The Bell Jar
Female Characters Under Societal Oppression in The Bell Jar and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Imagine living under the thumb of a man like Kim Jong Un or Adolf Hitler. Starvation, repression in expressing opinions or religion, and constant fear of war and nuclear disaster is apparent in the poor lives living under their direct control. This is the case in such societies around the world where death, dissatisfaction, and anger flow vividly due to the abuse of power taken by its autocratic leaders. However, the oppressed cannot remain oppressed forever, as it is human nature to remain independent and dictate ourselves. In The Bell Jar and in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, societal expectations placed on mankind causes characters to suppress themselves, but the hardships endured leads them to their freedom.
To begin, individuals in The Bell Jar and in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are constantly overwhelmed by society’s predeterminations on gender roles, sexuality, and desirable traits. To illustrate, the 1950’s society in The Bell Jar pushes the idea that women are to ultimately be wives or housemakers and serve their spouses as appropriate avenues. When Esther imagines herself as Constantin’s wife, “it would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee…and after he’d left for work, [she’d] spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till [she] fell into bed”(Plath 80). Although she assumes her life would succumb to this during such a time, this isn’t the lifestyle that Esther wants to live, nor the role she wants to pursue because Esher knows she is capable of much more, especially for a woman of “fifteen years of straight A’s” (Plath 80). Likewise, Dale Harding in Cuckoo’s Nest voluntarily stays in the hospital to hide from social prejudice against homosexuals. He is unable to conform to the ideal image of a masculine man when his hands are so “long and white and dainty… Sometimes they get loose and glide around in front of him free as two birds.. It bothers him that he’s got such pretty hands,”(Kesey 20). Harding is having to hide his feminine hands from others as he knows that he cannot live up to a chiseled, strong, heterosexual man, as expected from society. Additionally, characters are exposed to societal conventions regarding the expression of their sexuality depending on their sex. For instance, an article given to Esther in The Bell Jar from a female lawyer describes how the “best men… wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex.
Of course, they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her..” (Plath 77). It is suggested to Esther that her virginity dignifies her as a woman and a proper wife, regardless of how men and husbands behave when preserving their own, because sexism in this society has allowed for this hypocrisy. By way of comparison, during a group therapy session in Cuckoo’s Nest, Harding is harassed for not being able to satisfy his wife’s needs as a man. McMurphy notices this and asks,“whats he thinks is the matter with him that he can’t please the little lady” (Kesey 56)? By pressing Harding, the patients and Nurse Ratched imply that Harding is less of a man or has an issue with his masculinity because in society, men are supposed to be dominantly sexual, which Harding is not. Moreover, both novels detail the ideology that all who are different from the rest of the population should be excluded from society. For example, Esther is shunned due to her inability to be like the rest of the girls in her field of study. As an editor, “[she] ought to read French and German” (Plath 31), in order to thrive in her profession. Without these skills, Esther does not qualify as an editor the way the 1950s society has arranged for editors to be, making her an editor nobody wants or needs- an outlier. Similarly, Chief Bromden keeps to himself for the majority of the time. His differences such as his physique and introversion keep him isolated from the rest of the comparably normal-looking male patients, causing others to “talk out loud about their hate secrets when [he is] nearby because they think [he is] deaf and dumb” (Kesey 7). Since Bromden does not meet the stereotypical mold of the average looking patient or behavior, he is shunned and treated as if he were invisible. In short, characters in The Bell Jar and in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are subjected to societal norms on gender, sexuality, and personal characteristics making them feel like they don’t belong, and eventually cause them to enter a state of repression.
