacklist. Online. Spencer W. Wisbroth Esq. 5 June, 1999.Steiner, Nancy Hunter. A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber, 1974.Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. London: Viking-Penguin, 1989.Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties. Twayne’s Masterworks Studies 98. New York: Twayne, 1992.

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Doreen’s Rebellion Against Social Norms in The Bell Jar By Sylvia Plath

April 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

In The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, gets accepted to a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City. There, she meets Doreen, her co-worker. Esther is different from her. Doreen goes against the boundaries that society pushes Esther and the other girls to follow. She is scandalous and adventurous in her sexual behaviour, she does not listen to or follow authority, and she is the total opposite of Betsy, Esther’s co-worker. Esther admires her but is too afraid to fully embrace her and be like her since Esther is scared of the consequences she might face. In the story of The Bell Jar, Doreen represents the possibility of rebellion against social norms in 1950s America without facing the consequences that Esther fears, this may influence Esther to rebel against the society too.

Doreen ignores the society’s rule for women regarding sexual purity. Due to Doreen’s promiscuous behavior, Esther is attracted to her. When Esther is a good girl, she feels miserable and bored of her life. Therefore, when she sees Doreen behave this way, Esther is envious. Esther wants to feel free as Doreen. Because of this Esther follows Doreen and go to a strange man’s apartment. This would be considered quite risqué at the time. Esther also rejects Betsy’s offer to share a cab in order to go with Doreen. On their way to a party, both of the girls meet Lenny who convinces the girls to abandon the cab and join him and his friends in a bar. In the bar, Lenny and Doreen openly flirt with each other. The journey of flirtation continuous at Lenny’s apartment This happens in the story when Esther states:

I noted, in the routine way you notice the color of somebody’s eyes, that Doreen’s breasts had popped out of her dress and were swinging out slightly like full brown melons as she circled belly-down on Lenny’s shoulder, thrashing her legs in the air and screeching, and then they both started to laugh and slow up, and Lenny was trying to bite Doreen’s hip through her skirt when I let myself out the door before anything more could happen and managed to get downstairs by leaning with both hands on the banister and half sliding the whole way (Plath 16).

Doreen does not care how Esther or other people view her. Doreen knows the problem of their society and is able to acknowledge it and go against it and this attracts Esther. Later, Esther left Doreen and Lenny feeling she is separated from rest of the world. She feels numb as if the city is not there. She may have been feeling overwhelmed by seeing their interactions since she believes in sex after marriage. She tries to fix this feeling by taking a hot bath and purifying herself. Doreen has no problem having sex with Lenny before marriage, illustrating the level of Doreen’s rebellion.

Even though Doreen also gets accepted to a summer internship, she ignores authority and decides to have fun for herself. From the beginning, Doreen tries to talk Esther out of doing her work for Jay Cee. Doreen does not take the magazine work seriously. Esther states, “Doreen lounged on my bed in a peach silk dressing gown, filing her long, nicotine-yellow nails with an emery board, while I type up the draft of an interview with a best-selling novelist” (5). Doreen is more focused on taking care of her nails than her work. Therefore, Doreen can be lazy and have fun. She is not afraid of authority. She does not think of the consequences that may happen if she does not follow their instructions. There is another time where the magazine is holding a luncheon at Ladies’ Day. Everyone attends except for Doreen. She spends the day with Lenny Shepherd. She spends most of her free time with him. She is a rebel and a risk-taker. She does not believe good girls will attract respectable men to marry and rewarded with happiness. It just depends on their luck. However, Doreen gets rewarded even though she defies the authorities and has fun instead.

In the story, Betsy and Doreen act as a foil to each another. Betsy is naive, virgin and sweet. She is someone who will work hard enough to succeed and get what she wants. She represents innocence and obedience within the society. However, Betsy does not know how dangerous the world can be. She does not see the reality like Esther and Doreen. She also shows little curiosity about the world but her cultural background may prevent or shelter her from seeing the world for what they are like Esther. Unlike Betsy, Doreen is able to see through the hypocrisies of their society. Esther states, “Doreen had intuition. Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones” (7). Doreen is able to understand what Esther is going through. Doreen is not like Buddy where he does on consider Esther’s feeling. Doreen also smokes and drinks and not get pressured by the society and is able to go against it. In their idyllic world, they were taught good girls are rewarded with happiness where bad girls end up miserable. However, in the story, there is an example where even good girls were not rewarded for their hard work. Doreen is the only person who did not go to the party. She does not get food poisoning whereas all the girls who go to party like they supposed to, are poisoned. Even though Doreen is not innocent like Betsy, this example shows following the rules does not guarantee a reward.

