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.
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