by Elizabeth Donald
The best fiction is about something fairly simple on the surface, and something far more complex underneath. On the surface, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is the story of a young woman who struggles with depression and, after a series of personal setbacks, attempts suicide. But The Bell Jar is about something else underneath, a topic of wider application than one woman’s sad story.
It would be easy to dismiss The Bell Jar as a thinly veiled tale of Plath’s life, as the story closely mirrors her well-known struggles with mental illness. But to ascribe to a surface interpretation of this book is to miss the complexities Plath is detailing in the story of Esther Greenwood, of the struggles of an entire generation of young women facing competing expectations from men, from other women, and from society.
In second-wave feminism, rising in the 1950s and 1960s when The Bell Jar is set, young women were finally beginning to assess the option of a career and creative expression and financial independence – but only if they chose to eschew marriage and motherhood. In The Bell Jar, Esther faces enormous pressure from some sectors of her society to find a good boy, settle down and have babies. But on the other end of the spectrum, she feels pressured to pursue a life of career and exploration, but only alone. Neither side has embraced the concept that Esther could have a happy family life and a career with creativity and fulfillment.
The competing pressures of these two schools of thought tear Esther apart throughout the novel, and in it, we see how women were given contradictory messages from second-wave feminism and its backlash in the mid-20th century. It is the bell jar that had entrapped young women, stifling them even as they were supposed to see through the glass to a wider future. Even as we are now in third- or fourth-wave feminism, we find some of these contradictory messages continue.
The Feminine Mystique
The Bell Jar was written in 1961 and published in 1963, the same year as Betty Freidan’s seminal feminist book The Feminine Mystique. Yet Plath’s book was undeniably a product of the 1950s, as young women were introduced to the idea that they could have an ambition outside the home.
Freidan wrote of “the problem that has no name,” of women who sublimated their ambitions in order to pursue marriage and family, only to find they could not be fulfilled by their roles as wife and mother, often suffering depressive episodes similar to Esther’s as they ask, “Is this all?” (15).
“The desperate tone in these women’s voices, and the look in their eyes, was the same as the tone and the look of other women, who were sure they had no problem, even though they did have a strange feeling of desperation,” Freidan writes (21). Freidan details that most of the young women she interviewed in preparation for her book were expected to go to college, but if they were unsuccessful in landing a husband before they reluctantly graduated, they were expected to hold a position in some low-level job and marry as quickly as possible, thus fulfilling their primary purpose in life. “A woman who failed to marry was not simply doomed to a life of dissatisfaction or frustration. Without a husband and children, she would become little short of a freak” (Bennett 102).
Azra Ghandeharion writes that America in the 1950s glorified motherhood to a miraculous symbol that had a dark underside: any woman who did not want to marry and have children must be deranged (64). “In this atmosphere, if a woman feels unfulfilled, she has to find fault with herself and see wherefore such abnormal feelings are disturbing her” (Ghandeharion 68). Women felt empty and discontent, and like Esther, assumed that the problem was with them, not with the pressures of society. This is not, of course, necessarily madness in the sense of mental illness, Plath’s struggles notwithstanding. But that which society deems to be antithetical to the norm is often deemed mad, and Freidan’s work as formative to second-wave feminism detailed how women were made to feel they must be mad if they were unsatisfied by their proscribed place in society.
Plath, of course, never read The Feminine Mystique, at least as far as we are aware. She died by suicide in February 1963, a month after The Bell Jar was initially published under a pseudonym. Many academics and critics have noted the number of similarities between Esther’s slide into depression and Plath’s own mental illness, some calling the book “semi-autobiographical” or a roman a clef. Like Esther, Plath was treated with electroconvulsive therapy to treat depression, and her first documented suicide attempt mirrors Esther’s in method by taking pills and crawling under her mother’s porch.
In Solenne Lestienne’s comparison between Plath and Virginia Woolf, she explored the possible connection between both writers’ extraordinary creativity and their mental illnesses. “This great sensitivity to feelings and emotions and to the complexity of one’s self is most likely linked to their mental disorders, appearing on the page in deconstructed and discomposed imagery” (Lestienne 14).
