Truth, Madness, and the Impossible Distinction in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

by Alexandria Ouimet

The first-person narrator allows readers to get direct insight into how the character is feeling and what they are thinking, but when the narrator’s reliability comes into question, it becomes hard to trust what they say. However, just because their truth is not the whole truth does not mean it isn’t their full reality. “Chief” Bromden in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest struggles with what seems to be schizophrenia causing him to see things no one else does, making it difficult for readers to distinguish what is caused by his madness and what is really happening. Bromden’s madness forces him to see people’s size in relation to the amount of control they possess while also making him believe that the government is implanting machines into people defying their expectations in order to better control them. Adding to the image of madness, Bromden is Native American, so those around him have also assumed he is deaf and mute; an image he maintains in order to help him keep the little control he has. Because of this, Bromden is labeled a madman, creating a reality both readers and other characters in the novel do not understand or believe, both giving and taking away his power and control. However, this does not mean his understanding and point of view is any less true; what he sees and believes is his truth, madman or not. When Bromden’s reality is understood, madness becomes just another perception of the world allowing the mad person to freely think and behave differently with no consequence.

Throughout the novel, Bromden interprets the size of the people around him by how much control or agency they have over themselves and others. Although how he sees others and himself is not their literal size, Bromden understands size figuratively creating a more accurate depiction of the characters. In his mind size does not matter if there is no power behind it. Someone who has more control, agency, and power is bigger than someone who can do nothing to stop them. Bromden sees himself as small because he has little to no power or control over what happens to him during his time on the psychiatric ward. Even the orderlies notice Bromden’s potential to put up more resistance. An orderly, talking about Bromden, says, “Big enough to eat apples off my head an’ he mine me like a baby” (3). Bromden is said to be around six-foot-seven. His body could allow him to fight off both the orderlies and the nurse, but since he believes he is small it is not a possibility. His depiction is completely accurate; he perceives people based on their influence, not how they look.

Since Bromden pretends to be deaf and mute, no one knows he sees himself as insignificant and small, creating a false reality for those around him. Bromden, silent along the wall, uses his shrunken presence to watch and listen to people at their most vulnerable moments. Determining McMurphy as a big, strong, and confident man, Bromden breaks his silence deciding to trust the new powerful force. After learning about Bromden’s ruse, McMurphy doesn’t understand his inability to defend or speak up for himself. McMurphy says “Criminy, look at you: you stand a head taller’n any man on the ward. There ain’t a man here you couldn’t turn every way but loose and that’s a fact!” (184). Bromden responds “No. I’m way too little. I used to be big, but not no more. You’re twice the size of me” (184). His warped perception creates a seemingly unrealistic worldview.

When telling McMurphy about how his white mother grew twice the size of his Native American dad, McMurphy is eager to hear the tale of how this would be possible. Bromden says, “A guy at the carnival looked her over and says five feet nine and weight a hundred and thirty pounds, but that was because he’d just saw her. She got bigger all the time” (184). Bromden uses more than his eyes to measure the size of people because the technicalities used to declare height and weight are useless to him. It matters how they make others feel, what they can accomplish with their bodies. The reason his mom continued to grow is because she gained control and power of those around her. Elaine B. Safer, in her article, says, “his sense of inadequacy start[ed] when his father, an Indian chief, is reduced in stature by his white wife” (136). His dad used to be inexorable, but as people started to work at him, he shrank, much as Bromden has during his time on the psychiatric ward. Bromden’s view of people is not wrong or misleading, it’s just an alternative perception – a view that not everyone needs to believe in order to make it true.

The most obvious example of Bromden’s unique view of size is Nurse Ratched. The main nurse on the ward is always called “Big Nurse” in Bromden’s narrative, as he often imagines Nurse Ratched shapeshifting depending on her mood, attitude, or actions. The big nurse has complete control over the psychiatric ward because it is impossible to resist her power. No matter how often the patients try and fight her policies or argue for their humanity and rights, the final decision is determined by Nurse Ratched’s orders. So, it would be no surprise that Bromden sees her for a big monster machine that only wants to control and change the patients. The first-time readers are introduced to Nurse Ratched, Bromden’s interpretation of her is impossible to believe – it’s madness. The narrator says, “She’s swelling up, swells till her back’s splitting out the white uniform and she’s let her arms section out long enough to wrap around the three of them five, six times…She blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor” (4-5). This is obviously not the reality of the situation – real people don’t shape-shift. Whether this hallucination stems from fear or anxiety, it is very much real to Bromden. And even if the other patients don’t see the nurse this way, they sure do act as if she is the all-powerful machine Bromden describes her as. They allow her to morph into this monster giving her power and control over their bodies and lives while they are living under her watch. Whether or not Bromden’s hallucinations should be deemed as madness, the actions and behaviors of those around him create a solid basis for his twisted visions.