Due to these unrealistic expectations imposed by society, characters limit and suppress themselves as a way of dealing with their situations. For instance, characters suppress their emotions as a result of societal pressure in The Bell Jar and Cuckoo’s Nest resulting in both physical and mental self-harming. To demonstrate, Esther suppresses her emotional urges to grieve her father’s death from the beginning as “[her] mother hadn’t let [them] come to [her] dad’s funeral because [her and her brother] were only children then, and he had died in hospital, so the graveyard and even his death had always seemed unreal to [her]” (Plath 159). With Esther’s mother forbidding her to visit her father’s grave, she makes it difficult for Esther to wrap her head around such a tragic event in her life that by the time she comes to the truth of her loss, Esther decides to deal with it by overdosing on fifty sleeping pills, risking her health and putting her life in grave danger. In a like manner, Bromden represses his behavioral expressions and goes into hiding in fear of the “schemes and treacheries” (Kesey 101) witnessed at the hospital and slowly loses himself in the fog. He dreams that “one day [he wakes] up and Big Nurse’s got the fog machine switched on and it’s rolling thicker and thicker, and [he feels] as hopeless and dead as [he] did happy a minute ago… Nobody can help… nothing can be helped” (Kesey 101). Although the fog is a figment in his mind, it is a result of the Combine making him feel helpless and powerless, that his mental health deteriorates because his sense of reality is altered as he escapes actual reality. Furthermore, both characters restrain themselves consciously as a result of what society or their current situation has countered them with. Esther limits herself to a life she doesn’t want after she is rejected from a competitive summer writing course, so “[her] mother [convinces her she] should study shorthand in the evenings…. The only thing was … there wasn’t a job [she] felt like doing where you used shorthand” (Plath 117). Although she has no desire to pursue shorthand, she consents to spend the summer learning about it and disregards her previous ambitions because of her mother and scholarship officer. Simultaneously, she is also falling trap to pursuing a low-level, traditionally female career that society arranges for women. Comparatively, McMurphy suppresses his behavior and verbal urges when he realizes that his fate at the hospital depends on his attitude and compliance to the institution. When “McMurphy doesn’t stand up for any of [the patients] any longer, some of the Acutes talk and say he’s still outsmarting the Big Nurse, say that he got word she was about to send him to Disturbed and [McMurphy] decided to toe the line a while, not give her any reason” (Kesey 173).
McMurphy is now forced to restrain his rebelliousness against Nurse Ratched even though he knows that it serves both him and the patients justice, but it is the Combine’s power and oppressive nature that irritates McMurphy, transforms his behavior, and allows for the incident of Cheswick’s drowning to take place. Finally, due to the circumstances in which the characters live in The Bell Jar and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, they submit themselves to a state of repression by isolation. For instance, Esther feels the need to isolate herself because she is a woman in a society where a female is the rejected minority, seen as nothing more than someone who just doesn’t belong.. As she is narrating the story, in her stream of consciousness she thinks, “I wanted to be where nobody I knew could ever come” (Plath 45). People in her life misunderstanding her make her feel the need to isolate herself socially and keep everyone at a distance. When the people in her life closest to her refuse to understand her, she believes the only solution is to be left alone. Likewise, in Cuckoo’s Nest, Bromden experiences isolation. In the beginning of the novel, “[he] is sitting in the day room…[he] remembers they took [him] out of the shaving room and locked [him] in Seclusion….I can call to mind some mornings locked in Seclusion…” (Kesey 8). He is taken against his will and is separated from his fellow patients in his ward, provoking him to take refuge in a fake reality inside his mind. In summary, Esther and Bromden deal with their circumstances enforced by society’s unrealistic expectations by suppressing themselves through their emotions, their behaviour and ambitions, and physically isolating themselves. However, it is what empowers them to take their next steps in alleviating their oppression.