One could argue forever whether The Bell Jar is a book that belongs to the larger life story of the author, or as a text that should stand on its own without considering Plath’s life. But the discussion of greater import is what the pressures and inversions faced by the women of The Bell Jar can teach us about feminism today, nearly sixty years after it was published.
The Oppression of Other Women
“I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” Esther says at the very beginning of her story (Plath 2). From the start, Esther is torn between the reactions that other people expect her to have and what she is actually feeling. That conflict between expectation and reality continues as a theme throughout the novel.
Plath explores repeated motifs of clothes and photo sessions, glamour and glitz in Esther’s New York experience, but it is covering up the emptiness of her time there. No one really expects Esther to write and do the work she was brought to do at Ladies’ Day, itself a glitzy glamorization of domestic life. Esther is really there only to look good in photo spreads about the internship program. The publicity covers up the superficiality of the program, which on the surface is about empowering young women, and underneath seems little different than the expectations of the young women attending university only to the point that they land a husband.
In Pamela Cooper’s comparison between The Bell Jar and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, she argues that Esther’s forced glamour in the approved “uniform” of high fashion feels almost as repressed as Offred. “Clothing denotes in both novels a potentially fertile female body demeaned and threatened by a patriarchal authority intent on confining women to domesticity and childbearing” (Cooper 96). And yet as Offred clings to her individuality and strives for freedom despite her red robe of sexual slavery, so Esther eventually rejects the superficiality of Ladies’ Day in her choice to fling her clothes from the rooftop on her last day. It could almost have been a positive, affirming moment, taking back Esther’s own agency and rejecting the glitzy shallowness with which she has been bombarded throughout the first third of the novel. Her clothes were symbols of the expectations of her, the thin surface covering up the lack of substance. Unfortunately it does not hold.
By contrast, however, Esther betrays a certain superficiality herself in how she views others, an apparent focus on physical appearance and fashion over personality and character. She literally and figuratively looks down on any man shorter than she is, which reflects a more traditional male-dominance expectation than we would think to see in a new feminist. But at five feet, eleven inches tall, Esther is going to be taller than most men surrounding her. This can be construed as another point where she is conflicted about her place as a woman, and yet another metaphor from Plath: on the traditional side, Esther expects a man to be taller than she is as protector and dominant, and yet she vocally rejects these traditional roles, such as insisting that she cannot cook despite her mother’s focus on home economics. “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters” (Plath 76).
At the same time, Esther also repeatedly shows disdain for people of size, mocking an overweight medical student and later expressing aversion that Buddy gained weight in the sanitarium (Plath 90). She is even disgusted by a pregnant woman “with a grotesque protruding stomach” (Plath 112). How can we measure Esther’s own superficiality against the superficiality she is rejecting in the female roles she is being offered?
E. Miller Budick writes that Plath is creating a narrative that reflected the desperate confusion and emotional turmoil of the women of her era, and she does it using a uniquely feminine language that speaks directly to women and their emotions, subverting a male-dominated aesthetic even as it is often self-destructive. Esther is surrounded by women at her college, at Ladies’ Day and elsewhere, but the female-dominated environments do not provide her the language to express her femininity and the identity she seeks (Budick 873).
Indeed, Esther has a number of other women as potential role models, despite her insistence that she doesn’t understand what women see in other women. “What does a woman see in a woman that she can’t see in a man?” she asks. Dr. Nolan, her female psychiatrist toward the latter half of the book, replies, “Tenderness” (Plath 219). Dr. Nolan is representing the affirmation of positive female relationships, the concept that only women can heal other women. But does that hold for Esther’s other female relationships?
J.C. is the editor of the magazine for which Esther came to New York, and is an accomplished professional woman. She reaches out to Esther when she senses that she is not accomplishing anything in her internship, but notably we do not see her reaching out to the other girls, including Doreen, who is doing little to no work in her partying summer in New York City. Budick notes that J.C. has chosen to abbreviate her identity with her initials substituting for her name, speaking a man’s language and adopting a male aesthetic despite the “tropical garden” of her office (Budick 875). There was also a famous woman poet, unnamed in the novel, who lived with another woman to great scandal. Esther recalls telling the poet that she might marry and have children, and the poet replied, “But what about your career?” (Plath 220).