In The Bell Jar, Doreen does not follow the societal conventions, causing her to represent the rebellion against social norms. Doreen does not care if she is a virgin or not because she is able to recognize the problem in the society. Doreen also is not scared of the authority figures. She is never serious when it comes to work; she would rather have fun. Also, Betsy and Doreen represent a different view of the society. Doreen having sex with Lenny before getting married, defying the higher ups and having different behaviors from Betsy, shows that Doreen represents is the rebellion against societal norms.

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From Syntax to Sarcasm: On Sylvia Plath’s Writing Style in The Bell Jar

April 2, 2019 by Essay Writer

Every true artist develops a style, with the greatest managing to produce styles different than their contemporaries. Different styles set artists apart so that people they have not met nor ever will can observe the person’s art and recognize the artist in his or her piece. This recognition of style is found in music — as a person wanders through a shopping mall, catches a snippet of piano music, and connects it to Beethoven — in art — as a person wanders through a museum and sees the tell-tale hues of blue in a painting and connects it to Picasso — and in literature — as a person wanders through the shelves in a library, and upon choosing a book and flipping it open, recognizes the distinct voice as Sylvia Plath’s. This book is The Bell Jar, the semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman Esther Greenwood’s experience with and descent into madness. In the novel, Plath explores the themes of mental illness, death, and individualism with precise but informal diction, revealing the themes to the reader with negative imagery and drawing him or her in with the liberal usage of descriptive language. Between the descriptions, anecdotes, and testimonies, Plath varies her syntax with devices such as polysyndeton and asyndeton. All of these techniques and features contribute to Plath’s overall tone of dark and sardonic honesty, and further Plath’s purpose.

Plath’s purpose in the novel is to expose the reader to the dark, sometimes harrowing, sometimes boring, world of mental illness through the view of an American woman she herself experienced. Although she is educated, Esther Greenwood is young, so her diction is clear and concise but not to the point of academia or pretension. Greenwood is young and depressed, and the latter characteristic contributes to her suicide attempts. Her depression is seen in the negative connotations many of her words and descriptions have. She describes mundane objects such as Doreen’s “nicotine-yellow nails” (Plath 5) and the “color scheme” of a building “based on liver” (Plath 89). This negative bent contributes to Greenwood’s depression; her mental state requires her diction to be concise, as conciseness can be interpreted as bareness to convey Greenwood’s lack of emotions. Of Buddy Willard, Greenwood states, “he wanted me to marry him and I hated his guts,” and whether in romance or everyday happenings, her bluntness is prevalent throughout the novel. Greenwood’s bluntness and experiences are told with a level of informality that straddles between formal and colloquial. In the formal sphere, Greenwood is a poet and educated young adult; in the colloquial sphere, Greenwood employs casual expressions such as “they seemed bored as hell” (Plath 4) and makes pop culture references such as “they both started to jitterbug” (Plath 16), creating a balance between a formal and colloquial voice that results in an overall informal voice.

Plath’s informal style is composed of a surplus of description; Greenwood describes feelings, surroundings, and appearances with colorful figurative language like similes and metaphors, so much so that she borders on the point of excess. Just on one page, Greenwood is in a situation where the world is “sparkling about [her] like…precious stones,” she dives “like a cork,” and the flowers “nodded like bright, knowledgeable children” (Plath 161). Comparisons like these bring Esther Greenwood’s world to life for the reader through the relation of common objects or concepts to objects or concepts in the narrator’s life. Greenwood’s manipulation of the connotation her comparisons have paints a specific image for the reader so he or she participates in a viscerally vicarious experience of mental illness; a simple rainy day is perceived as dreadful, such as when Greenwood describes the streets as “gray and fuming with rain” and the rain as “not the nice kind of rain that rinses you clean, but the sort of rain…they must have in Brazil” (Plath 41). Greenwood’s choice of language can be attributed to both her and Plath’s positions as poets, a profession that excels in producing numerous examples of descriptions that create concrete, specific images. Plath and Greenwood’s descriptions create the image of a world seen through the lens of a mentally disturbed person, explaining the negative lean of the majority of her descriptions throughout the novel.