When McMurphy is admitted, Bromden calls both his body and voice big, as he is not fearful or intimidated by the nurse, orderlies, or rules and policies that the ward has in place. McMurphy essentially remains the same person throughout the novel questioning and fighting the demands given to him by the Big Nurse. Similar to Nurse Ratched, Bromden’s view of the new patient is controlled by McMurphy’s personality. During the last section of the novel, Bromden’s self-perception gets bigger and stronger as he learns tools that help him gain power and control with McMurphy’s help and encouragement. Everyone already sees Bromden as a giant, but because Bromden’s confidence in himself is so low, it is impossible for himself to see how big he truly is in comparison to those around him. McMurphy says to Bromden, weeks into size training, “By God, Chief, it appears to me you growed ten inches since that fishing trip. And lordamighty, look at the size of that foot of yours; big as a flatcar” (227). Sure enough, when Bromden looked down, he sees that his foot really did grow twice the size as it was before. The reality of his foot actually growing that much doesn’t make sense. But, in his head, it doesn’t need to. It’s all about what he believes he can do and how he views himself.

With McMurphy’s encouragement and constant confidence boosters, Bromden is realizing his true size. The narrator says, “I caught a look at myself in the mirror. He’d done what he said; my arms were big again, big as they were back in high school, back at the village, and my chest and shoulders were broad and hard” (228). This is not a physical change as the reader and Bromden are understanding it to be. The truth is that Bromden’s mentality is becoming clearer giving him confidence in his own strength and size. He comes to understand the inherent power he held in his body and would later use this strength to escape from the ward that made him small. Understanding why Bromden views people the way he does is extremely important in interpreting the way he thinks. It is difficult to distinguish the difference between a mad or realistic perception. However, the two views can be true at once, especially when readers are learning through Bromden’s narrative. Since he viewed himself as small, that’s what he was: weak, short, and controlled by the system in place. Once he had the confidence, he used the newfound strength to escape from both his negative mindset and the place that put him there.

Bromden’s schizophrenia forces him to see and believe in a false reality beyond just people’s sizes. He does not necessarily blame Nurse Ratched and her controlling antics on her choices alone, as he truly believes that she is being controlled by something bigger: the combine. The narrator says, “…it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nation-wide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them” (157). The combine, in Bromden’s mind, is a machine that is meant to control society and forces them to behave according to its authoritarian expectations. As Bromden describes Nurse Ratched’s control system developed by the combine he says, “Practice has steadied and strengthened her until now she wields a sure power that extends in all directions on hairlike wires too small for anybody’s eye but mine; I see her sit in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot” (23).

The combine takes away people’s humanity and turns them into a perfectly controlled unit designed to conform, on the inside and outside, according to the combine’s societal constrictions. The combine does not exist the way Bromden believes it does, but the manipulative influence that it wields is very real, especially in terms of the Big Nurse’s actions. Safer writes, “The hospital’s hierarchical power structure…reflects the cold, calculating machinations of a repressive society that disregards civil rights and destroys individuality” (132). On the ward, there is no escaping from the control the nurse or the combine possesses. As stated before, what she says goes, no matter how cruel, restricting, and condescending it may be. In many ways, she does work and behave like a machine. She is constantly performing the same cold and calculated responses to the patients’ behaviors and antics, never taking their wants or needs into consideration.