Esther muses that these feminist women all want to adopt her in some way, and for the price of their care and influence, make her resemble them. But the influence of these women mentors has not helped Esther determine who she is and what she wants, but simply to confuse her and feel torn between the various pressures. In the end, the only affirming female relationship she finds is with her psychiatrist, and even then Esther expresses surprise that Dr. Nolan is female, as she did not think there were women psychiatrists (Plath 186). She lives in an era where women doctors had been around for a while, although they certainly had not achieved any kind of parity. Still, for a young woman in a newly-feminist era and the choices it offers, her surprise seems out of place, perhaps influenced by being back in her mother’s world of traditional female roles.
Esther’s mother saw her daughter rise up to this valuable internship in New York City and still insisted Esther should learn shorthand, so she’d have a practical skill to go along with all that education (Plath 40). Her mother means well, trying to get her help and then being relieved when Esther discontinues treatment, assuming that means she is cured. Mrs. Greenwood represents the traditional half of the 1950s, a teacher only because she had to work after Esther’s father died, and advocates for the status quo. Yet there is never a point where Mrs. Greenwood is deliberately cruel or seems to try to stifle Esther. She is teaching what she knows, and can’t conceive of anything beyond it. She brings flowers to Esther in the hospital, and Esther throws them away, hating her mother for no reason she can articulate (Plath 203). In this way, Plath is refusing to pit woman against woman, to devolve into housewife vs. career woman or 1950s against 1960s. It would be easy to make Mrs. Greenwood into the villain, but instead Plath helps us see that a woman raised to believe she has only one destiny can only see that destiny for other women, just as Freidan would write in The Feminine Mystique.
Likewise Esther observes Mrs. Savage, a Vassar graduate who is wholly focused on her daughters’ debutante party; and Buddy’s mother, endlessly cooking and cleaning and doing dishes, what Esther observes as a “dreary and wasted life for a girl with 15 years of straight A’s” (Plath 84). That was what Esther saw of marriage, noting that Mrs. Willard had been a private school teacher herself before she became the wife of a university professor. In addition, Esther sees that what men say and do shifts after marriage, as both her mother and Mrs. Willard noted the shift in their relationships once the vows were said. Buddy himself does little to assuage her concerns in this regard, as he tells her she will feel differently about writing poetry after she has children. It is noteworthy that when Esther briefly attempts to be a candy striper and upsets the patients by rearranging the flowers, she had been assigned to the maternity ward, a physical representation of womanhood in a traditional marriage and family role. Yet she does not fit in there, and flees the hospital, throwing away her uniform in the same trash bin as the dead flowers – rejecting once again the marriage to which she is expected to aspire.
It is notable that it is her friend Joan who saves Esther when she loses her virginity and suffers a hemorrhage, a woman rescuing another woman in a time of crisis. This makes it all the more poignant that Joan – another young woman dealing with the pressures of conflicting expectations and a world valuing her on her appearance – ultimately succumbs to the same bell jar that has been suffocating Esther.
Marriage and Men
As second-wave feminism attempted to change the way we viewed women’s place in society, one issue that arose often was how women are evaluated in terms of their value to men. When Esther awakes from her suicide attempt, she is temporarily blind. A cheery nurse tells her, “There are a lot of blind people in the world. You’ll marry a nice blind man someday” (Plath 171). The message was clear: her value is restricted solely to her attractiveness to men, but being blind – catastrophic especially for a writer – would not be so bad as long as she was married.
From the beginning of the novel, Esther planned to end her relationship with Buddy, the proper young future doctor that everyone expected her to marry, including Buddy (Plath 52). He was the designated boyfriend, supposed to become the designated husband, but early on it seems that Esther was more fascinated with finally being wanted by a man than she was with Buddy himself (Plath 60). The other girls stopped making fun of Esther the bookworm when she had a boyfriend, and it gave her a status to carry around with her in a society that deemed her only value was what she was worth to a man.