Finally, characters in The Bell Jar and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are able to liberate themselves and become stronger individuals through defiance, their will to leave the confines of their mental institutes, and their success in overcoming their mental health illnesses to start anew. To enumerate, both Esther and Bromden decide to physically rebel against their confinement and gain a new indepence. Esther musters the urge to finally lose her virginity despite the pressure on her not to, “ever since [she’d] learned about the corruption of Buddy Willard, [her] virginity weighed like a millstone around [her] kneck…. [she ] had been defending it for five years and [she] was sick of it..” (Plath 218). Esther acknowledges that she only restrained her sexual freedom because she was forced to and by finally losing it, she not only defies the social expectations imposed on her of being a woman, but she becomes independent of her own decisions and takes control of her body. Likewise, Bromden defies his deaf and dumb label at the hospital when he raises his hand on his own to vote to watch the World Series, “McMurphy’s got hidden wires hooked to it, lifting it slow just to get it out of the fog, and into the open area where [he] is fair game. He’s doing it…No that’s not the truth..[Bromden] lifted it [himself]” (Kesey 142). Bromden releases himself from the fog’s control and is able to make his own choices. By defying his introversion, he is able to make a difference at the hospital against Nurse Ratched’s reign and resurrect himself as a stronger individual. To continue, both Esther and Bromden gain the courage to escape their suppressive mental institutes. Notably, Esther is able to leave in plain fashion after receiving treatment at the hospital. When recovering from her ordeal, she feels “patched, retreaded and approved for the road” (Plath 128). All she has to do now is talk to “Doctor Vining [who] will ask her a few questions then [she] can go..”(Plath 128).
Since Esther feels motivated to leave the hospital once and for all, she proves that she has gained strength to overcome her fear of facing society and can explore her new life of possibilities outside its realm. Equivocally, the strength Chief regains with the help of McMurphy and his encouraging rebellion allows him to finally succeed at lifting the control panel and smashing it through the hospital window, as he “puts [his] hand on the sill and vaults after the panel, into the moonlight. [He] runs across the grounds. (…) [He] feels like [he] is flying. Free” (Kesey 324). Bromden is able to completely overcome his previous weakness and complacency imposed by Nurse Ratched by fleeing from the fake reality of the hospital to experience the true world ahead of him as a tougher individual. Lastly, after having endured much oppression, the main characters recover from their deteriorating mental health. After all the pain and treatment Esther endures, she finally feels “surprisingly at peace. The Bell jar hangs suspended, a few feet above [her] head. [She] is open to the circulating air..” (Plath 113) Esther’s depression and anxiety, previously encompassed into a Bell Jar and trapping her within, lifts enough to the point where she finally feels free and able to live without her mental state holding her down. By way of comparison, after having grown as an individual, Bromden vows to never slip into the controlling haze again, “the fog is finally swept from [his] head…[he] feels like [he] is breaking the surface after being underwater a hundred years….”(Kesey 288-289). The imaginary fog in Bromden’s mind created by his mental state is finally suppressed due to his courage to beat the system that isolates him, leading him to feel anew, and ultimately liberated. To sum up, characters in The Bell Jar and in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest resist their oppressed states, escape the confinement of their mental institutes, and recover from their problematic mental deficiencies and are finally free after enduring many hardships.
To conclude, characters within both novels The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath as well as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey are dictated by society’s presuppositions and slowly endure deterioration through repression until they succumb to a new found liberation. The oppressive societies that are the initialization of the characters’ freedom feature strict gender roles, sexist expectations and the act of pushing away those who are vastly different as people. This encourages the main characters to limit themselves in numerous ways, such as harming their health, consciously restraining their ambitions and behavior, and isolating themselves. In the end, these actions lead to their rebirth as improved beings, evidenced by their act of confronting their oppressive forces, their courage to escape the mental hospitals, and overcoming their mental health issues. As told by George Orwell, “ the object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture… The object of power is power.” This is most definitively demonstrated through the works by Sylvia Plath and Ken Kesey.