The biggest part of Bromden’s madness comes in the form of this machine. The combine creates fears and anxieties that don’t need to exist, but since Bromden truly believes this is how the world is run, it causes him to be cagey and afraid. Readers can easily write this off as madness, but when the reader chooses to see what Bromden does, they will also be able to see the reality behind his hallucinations and beliefs. This idea of the machine being the center of control for humanity did not even start with Bromden – it started with his father, when Bromden was still with his Native American tribe. When describing the combine to McMurphy, Bromden says, “The combine had whipped Papa. It beats everybody! It’ll beat you too. They can’t have somebody as big as Papa running around unless he’s one of them” (185). These fears and anxieties about being controlled by the government’s machine started long before the psychiatric ward, explaining why he desperately tries to disappear when someone wants to do something to his body such as shaving, showering, or taking medications. The racist ideas from America, especially their government, showed Bromden and his family that society did not want people like them around. The repressive attitude society tends to have on the “other” – the foreigner, the mad person, the neuroatypical body – leads them to start believing and thinking that everyone is out to get them. When people are denied access, sympathy, or even just simple understanding, whether or not there is actual belief behind it, it highlights the ways that society deems those differences as wrong or less than. Bromden’s beliefs, or madness, stems from something quite larger than a diagnosis – it stems from not ever being heard, or believed, or trusted. Readers, while interpreting Bromden’s narrative, are given a chance to depict his madness as something real, something that does exist, just maybe not in the way the reader themselves would understand it.

In a fit of anxiety and trying to make McMurphy understand him, Bromden is desperately trying to get him to see the dangers of the combine. He says, “…they work on you ways you can’t fight! They put things in! They install things. They start as quick as they see you’re gonna be big and go to working and installing their filthy machinery when you’re little, and keep on and on and on till you’re fixed” (185). The thing is, Bromden is not too far off with his theory about the power and control of the machine. Throughout the novel, readers hear about a place the patients call the “shock shop,” the room in the hospital where they use electroshock therapy to help patients calm down. It is the use of a machine to “fix” or change people into someone that is easier to control or to make them comply to the rules and regulations set which is exactly how Bromden views the combine. Bromden’s madness shifts reality into something he can fully understand. Elena Semino, in her article, writes, “Reality is the result of perceptual and cognitive processes that may vary in part from person to person; thus, individuals may differ in their conceptualizations of the same experience” (144). It would be ignorant to assume that everyone views the world in the same way. Telling someone that their way of thinking is incorrect represses their mind, furthering them into what society deems as madness.

Along with the machine, Bromden sees fog that both helps and inhibits his agency. Whether or not the fog actually exists does not matter when interpreting Bromden’s story. More than likely, it is just a side effect of Bromden’s madness, but again that doesn’t make it any less real. It’s simply a different interpretation of the real events he encounters during his time on the ward. After putting up a fight because Bromden was being forced to shave, the narrator says, “They start the fog machine again and it’s snowing down cold and white all over me…so thick, I might even be able to hide in it if they didn’t have a hold on me” (7). The orderlies are told to use this method whenever the patients start acting violent or become uncontrollable. When Bromden comes out of the fog, he has a hard time remembering what happened to him after it started. Readers do not know what the fog is or where it actually comes from, but it does drastically change the way Bromden sees the ward showing there is importance in believing it exists in the ways Bromden says it does. The fog is real in some way, working in tandem with Bromden’s madness and ignorance of the ward’s manipulation methods to create a warped version of reality that he can understand. His madness, or mental illness, is not the entire source of his hallucinogenic feelings. Because Bromden interprets the world a little differently, readers need to be able to understandwhat he sees without automatically dismissing what he sees as madness.

In being labeled insane while also being a Native American, Bromden is assumed to be deaf and mute by most people he encounters, especially because of his hesitancy to speak to any white person due to warnings from his father. This label of deaf and mute can be changed whenever Bromden feels it necessary. However, he maintains the label, as he learned it helps him gain more control, allows him to become invisible, and gives him more access to information and, in turn, knowledge. The narrator says, “it wasn’t me that started acting deaf, it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all” (174). Since others forced him into this category, Bromden behaves as if he cannot hear or speak. It was because of people’s racist assumptions and stereotypes that he originally began feigning this act. This image was easier to obtain, and maintain, because of his mental illness. He was already deemed mad and insane, so it wouldn’t hurt to also play deaf and mute. In doing so, Bromden is able to stand in on staff meetings hearing what everyone really has to say about the patients and what their plans are on how to deal with them. Bromden starts to learn information and gives it to McMurphy in order to take back some of the control Nurse Ratched has taken away. His perceived image also allows him to have a warning about situations he might want to avoid. On nights he does not take his medication and knows they are coming to forcefully give it to him, he is able to fake sleep to avoid taking the pills. When he hears orders from the nurse to the orderlies about shaving him, he takes the opportunity to hide away and avoid being touched against his will. The truth did not matter to the racist, ignorant people when first encountering him, so keeping up the lies and act to protect himself gives him a small ounce of control in a place that is trying to take it all away.