Throughout the novel, Plath uses metaphorical images to convey messages and themes. One metaphor she uses is a fig tree, one that “from the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked,” and Greenwood explains her own uncertain future in relation to the many different branches on a fig tree; she claims, “I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death” (Plath 77). Plath’s metaphorical descriptions appeal to the readers’ physical senses (majorly visual). While she uses similes and metaphors, Plath also uses personification to render the world real to readers. Greenwood sees a fountain that “threw up its hands” (Plath 89) and hears “miserable noises that had been prowling around in [her]” (Plath 102). With personification Plath brings to life inanimate objects, and she also brings to life abstract concepts with her imagery; at one point, climbing into bed was to Greenwood as pleasant as “stuffing a dirty, scrawled-over letter into a fresh clean envelope,” relating her low self-worth with visuals and metaphors. She does not only use visual descriptions, employing other senses such as scent when Plath describes a chemical that “smelt of rotten eggs” (Plath 38), engaging a reader and making the reading material more real to the reader in different ways. Plath engages the reader’s sense of hearing when she employs onomatopoeia in describing Greenwood’s heartbeat that went “I am, I am, Iam” (Plath 243), describing the rhythmic beat of a heart with repetition but also conveying the deeper theme of Greenwood’s search of self and her desire for individualism with the words “I am.” Plath’s employment of all the reader’s senses engage the reader and convey the negative and vortex-like emotions of Greenwood.

Greenwood’s story is told through a variety of sentence structures. Plath’s short sentences are blunt and dry, contributing to the portrayal of Greenwood’s lack of emotion; Plath’s long sentences are often descriptive, and she employs run-on sentences to achieve a certain effect in the description of different situations. When describing the “long stream of visitors” (Plath 202) who come to visit her in the correctional institution, Plath uses a run-on sentence to convey Greenwood’s overwhelming irritation at the high number of visitors. While run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect, both Plath and Greenwood are educated so their usage of the unique sentence structure is deliberate. Another deliberate ordering of words Plath employs is repetition and parallelism; she uses these to draw the reader’s attention in and add variation to her sentences. In describing her acquaintance Joan’s abilities, Greenwood says “Joan had walk privileges, Joan had shopping privileges, Joan had town privileges” (Plath 205), and the repeating phrases create a monotonous list conveying Greenwood’s frustration in Joan’s excess amount of privileges. Along with parallelism, Plath employs polysyndeton and anaphora. Plath conveys the monotony and tediousness of the typical day of a typical housewife, which would involve “getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown,” (Plath 84) through polysyndeton. Through anaphora, Greenwood describes her ideas that would provide an excuse as “the glove, the handkerchief, the umbrella, the notebook [she] forgot” (Plath 98), allowing the reader to consider each object and excuse quickly but individually.

The content composing Plath’s structured sentences is often negative, whether it be in description or imagery, contributing to the overall negative tone of the novel. Plath’s tone is dark, honest, and sardonic. Her descriptions have negative connotations, as Greenwood’s emotions are dark and bleak due to her depression and her unstable condition; the novel deals with heavy, somber themes like death, self-loathing, and overwhelming uncertainty. These themes are revealed in a realistic and personal manner, in a tone appropriate for a young female college student who is intelligent but disturbed. The honesty of her tone contributes to Greenwood’s relatability — through her recollections and anecdotes, she paints a clear and scathing image, and while Greenwood is ultimately ill, readers can better relate to Greenwood through the tone’s honesty than if the novel was scientific or aloof. The aforementioned fig tree metaphor is one that all modern American readers can relate to in that there are various options for the future; people often want “each and every one” (Plath 77), and by choosing one they lose all others. While Plath’s tone of honesty and darkness is profound, deep, and exploratory, she also adopts at times a sardonic tone, a tone that conveys her wanton disregard for reality and her lack of emotion in her mental state. Greenwood describes herself as “wise and cynical as all hell,” (Plath 8) and this along with other surprising descriptions can draw a laugh from the reader, not despite the book’s actual dark content but because of it. The humor provides a welcome respite from the other dark aspects of the novel, but its nature also furthers Plath’s theme of mental instability.

Plath’s themes of mental instability, death, and the pursuit of self are explored in a tone composed of honest, dark, and sardonic elements. Excessive and dark details are found throughout the novel in the form of similes, metaphors, and personification. These details are written in varying sentences, long and short, with devices such as anaphora and polysyndeton creating a desired effect in the reader. The reader can relate to Greenwood; in her honest and informal voice, she brings the problems Plath and many others even today struggle with — the prospect of death, and the pursuit of self in an age of uncertainty.