The Bell Jar: Summary, Characters, Legacy, & Facts
This is similar to the bell jar as the sexual life of women has to impact the way they are viewed, but in contrast with one flew over the cuckoo’s nest, in the bell jar women who have an active sexual life outside of marriage are looked down at. Esther had to stay at ‘the Amazon’ ,a Women-only that hotel, those type of hotels were very popular where really hotels were popular in the 1950s as they were used places to house young women and unmarried women Separating them from men,’ living where men couldn’t get at them and’those hotels expected to protect women virginity and therefore their ‘purity’,the fact that there were places simply dedicated to making sure unmarried women stayed virgin shows how society firmly believes in the misogynist idea that the dignity of women lie on their virginity, from this Plath is explaining how it also expenses that women at the time were judged simply based on their sexual activity, As she says, “‘ the fact that she thought that being a virgin is ‘ the only really significant difference between one person and another’ shows how much emphasis society put on the party of women, the fact that that was a bigger difference than black people and white people and at the time this was written Jim crow laws still existed at that time, so this shows how unmarried women that were not virgins were looked down at and shunned by society. Esther was as brought up in a society that believed it is very important for women to be a virgin when they get married. She assumed the same applied to men. Then, she discovered that her boyfriend was not a virgin. In fact, he had slept with a waitress a couple of times a week for a whole summer.
Esther soon discovered that it may be “difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one” this shows the same pressure on being a Virgin is not put on man and that man were not judged based on their sexual activity as it was hard to find a twenty-one years old man who is still a virgin, the young age highlights that man had control over three bodies and were sexually free from a young age the fact that she didn’t know about the double the sexual double standers could symbolize practical norms and how they function in a covert way, and how women at that time were limited in, life but were not aware of it, this could be the writer saying that women need to wake up and realize society is rigged against them,Esther “couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not” Esther often reflect on the sexual double standards that exist in her society. In particular, she has constant thoughts about her sexual status. She is a virgin for most of the novel, and this constantly weighs on her mind. The writer used the metaphor that women have an only life while men have a double life show that the women gaining sexual freedom are like gaining a new life, it also can be a symbolism for cheating as society forgive a man for cheating on three partners but won’t allow unmarried women to have the sexual relationship.
From this Plath is highlighting the double standard of American society,Esther decided that she will find a man and lose her virginity to break social expectation, from this the writer is calling women to break oppressive social norms, Esther loses her virginity to Irwin and suffers intense bleeding and had to be taken to the hospital,so the event that it spouse to empower her cause her great pain and made her a victim, this could be a metaphor for fighting for women rights, as the blooding could symbolize how women have to suffer to achieve equality, it also could be a metaphor for relationships and marriage, as women were told by society that marriage is the best option for them and they will be happy and empowered in a relationship , however it will end up being violent as according to feminist theorists argue that domestic violence is a result of patriarchycharacterand it is a way which man use take over women, this is the same with rape as it is demonstrated with Marco, so from this the writer is suggesting that women could never be safe and happy under a patriarchal society and the only way for women to live happily and safely is through dismantling patriarchy.
Review Of Sylvia Plath’s Novel The Bell Jar
About the Author
Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. She was a dynamic American poet, novelist, and short-story writer. Her writing was known to comprise of “elemental forces and primeval fears, also focusing on some of the tensions hovering just beneath the surface of the American way of life in the post war period.” She studied at Smith College and Newnham College at the University of Cambridge. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956, and they lived together in the United States and then in England. They had two children, Frieda and Nicholas, before separating in 1962. Plath was clinically depressed for most of her adult life, and had to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. She committed suicide in 1963.Plath started experiencing depressive episodes from her undergraduate years. The major depressive episode she was experiencing had been had been ongoing for six or seven months. While for most of the time she had been able to continue working, her depression had only worsened, “marked by constant agitation, suicidal thoughts and inability to cope with daily life.” Plath struggled with insomnia, too. However, she continued to take care of her physical appearance and did not outwardly speak of her irrationally feeling of worthlessness and conflict with the vision of herself.