The first-person narrator reliability should be determined based on the intent of their differentiating realities. The mad person, in this case Bromden, is telling his truth and his full interpretation of the situation. So many times, people who have been labeled “madmen” have been dismissed and ignored because of their madness or mental illness. They are looked at as less than human and their stories are assumed to be “crazy” or exaggerated and Bromden is no exception. The way he interprets his daily life and the events happening around him can easily be dismissed as madness, but if readers take a deeper look to at what he is talking about, there is truth in his words showing how impossible it is to distinguish between truth and madness when trying to understand something you have never encountered.

Works Cited

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York, Viking Press & Signet Books, 1962.

Safer, Elaine B. ““It’s the Truth Even If It Didn’t Happen”: Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 2, 1977, pp. 132-141, Accessed 18 Mar. 2022.

Semino, Elena. “Metaphor and Mind Style in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Style, vol. 30, no. 1, 1996, pp. 143-166, Accessed 18 Mar. 2022.

We’re All Mad Somewhere: An Exploration Into The Environments of Madness

by Emma Walke

People always say that the things in our lives start to reflect ourselves. For instance, one could argue that pet owners and their pets start to look like each other. People try to make their homes look like themselves and how they want to appear with the way they are decorated. But I also believe a person can start to look like their surroundings, and the environment they are in can change a person fundamentally. Take the case of the Jane Doe narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. After being locked in a room that had previously housed the mad, our narrator begins to make sense of the wallpaper, something that has no pattern, and slowly reflects the madness the room houses. Though the room itself does not change, the narrator describes an evolving room that hints the reader into the mindset of our reader. These descriptions and events show the reader more about the state of the narrator, and less about the room itself.  

Her understanding of the room is the first sign of this room being an indicator into our narrator’s changing reality. After coming to the house, her husband recommends she sleeps in the big airy room at the top of the house. She describes this room as being a “nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, … for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls. The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it,” (648). Nothing in the room indicates that this was a nursery or a playroom for children. Our narrator was just separated from her child after birth, which is having a profound impact on her perception of this room. Instead of seeing the reality that someone was housed here, and the room was designed to keep that person in here, she instead sees a place for a baby. This may also have to do with the way her husband sees her. John, our narrator’s husband, uses pet names like “little girl” and has a desire to treat his wife as a child. Perhaps her understanding of the room comes from her denial of the loss of her child, and perhaps it comes from her lack of knowledge and treatment from her husband. It is important to note that John is some of the only socialization she gets in her life.

The people, or lack thereof, in the narrator’s life is also a contributing factor to her mental state. The narrator says “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time. Of course I don’t when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone. And I am alone a good deal just now,” (650). The only people that she sees are her husband, Jennie, and a few other guests, but they have no sustained interaction. The narrator is kept in her room, not allowed to leave, or sleep somewhere else, with only herself to keep her company. In direct correlation to this environment the narrator is put in with a tremendous lack of socialization and interconnection with other people, she creates these images of women and people in her own mind.

The wallpaper and the windows in our narrator’s room seem to be points that she focuses a lot of her attention toward. The narrator when describing her room says there is a window “that commands the road, a lovely shaded winding road, and one that just looks off over the country,” (650). And then immediately goes to describing the wallpaper without any sort of transition. “This wallpaper has a kind of subpattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see It In certain lights, and not clearly then. But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so – I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design,” (650).  The windows, specifically what she sees outside of them, who she sees outside of them, and the wallpaper with the mysterious pattern are things she becomes hyper-fixated on. She talks throughout the story about the people she sees walking in the garden and how she even walks around the garden. She talks extensively about trying to ‘solve’ the pattern in the wallpaper. “I start, we’ll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion,” (650). At this time, the narrator is peering outside the windows at the outside world, following patterns on the walls, trying to make sense of a pattern that has no logic to it. Looking from an outside perspective in, without the narrator’s explanations, this woman appears mad: she is locked in a room and talking to wallpaper. From the narrator’s perspective, it makes sense with her reasoning. The process she is taking is logical when you add in her perspective. The room itself has not changed, but the change in the narrator’s descriptions and actions are what keys the reader into her mental state. The way that the narrator explains the things she is doing as sensical, make the reader believe that what she is doing makes sense. Looking from the outside perspective, without the narrator’s knowledge, it appears mad. But with that knowledge, her actions make sense. The reader stops questioning her behavior, stops seeing it as mad, because to the narrator, it makes sense.

