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.
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