Later, when Buddy and Esther part ways, he asks “I wonder who you’ll marry now?” (Plath 241). If she is not good wife material due to her “damaged” self, what is she? Meanwhile, Esther feels betrayed that Buddy lost his virginity to a waitress, but we find out this was not infidelity, but happened before they were a couple. She repeats over and over that Buddy was a hypocrite, but it seems that Plath is pointing out hypocrisy in society itself rather than Buddy. Buddy’s male privilege means he is celebrated for losing his virginity, while Esther is expected to abstain from sex until marriage (Ghandeharion 69). In defiance, Esther seeks out opportunities for sex with men about whom she has no feelings, as if she is trying to even the score with Buddy to prove something to herself, or to society. We see this especially in her flirtation with Konstantin, who is an attractive prospect for Esther primarily because Buddy’s mother introduced them.
Esther’s conflicting feelings about sex and gender surface several times in her encounters with men, as she is frustrated at the double standard expected of her. “I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and the man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not” (Plath 81).
Indeed, Esther comes to see the world divided into virgins and people that have had sex as though crossing that line would make her different. To an extent, Esther feels if she could achieve what Buddy has – losing her virginity – it would give her the power over her own life that Buddy has simply by virtue of being a man.
It is also even more frustrating that Buddy – who had dated both Esther and Joan – is primarily concerned with whether he “drives women crazy.” In this way, Buddy reflects the narcissism of the patriarchy; by presuming that he was the cause of Joan’s and Esther’s suicide attempts, he actually undermines their agency by assuming he has control over their mental state.
A central metaphor of the novel is the fig tree that Plath introduces to show us Esther’s essential conflict (55).
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind about which of the things I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plop to the ground at my feet (Plath 77).`
The figs are an analogy to the choices Esther faces. Some of the figs represent marriage and children, while others represent her original life plan to become a professor and poet, and still others represent ambitions and desires surfacing even as she becomes an adult: travel, and life experience, and lovers with unusual names, and all the other experiences she is seeking out and cannot quite enjoy.
This is the central conflict Esther faces, that a woman can be a wife and mother or she can have a series of lovers or she can have a career or she can travel. But note also the pressure on Esther to choose now, as though she must decide the entire course of her life by the end of this particular summer, coupled with her frustration that men never seem to face this choice: the desire for life experiences and a career is never seen as being at odds with marriage and children for men.
“The Bell Jar endeavors to show that there is no problem with leading a double life, in the positive sense of the term,” Ghandeharion writes (70). There is a certain duality to being a wife and mother and also being a writer and traveling and exploring the world, a duality Esther is unable to balance.
Plath is arguing through the novel that this dichotomy being forced on young women is not only erroneous, but tearing them apart as they must reconcile disparate wants and needs to satisfy the priorities the patriarchy tells them they should have.
Two Waves Later
When Esther is recovering from her suicide attempt, her visitors include her mother, religious missionaries, an English teacher, the owner of the asylum and others. They represent the various ways society has failed her, and others such as Joan: medical, educational, religious and family, none can help Esther answer her own questions.
Feminism told Esther that her choice is to be herself, free and creative; or to be a servant to a man and a child. It is easy to dismiss this as the kind of growing pains suffered in the early decades of the women’s movement, but to what extent has this dichotomy been resolved?
While women’s choices have evolved over the past few decades, the effects that the choice of motherhood can have on a woman’s pursuit of a career and her life in general continue to constitute an important issue… Could there not be in today’s society a misunderstood individual, like Esther Greenwood, who goes against the grain of society, who isn’t satisfied with the choices given to her by her culture, and as a result of these irresolvable choices, faces a mental breakdown? (Dunkle).
Indeed, we have not made as much progress as we like to think. A 2014 study found that motherhood is costly to women’s careers, reducing lifetime earnings far beyond the minimal impact of a maternity leave (Kahn et al). Another study conducted across 18 countries over more than 15 years found that gender inequalities persist in the workplace specifically stemming from myths about women’s alleged natural affinity for childrearing and employed mothers seen as neglectful and uncaring. These myths constituted a widespread justification for gender discrimination in the workplace (Verniers and Vala 2).
As Esther prepares to meet with the doctors at the end, she thinks of her clothing as her wedding gown, although she is not getting married (Plath 244). To a certain extent, Esther is marrying herself, the new self she forged out of her treatments and experiences and disasters, the self she liberated from the bell jar. But part of her will always be in the bell jar, trapped between two destinies, and too many young women are still trapped in there with her.
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