In addition, the narrator starts staying up during the night because of the moonlight. “I hate to see it sometimes, it creeps so slowly, and always comes in by one window or another. John was asleep and I hated to waken him, so I kept still and watched the moonlight on that undulating wallpaper till I felt creepy. The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out. I got up softly and went to feel and see if the paper did move,” (652). The moonlight, she says, starts to reveal the pattern to her. She concludes that there is a back, sub-pattern, and a front pattern, which is actually bars to keep a figure in the paper. The narrators sleep pattern is changing, and she is more active at night. The wallpaper becomes less of a pattern to figure out and more of a moving picture that houses a woman. The windows have changed from portals to look to the outside and have instead become a thing that lets in this terrible light for the room and reveals truths to the narrator. This transformation that the items like her wallpaper and windows have is purely in the narrator’s mind. The object themselves do not change, but because of what they are doing (according to the narrator’s logic and descriptions of them), they are affecting the narrator and her reality of the room adapts accordingly. From the outside, the objects are not changing, they are not technically doing anything to the room. Therefore, it should have no real effect on the narrator. However, because the narrator’s mental health and sanity are deteriorating, she perceives the room as changing.

After concluding the woman in the wallpaper is quiet in the daytime, the narrator starts to see her outside of the wallpaper. “I can see her out of every one of my windows! It is the same woman, I know, for she’s always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight. I see her in that long-shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in hose dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines,” (654). A couple lines down she talks about how she also creeps during the day, but she locks her door. It stands to reason, that she is seeing herself in the windows, creeping about. Much like the people she saw in the garden may have been her imagination, this creeping woman is most definitely her reflection. The windows are now this mirror to reflect herself into the outside world. The wallpaper has now become a trap that keeps her from the outside world and a trap that she also must escape.

Simply viewing the events of the story without the inside perspective of our narrator and without the context she provides us, what is being said in the story itself makes no sense. The narrator is nothing more than a deranged woman creeping about a room she never leaves. However, once we add in the logic that the narrator is providing for her actions, they seem to make a sort of sense. Once we get to the end, the narrator is correct in her judgments of the wallpaper. The wallpaper, or the room itself, is a prison she is being kept in. When she has to creep over her husband’s body she says “and I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (656). The narrator truly believes that the room she was in was a prison. The environment she was put into, while it may appear to be one thing to an outsider, has been molded to the narrator. The room begins to reflect her situation and it finally makes sense to the narrator. The reader saw the room as a prison to begin with because that is what it truly was. At the end, the room is a prison in a different sense because the narrator has uncovered it as that. The room never changes, but the perception of the room, by both the narrator and the reader, makes sense at the end of the story. The room itself reflects what the narrator is experiencing, and the reader sees the room as the narrator describes it to them because the room has symbolically become what the narrator describes it as.

Work Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Literature of Prescription Exhibition Materials, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2009, pp. 647-56.

Induction of Madness

by Melanie Mosby

I’d like to unpack the idea that People are not only born mad but they can also be driven to madness, and The Yellow Wallpaper is a perfect example of this. In my own readings of this piece, I am always pushed towards the idea that the narrator was not always mad, but that John induced this madness in her by depriving her of her creative outlets and social contact, gaslighting her, and making her feel guilty.

The narrator and her husband’s relationship is founded on frequent banter and teasing; however, the teasing only ever seems to come from John. There are many instances in which the narrator tries to have a serious conversation with John, and he turns it around on her, making the subject into a joke or dismissing her concerns altogether. We can see the first hints of John’s manipulation and how this affects the narrator’s perception of herself while she thinks about her husband. “You see he does not believe I am sick,” says the narrator. Since he is a “physician of high standing,” the narrator dismisses her own feelings in favor of John’s (Gilman 647). Even in instances when the narrator does start to admit to herself that John may be wrong, he uses this as an excuse to blame what he thinks of as her lack of sense and resulting hysteria. “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes… But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control” (Gilman 648). John uses his belief that the narrator is not in the right state of mind as an excuse to manipulate her into thinking and feeling how he wants her to think and feel. When our narrator wants to leave her country home and go back to the city, John tells her, “you really are better dear, whether you see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know” (Gilman 652).  In this moment, John uses the fact that he is a doctor to justify his controlling tendencies toward his wife and to prove his rightness in every argument. Even if the narrator seemed completely well, her husband would still use the ambiguity of her mental stability as a tool in arguments to assert his opinion of what is right.