Her experiences of breakdown and recovery was metaphorically expressed in her only novel, The Bell Jar. The Bell Jar is the only novel written by Sylvia Plath. Originally published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” in 1963, the novel is semi-autobiographical, with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef, because the protagonist’s descent into mental illness parallels Plath’s own experiences with intrapsychic conflicts leading to depression. Plath’s mother wished to block this book was then published in 1963. Describing the compilation of the book to her mother, she wrote, “What I’ve done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalizing to add color – it’s a pot boiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown…. I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar”. She described her novel as “an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past”. She also used the novel to highlight the issue of women in the workforce during the 1950s, bound to fit into certain stereotypical cages set by the male dominated corporate world. The Bell Jar questions “socially acceptable” identity. It examines the protagonist’s, which is Plath’s own reflection and struggles in the quest to form her own identity, to be herself rather than conforming to societal expectations, may it be in defying beauty standards, or the conventional idea of moral behavior or ideals of a woman in the patriarchal work space. The “confessional “essence of Plath’s work has been seen as a work of sentimentalist melodrama, as self-dramatization and self-pity, as the rebellion attitude towards female role was seen as ahead of its time.
Thematic Summary – Mental Health
The main character in The Bell Jar, describes her life as being suffocated by a bell jar. The “bell jar” is a metaphor for mental suffocation by the inevitable and unexplainable disposition and development of depression upon her psyche. She feels clarity when the bell jar is lifted. The opening introduces Esther and presents her mostly as a lost soul. She does not feel at home and feels disconnected in her new environment. Although she has been fortunate, because of her academic brilliance, in securing her internship, she doesn’t feel like she belongs to that space. All she does, she says, is go from her hotel to work and to parties, and then back to the hotel and back to work, “like a numb trolleybus.” Esther is withdrawn and does not embrace her life with as much enjoyment as would be normal for a young woman in her position. She feels “very still and very empty.” These descriptions takeover Esther’s later psychological status. Esther is contrasted with Doreen, who seems quite at home in New York, and is outgoing, and adventurous. In comparison to her, Esther seems like a misfit. She is an observer of life rather than a full participant, and she does not reveal her true emotions easily. Her inability to fit in is illustrated in the scene in which she and Doreen meet the two young men. While Doreen hit it off, Esther felt components of self-vanishing. Esther loses touch with her sense of identity. She doesn’t really know who she is. This is shown symbolically by the fact that whenever she sees her own reflection in a mirror or some other reflective surface, she does not recognize herself. The key element is that Esther does not know what she will do after she graduates from college. Her old confidence has broken down. She had always excelled at studying and been a scholar. As for her work, her sudden inability to chart her way forward is disconcerting for her, especially in the corporate America of 1950s where women were seen as merely sidekicks without any purpose. Esther then meets Constantin. He differs from American men for he has a distinct sense of intuition. While watching Constantin and another interpreter, Esther realizes that she cannot cook or dance. Her talent is for winning scholarships and prizes, but that era is considered to be coming to an end. Esther sees herself sitting in the crotch of the fig tree, starving simply because she cannot decide which figs to choose. Having a modest mindset, she sees the world in terms of virgins and those who have had sex, rather than other divisions such as men and women, black and white. In addition to her questioning of prevailing sexual morality, Esther’s dissatisfaction with the social role ascribed to women is clear from the fact that she rejects marriage. She does not want the passive, uncreative role that she fears would be her lot if she were to marry. Esther’s violent and abusive encounter with Marco serves her as some kind of initiation, as if she has been through a rite of passage. It is then that Esther first shows signs of clinical depression. She has crying fits, she cannot concentrate, and in spite of all her academic success, she has feelings of inadequacy.