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Male Stereotypes in The Bell Jar

March 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

Sylvia Plath, the author of The Bell Jar, once said, “Is there no way out of the mind?” (Sylvia). Like her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, Plath struggled with depression and mental illness. This aspect of her life became a very prominent theme in her novel, but it is far from the only one. As Esther deals with this mental instability, she also suffers greatly from the expectations society has for her as a woman. Esther’s frustration with all of the talk of children, marriage, and working under men is one of the main reasons why she becomes depressed. Society has several stereotypes for women. However, although the expectations of women play a more prominent role in the story, there are several male stereotypes that are reinforced and revealed as well. Through characters such as Buddy, Marco, and Doctor Gordon, a definite and often negative gender identity revolving around several stereotypes is developed for men. More specifically, in the novel The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, most of the male characters are portrayed as having stereotypical qualities such as selfishness, a condescending attitude, and the belief that women should comply with society’s expectations. This reveals that while society has many stereotypes for women, it also places several on men as well.

To begin, one male character who is portrayed as having stereotypically male characteristics is Buddy Willard, Esther’s former boyfriend. One of the stereotypical aspects that he possesses is the strong belief that men should be the head of the household and that women need to be married. When Esther rejects his marriage proposal and says that she never was to get married, he responds, “You’re crazy…You’ll change your mind” (Plath 89). Through his response, Buddy reveals that he expects women to get married, which reinforces the gender stereotype that men would believe this. At the same time, two other gender stereotypes that Buddy represents are selfishness and the belief that men are always in control. When he goes to visit Esther, it is not to support her, but to ease his guilt about the fact that he may have contributed to her condition. He asks her, “Do you think there’s something in me that drives women crazy?” (Plath 229). When Esther tells him that it was not his fault, he is very relieved, and does not seem to care at all about how Esther is doing. Through this, Buddy shows that not only does he just think of himself, he also believes that women do not even have the capacity to go out of their minds without the help of a man. This reveals two stereotypically male traits, selfishness and the belief that men have control over women, that are reinforced through Plath’s novel. In other words, by portraying Buddy as selfish and condescending, Plath reinforces two major stereotypes of men.

Furthermore, another character who reinforces several male stereotypes through The Bell Jar is Marco, a man Esther meets at a party Doreen takes her to. Although he is not a major character in the story, it is clear through his actions that he is both condescending and demanding. Also through his actions with Esther, one can conclude that he is powerful and enjoys having that power. All of these characteristics are traditional stereotypes for men. While Esther dances with Marco, she describes him as a “woman-hater,” and says such “woman-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power” (Plath 103). By portraying this character on a pedestal, Plath continues to reinforce these stereotypes. Through this scene it is implied that men hold the power in relationships, and that their role in society is to be on top. Additionally, Marco represents yet another male stereotype in that he only desires Esther for sex. After they dance, he leads Esther outside and “set[s] his teeth to the strap at [her] shoulder and [tears her] sheath to the waist” (Plath 104). When she tries to get away he holds her down and calls her a “slut” (Plath 105). Going so far as attempting to rape her, Marco clearly only wants Esther for sex. Also, during this scene Esther does not seem surprised about the situation, which contributes to the overall gender identity the novel has developed for men by implying that this is normal and even expected behavior. Overall, Marco is a character who represents and supports several male stereotypes in Plath’s novel.

In addition, Esther’s doctor, Doctor Gordon, is also portrayed as having several stereotypically male characteristics. First of all, before Esther meets Dr. Gordon, she is hoping that he will be able to help her become more like herself again. However, as soon as she sees the doctor she determines that he is “good-looking” and “conceited” (Plath 124). She then assumes that he will not be able to help her. Through Esther’s quick assumptions, it is revealed that she expects men, especially good-looking men, to be conceited. Coupled with the fact that Doctor Gordon is a Doctor, which is commonly thought of as a male profession, it is clear that several male stereotypes are reinforced through this character. Additionally, Doctor Gordon can be compared to the female Doctor Nolan, who Esther prefers. Esther makes it very clear that she dislikes Doctor Gordon, and it does not help that when he gives her a shock treatment it is painful and ineffective. In contrast, Esther gets along successfully with Doctor Nolan, and the shock treatments Dr. Nolan gives her are far more pleasant and successful. Before giving her the first treatment, Doctor Nolan says, “Listen, Esther…I’m going over with you. I’ll be there the whole time, so everything will happen right, the way I promised. I’ll be there when you wake up, and I’ll bring you back again” (Plath 204). Not only does Doctor Nolan administer the treatment properly, she also makes sure that Esther is comfortable. Through this comparison, one can conclude that women are more positive in a power position than men, which challenges the stereotypical idea that men should be in charge. However, it also adds to the general negativity in which men are portrayed throughout the novel, and implies that they are not caring or empathetic. Therefore, Doctor Gordon reinforces several traditional stereotypes of men throughout the novel.

