Male Stereotypes in The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath, the author of The Bell Jar, once said, “Is there no way out of the mind?” (Sylvia). Like her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, Plath struggled with depression and mental illness. This aspect of her life became a very prominent theme in her novel, but it is far from the only one. As Esther deals with this mental instability, she also suffers greatly from the expectations society has for her as a woman. Esther’s frustration with all of the talk of children, marriage, and working under men is one of the main reasons why she becomes depressed. Society has several stereotypes for women. However, although the expectations of women play a more prominent role in the story, there are several male stereotypes that are reinforced and revealed as well. Through characters such as Buddy, Marco, and Doctor Gordon, a definite and often negative gender identity revolving around several stereotypes is developed for men. More specifically, in the novel The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, most of the male characters are portrayed as having stereotypical qualities such as selfishness, a condescending attitude, and the belief that women should comply with society’s expectations. This reveals that while society has many stereotypes for women, it also places several on men as well.
To begin, one male character who is portrayed as having stereotypically male characteristics is Buddy Willard, Esther’s former boyfriend. One of the stereotypical aspects that he possesses is the strong belief that men should be the head of the household and that women need to be married. When Esther rejects his marriage proposal and says that she never was to get married, he responds, “You’re crazy…You’ll change your mind” (Plath 89). Through his response, Buddy reveals that he expects women to get married, which reinforces the gender stereotype that men would believe this. At the same time, two other gender stereotypes that Buddy represents are selfishness and the belief that men are always in control. When he goes to visit Esther, it is not to support her, but to ease his guilt about the fact that he may have contributed to her condition. He asks her, “Do you think there’s something in me that drives women crazy?” (Plath 229). When Esther tells him that it was not his fault, he is very relieved, and does not seem to care at all about how Esther is doing. Through this, Buddy shows that not only does he just think of himself, he also believes that women do not even have the capacity to go out of their minds without the help of a man. This reveals two stereotypically male traits, selfishness and the belief that men have control over women, that are reinforced through Plath’s novel. In other words, by portraying Buddy as selfish and condescending, Plath reinforces two major stereotypes of men.
Furthermore, another character who reinforces several male stereotypes through The Bell Jar is Marco, a man Esther meets at a party Doreen takes her to. Although he is not a major character in the story, it is clear through his actions that he is both condescending and demanding. Also through his actions with Esther, one can conclude that he is powerful and enjoys having that power. All of these characteristics are traditional stereotypes for men. While Esther dances with Marco, she describes him as a “woman-hater,” and says such “woman-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power” (Plath 103). By portraying this character on a pedestal, Plath continues to reinforce these stereotypes. Through this scene it is implied that men hold the power in relationships, and that their role in society is to be on top. Additionally, Marco represents yet another male stereotype in that he only desires Esther for sex. After they dance, he leads Esther outside and “set[s] his teeth to the strap at [her] shoulder and [tears her] sheath to the waist” (Plath 104). When she tries to get away he holds her down and calls her a “slut” (Plath 105). Going so far as attempting to rape her, Marco clearly only wants Esther for sex. Also, during this scene Esther does not seem surprised about the situation, which contributes to the overall gender identity the novel has developed for men by implying that this is normal and even expected behavior. Overall, Marco is a character who represents and supports several male stereotypes in Plath’s novel.
In addition, Esther’s doctor, Doctor Gordon, is also portrayed as having several stereotypically male characteristics. First of all, before Esther meets Dr. Gordon, she is hoping that he will be able to help her become more like herself again. However, as soon as she sees the doctor she determines that he is “good-looking” and “conceited” (Plath 124). She then assumes that he will not be able to help her. Through Esther’s quick assumptions, it is revealed that she expects men, especially good-looking men, to be conceited. Coupled with the fact that Doctor Gordon is a Doctor, which is commonly thought of as a male profession, it is clear that several male stereotypes are reinforced through this character. Additionally, Doctor Gordon can be compared to the female Doctor Nolan, who Esther prefers. Esther makes it very clear that she dislikes Doctor Gordon, and it does not help that when he gives her a shock treatment it is painful and ineffective. In contrast, Esther gets along successfully with Doctor Nolan, and the shock treatments Dr. Nolan gives her are far more pleasant and successful. Before giving her the first treatment, Doctor Nolan says, “Listen, Esther…I’m going over with you. I’ll be there the whole time, so everything will happen right, the way I promised. I’ll be there when you wake up, and I’ll bring you back again” (Plath 204). Not only does Doctor Nolan administer the treatment properly, she also makes sure that Esther is comfortable. Through this comparison, one can conclude that women are more positive in a power position than men, which challenges the stereotypical idea that men should be in charge. However, it also adds to the general negativity in which men are portrayed throughout the novel, and implies that they are not caring or empathetic. Therefore, Doctor Gordon reinforces several traditional stereotypes of men throughout the novel.
All things considered, through the characters Buddy, Marco, and Doctor Gordon, Sylvia Plath reinforces many male stereotypes and develops a specific gender identity for men in her novel, The Bell Jar. Like how Plath’s own struggles with depression are reflected though her character, Esther, one can assume that this stereotypical and negative portrayal of men came from Plath’s own life as well. Her novel is, of course, an autobiography. This goes to show that stereotypes are not just present in stories and literature. No matter what is done to work against them, stereotypes and gender identities remain rooted in society, and most likely will never completely be erased.
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