One of Esther’s problems is that she does not really know who she is. She cannot decide on an identity. This is symbolized several times in the novel when she looks in a mirror and does not recognize what she sees as a reflection Esther’s depression deepens. There seems to be no purpose in life at all, and she wonders why anybody bothers to do anything. It also reveals, in the attitude of Esther’s mother, a common belief that depression is just something that’s mostly just a phase. Her mother thinks that Esther could simply make a decision to get well and she would be fine. But depression is in fact an illness that can’t be cured by pretending it does not exist. As Esther repeatedly tries to commit suicide, she is surprised by the fact that her body seems to have a will of its own to go on living, despite what her mind has decided she wants to do. The hospital where Esther receives shock treatments is an alien place for Esther; the people there seem indifferent and inanimate. Esther loathes the shock treatment. When she tries to tighten the cord around her neck and strangle herself, her hands weaken and she lets go. In this sense she regards her body as an enemy, no more than a “stupid cage” that she is trapped in. At the beach, as she swims out to the rock planning another suicide attempt, she hears her heartbeat booming in her ears. “I am I am I am,” she interprets it as saying. The heartbeat represents the body’s will to go on living. In this respect, the body is showing itself to be stronger than the disturbed mind that seeks to destroy it. Esther chooses to get treatment in a private facility under Dr. Nolan. Esther is still locked in her own world and unable to feel much emotional connection with others. Eventually, Esther is getting stronger and is able to think more clearly than before. As she begins to search for a stable sense of identity, she makes some constructive choices. She rejects Buddy because she still regards him as a hypocrite, and the conventional kind of marriage, in which she is housewife to a handsome doctor, does not appeal to her. She also rejects a possible alternative of homosexuality when she sees it in Joan who attempted suicide and ended up at the same private institution as Esther. But unlike Esther, Joan successfully commits suicide. Lesbianism has no appeal for her. She still seeks to lose her virginity, which she regards as a millstone around her neck. Her acquisition of birth control represents a step toward emancipation from the limited, dependent role ascribed to her as a woman. As she confides to Dr. Nolan, who has become her ally, “What I hate is the thought of being under a man’s thumb . . . . A man doesn’t have worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line.” Now Esther is taking practical steps to achieve the life she wants, she continues to recover her emotional balance. She looks beyond expectations and societal obligations and embraces life rather than protests against it. Mind and body both have a will to live.
Sociological Concept – Gender Roles
Gender refers to “the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men.” It is not determined by biological factors, rather is determined by how society determines the biological division of sex. Gender roles, or sex roles are culture specific assignment of ideal behavioral pattern of various genders, often binding the general population with stereotypical and restricting notions. These are appropriate, or desirable attitudes of people based on their actual or perceived sex, even sexuality. Sex roles describes “the tasks and functions perceived to be ideally suited to masculinity versus femininity.” According to stereotypic beliefs about the sexes, women are more communal (selfless and concerned with others) and less agentic (self-assertive and motivated to master) than men. These beliefs were hypothesized to stem from perceivers’ observations of women and men in differing social roles: (a) Women are more likely than men to hold positions of lower status and authority, and (b) women are more likely than men to be homemakers and are less likely to be employed in the paid work force. Women, till date, are considered second class citizens which is sadly normalized in their lifestyles. In the 1950s, for example, little girls were said to be made of “sugar and spice and everything nice”, and women who chose to not conform were seen as immoral. Gender differences are evident throughout the social world and are grounded in relations of power and inequality. Must like other forms of social stratification, this is both cultural and material- women are marginalized not only in cultural beliefs, representation and practices, but are also oppressed and exploited through political, economic, social and physical forms of power. In fact, each succeeding generation has brought with it differing expectations for how men and women should act within society. Despite these changes, the modern society still has expectations for how men and women are to act, with stereotypes that are catastrophic in nature to the well-being of people, for example, unrealistic beauty standards and sexual objectification of women. Gender roles and societal pressure builds a gap between the real self and the ideal self, forcing people to see themselves at fault for not acting how they are expected to. They set limits on personality and mental health awareness. They try to force males and females into certain job categories.. Gender roles even affect the way family life is built and maintained. The gender roles that were made many years prior have damaged the culture of today and economy, by wage gaps. Gender roles mentally limit, especially women, in expressing sexual or mere recreational desire.