All things considered, through the characters Buddy, Marco, and Doctor Gordon, Sylvia Plath reinforces many male stereotypes and develops a specific gender identity for men in her novel, The Bell Jar. Like how Plath’s own struggles with depression are reflected though her character, Esther, one can assume that this stereotypical and negative portrayal of men came from Plath’s own life as well. Her novel is, of course, an autobiography. This goes to show that stereotypes are not just present in stories and literature. No matter what is done to work against them, stereotypes and gender identities remain rooted in society, and most likely will never completely be erased.

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Double Standards in The Bell Jar

February 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

Gender double standards, which are among the effects of gender stereotypes, are reflected in Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographic novel The Bell Jar, which was published in 1963. This work tells the story of a young woman named Esther Greenwood, who is extremely intelligent but starts to consider committing suicide in New York during her internship with a magazine company. One of the main reasons for her suicide attempt is that she cannot handle the burden of the double standard of gender brought on by the society. She is expected to play a traditional woman role by society and by the people around her, but she fails to fit into such a constraining image. This limited gender role is upheld by social activities such as education, marriage, sexual liberty prescriptions, and career choices in the novel.

First, gender double standards exist in education and career in The Bell Jar. The society depicted by Plath provides women with education, but Esther pointedly describes the education of the young women who are staying at the Amazon Hotel: “They were all going to posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other” (56). Esther’s descriptions imply that the women’s education is useless because educated women and uneducated women both were waiting to get married instead of working.

In the novel, some women are obliged to work on their own because the men they rely on fall to disability or death. Esther’s mother can be cited as an example: “My mother was teaching shorthand and typing to a lot of city college girls and wouldn’t be home till the middle of the afternoon” (115). The double standards of the society produce these limitations in women’s career. Though Esther gets a college scholarship to major in English (a seemingly male pursuit), her mother keeps asking her to study shorthand, because shorthand was a stable and safe job. Such work was prescribed for women and accepted by the society at that time. Plath describes Esther’s mother’s attitude towards Esther’s more cerebral major: “I didn’t know shorthand either. This meant I couldn’t get a good job after college. My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major” (76). This is not only Esther’s mother’s view but also the view of Esther’s world at large. Plath uses specific, well-engineered vocabulary to show how Esther undergoes such uncertainty about her career: “The only thing was, when I tried to picture myself in some job, briskly jotting down line after line of shorthand, my mind went blank. There wasn’t one job I felt like doing where you used shorthand” (122). Even worse, women were compelled to give up their careers due to the pressures from the society that surrounded them. Dodo is one of the example in the novel, a woman who gives up her career or maybe who has never had a career. After all, “Dodo raised her six children—and would no doubt raise her seventh—on Rice Krispies, peanut-butter-and-marshmallow sandwiches, vanilla ice cream and gallon upon gallon of Hoods milk” (116).

In the real world, Plath had a painful marriage. In the novel, Esther is subject to the virgin/whore dichotomy, a troubling standard that society uses to value women. Esther has few expectations regarding marriage: “I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor and had been a private school teacher herself” (79). In the perspective of Esther, a woman’s role in marriage resembles the role of a nanny. Society sees women who do not choose to marry as outliers. In Esther’s own personal life, Buddy laughs at Esther when she refuses his proposal; Esther loves Buddy until she knows Buddy is not virgin. After all, Esther desires equal relationships and compatible standards between men and women: “It might be nice to be pure and then to marry a pure man, but what if he suddenly confessed he wasn’t pure after we were married, the way Buddy Willard had?” (81). Esther’s society expects women to be pure before marriage, but encourages men to have more sex before marriage. This double standard of sexual behavior for men and women annoys Esther. Thus, she sleeps with other men to catch up with Buddy even though once women have sex they, supposedly, become whores. There is no middle space for virgin and whore: “Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another” (87).

In general, Plath relates the frustrating lives of Esther and herself from the aspects of education, career, and marriage, since The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiography. Much of the psychology of the story was derived from life, but Plath changed the names and places. Esther is not the only woman placed in the bell jar, but she is an epitome of the women who suffered from the double standards of Plath’s era.

Work Cited Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

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