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

June 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

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

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