The bell Jar revolves around the protagonist and her meditation on womanhood, and offers a disturbing picture of difference in the social roles to be performed by men and women. Most of her reflections revolve around sex and career. Esther’s academic prowess seemed to be useless for she had come to an age when the society wanted her to raise a family. The girls at her college mock her studiousness and only show her respect when she begins dating a handsome and liked boy. She is pressurized to act modest concerning her code of behavior, especially regarding her sexuality. She is constantly monitored by others but her genuine problems are mostly trivialized. The concept of societal pressure as a woman even continues into the mental hospital, where the greatest concern of Esther’s mother and even some of the patients is that they will not be accepted in their particular social circles because of their mental illness, especially regarding raising a family. Even when Esther loses her virginity to Irwin and suffers intense pain, it seem as though “the event is seemingly one that would empower Esther but instead finds her in some sense a victim.” Esther observes a gap between what society says she should experience and what she does experience, and this gap intensifies her conflicts. Society expects women of Esther’s age to act cheerful and sociable, and Esther feels she must repress her natural gloom, cynicism, and dark humor. She feels she cannot discuss life events or thoughts that haunt her: failure, suffering, and death. Her world of fashion should make her feel glamorous (also because fashion is an arena presumed to be for Women), but she finds it filled with poison and violence. Her relationships with men are supposed to be romantic and meaningful, but they are marked by distrust, and brutality. Esther almost continuously feels that her reactions are wrong, and eventually she begins to feel a sense of unreality. This sense of unreality grows until it becomes unbearable and attempted suicide, confining her further till she found herself confident enough to be a non-conformist, after hardship and turmoil.
Role Of Women in The Yellow Wallpaper And The Bell Jar Novels
“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.
A Theme Of Death in The Bell Jar
One of the most prevalent themes in “The Bell Jar” is a fear of death. The novel as a whole, and Chapter 13 in particular, is filled with strong imagery that points to this omnipresent fear. This theme is evident from the very first page, with the reference to the Rosenberg execution and also Esther’s inability to remove the image of the head of a cadaver from her mind. Even the title itself ensues an air-tight, isolated place where the soul and body dies; essentially a suffocating tomb used to symbolise society’s constraints and mixed messages that trap Esther. All these images and ideas suggest that the main preoccupation in the book, and Esther’s mind, is death.
This same ominous imagery begins very early in Chapter 13, with Esther’s date with Cal reinforcing not only the aforementioned theme but other prominent themes in the novel. The play discussed appears to be Ibsen, and handles themes such as mental illness and problems associated with sexuality. It is also significant that in the discussed play, it is explicitly stated that the protagonist’s mental illness is directly traceable to his “fooling around with unclean women”. It is possible that there is a connection between Esther’s life and society and the play, as Plath rather forcefully rejects the assumption that deviant sexuality could be considered a valid cause for mental illness. This is done by portraying Esther in a way that shows her as having problems to face that are either completely unrelated to sexuality (for example problems deciding on her writing career), or that can be traced to a sexual atmosphere that was repressed, as opposed to liberated.
Esther’s attempts to conquer the self, and her dissociative tendencies are yet another strong personality trait. In Esther’s attempts to drown herself, Plath creates a fissure between mind and body, portraying Esther’s body as a commodity. This is shown through the rhythm of “I am, I am, I am”: Esther’s mind (on one side of the divide) listens intently to the rhythm her body transmits through a heartbeat, whilst that heartbeat (on the opposite side) is her body’s attempt to send a different message to Esther’s gradually distanced mind. The steady rhythm is only coming from the body, not the mind, perhaps implying that the heartbeat is symbolic of the body’s own will to live. Plath essentially portrays Esther as living from the outside in.
‘Death’ is a prominent feature in a considerable amount of Plath’s work. Similarly, Esther’s anxieties about death take precedence over all her anxieties about life. As a result of this, Esther’s reactions to difficult situations are so limited that she perhaps has no reaction at all, except to lie. An example is her ready disagreement with Cal about the safety of swimming further ahead, retorting, “Okay. You go back.” This shows a side to Esther that is afraid of defeat, and also a very childish approach. The statement Plath is making here seems to be that the fear of death and the fear of life are mutually exclusive, an Esther, like a child, is afraid of life. The aforementioned lies are the result of not expressing this fear, perhaps in some attempt to justify the validity of her own existence and reality.
The tone that Plath adopts when giving any form of reference to Esther’s suicide attempts has an incongruous feel; the lack of solid decisions and gradually accumulating details make the reader begin to question the rationale, or lack of it. The way in which Esther’s voice becomes “casual” and her use of language, such as “fat chance”, makes the reader conveniently forget that she is doing something momentous. Also, the sonic qualities of “fat chance” have a rather ‘squashed’ and insignificant feel; neither of the words contain elongated vowel sounds and both are monosyllabic. Her very matter-of-fact tone creates a similar effect to reading a checklist rather than a chapter in a novel: “That morning I [had] tried to hang myself” being followed not long after with another short sentence with equal simplicity of language “Then I hunted around for a place to attach the rope”. Also, Plath focuses here not on the reasons why Esther wants to commit suicide, but rather the logistics of how the goal can be achieved. By using this technique, the reader is coaxed into the same way of thinking as Esther.
There is a fine balance between the deciding factors for Esther’s suicide; whether the cause is external factors, mental illness alone, or some combination of the two. Significantly those external factors are numerous. In particular, the darkness of life plainly disturbs her, as shown by her fascination with the “babies in the jars” that Buddy showed to her, and the repetition of this subject throughout the novel. This could imply that humans having gills is a direct link to their primitive state (being aquatic creatures) which would act as a trigger in pulling Esther towards drowning.
Her significant academic achievements provide ballast against Esther’s self-destructive characteristics. As intelligence is the quality that Esther valued most about herself, her most easily accessible form of self destruction is to over-dramatise her own incompetence. Her reflections on the decision to go to the beach are: “I didn’t want to go at first, because I thought Jody would notice the change in me, and that anybody with half an eye could see I didn’t have a brain in my head”. The focus here is on Esther’s supposedly diminishing intelligence and lack of sharp observation. This is yet another example of her low self-confidence; none of the other characters make any reference to this ‘fault’. Esther herself does, several times, therefore placing the focus for the reader onto this symptom of depression as a seemingly unforgivable fault of her own.
Regardless of constraints set by the society that Esther is surrounded by, she creates her own set of unbreakable constraints, in turn creating a very high stress environment for herself. A hot dog, for example, must be cooked for “just the right amount of time”. Esther is portrayed to be terrified of slipping outside her boundaries. It is also significant that she “buried it in the sand”; most likely because the hot dog failed to meet her perfectionist standards. The rigidity of the environment that Esther enters into becomes so powerful that any chance of reversal would be more dangerous than it is worth. Plath implies by this that it would be completely impossible for Esther to cross over her boundaries; for the inability to commit to her entirely self-imposed demands would push her ever closer to her withdrawal and collapse.
There is a notion that thoughts of death can concentrate the mind; the reader sees this principle operating in Plath in a rather perverse way. Her own thoughts of death led to fabulous writing, but never acted as an escape from those thoughts. It is evident that The Bell Jar was Plath’s attempt at self analysis, and perhaps an attempt to ‘cure’ herself of her depression. Like Esther, Plath was able to transform her phobias and obsessions into literature. I don’t believe there to be one solid reason behind why the literature could never be a way to save her life; perhaps the drug that was her writing made Plath think that she could transform all the pain, and when it became clear that it couldn’t be done, she turned the pain against herself. But for whatever reason, Plath was never able to look beyond her somewhat childlike fears of life; she could never accept that life has to be lived as an act of faith and courage, if it is to be lived at all. Plath writes in Esther’s voice, the voice of a depressive, which is why The Bell Jar is both a definite, biting prescription for health and a realistic, unmerciful case study.
The Bell Jar: an Autobiographical Novel
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.
Sylvia Plath’s Presentation of Feelings and Standards on Women as Described in Her Book, The Bell Jar
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.
The Role of Food In Ms. Greenwood’s Downfall
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.
The Color of Abnormality
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.
The Bell Jar and the Sexual Politics in the American 1950s
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 marriedand in consequence, to bear a childwas 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 papersgoggled-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 livesit 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 wheelpresident 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 familyespecially, 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 womannot a prim woman with professionalismunlike 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 somedayat college, in Europe, somewhere, anywherethe 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 annihilatedlike 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 depressiondepression 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.