The next tactic John uses to induce madness in his wife is depriving her of her creative outlets. The narrator laments, “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (Gilman 648). She explains that she is forbidden to “work” until she is well again (Gilman 648).  Though both her physician brother and husband recommend this, the narrator continues to feel longing for writing, and even begins to write in secret. One theory we may entertain is that John wishes for his wife not to write so that no one may find out that she is sane, because she’s being monitored and manipulated by her husband under the guise that she needs professional help. As most creatives will attest, creating is an outlet for stress, and the deprivation of creativity could have been a contributing factor to our narrator’s unhappiness and eventually her madness. Another instance of John’s monitoring his wife’s thoughts appears on page 648 when the narrator states, “John says the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition” (Gilman). This is a red flag for me, as it gives me the sense that John doesn’t want his wife to think about her treatment or how she is feeling, and he only wants her to be a submissive catalyst for whatever behaviors he deems as acceptable for her to partake in. If she thinks about her condition too much, she may find that John is wrong and/or that his treatment isn’t working.

There are only three characters in this story — not including the woman in the wallpaper — and this leads to envisioning a very lonely life in this mansion for our narrator. She longs for company in the same way that she longs to write, asking John for permission and being denied, much like a child or a hospital patient. John and his wife discuss having their cousin Henry and Julia to visit, to which our narrator says, “he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillowcase as to let me have those stimulating people about now” (Gilman 649). This is one of the first examples of John using the narrator’s condition as an excuse to not have company, despite his wife’s loneliness.  Another example of this occurs later, when the narrator tries to have a serious talk with John and practically begs him to let her visit Henry and Julia.  After their conversation concludes, the narrator states that “he says I wasn’t able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there” (Gilman 651). Not only is John completely dismissing the narrator’s feelings in this instance and making false statements that he cannot prove, but he is also essentially cutting her off from her family. This will only contribute to her feelings of isolation and depression.

Our narrator is practically dependent on her husband, counting on him for all her physical needs and blindly taking his advice on every aspect of her life. She addresses this by saying, “John takes all care from me” (Gilman 648). This seems sweet in the context of this small section, but in relation to the entire story we can see that John takes care of his wife so that he has total control over her body. His wife has lost autonomy over her physical body at this point, as he performs treatments and gives her prescriptions despite her disagreement with his diagnosis. Eventually the narrator isn’t even allowed to make decisions about her own room and house, as she says that she asked John to remove the wallpaper from her bedroom. “At first, he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards said I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies. He said that after the wallpaper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then the gate at the head of the stairs, and so on.” (Gilman 649). John is depriving her of autonomy here by denying her the right to change the decoration in her room, but he is also gaslighting her by telling her that her wanting the wallpaper changed is just a silly fancy and that there’s actually nothing wrong with it. Not to mention, all the things he mentioned would be “next” as a result of changing the wallpaper are measures taken to ensure his control over her and to limit her autonomy. Bars on the windows, the heavy bedstead, and a gate at the top of the staircase are all things meant to keep her up in her room and not allow her to escape unless he allows it.

The first instance of narrator’s imposed guilt occurs when she says, “I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!” (Gilman 648). What she does not seem to realize is that even if she were trying to help John or to take up more responsibilities, he would find a way to inhibit her from doing so because he wants her to feel helpless. This tactic is being used to make the narrator dependent on her husband so that he can easily control her. When speaking of how careful her husband is with her, she says, “I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more” (Gilman 648). It’s strikingly strange that a person could ever feel guilty for their partner taking care of them. The narrator’s wording in this quote above raises the questionable possibility that perhaps the narrator is aware that she is capable of doing more, but she also knows that her husband would never allow it. As she repeats many times, “What is a person to do?” (Gilman 648). She has become indifferent to her husband’s control. She tries to have a serious conversation with him about her condition, but he dismisses it and concludes the conversation for her by using guilt. “I beg of you for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!” (Gilman 652). By using their child as leverage, the narrator’s husband makes her feel like she is making her condition worse by worrying about it or mentioning its existence at all. Once again, John dismisses her feelings about herself as “foolish fancy” (Gilman 652).

Even though the narrator obeys the orders of her doctor/husband outwardly, insight into  her internal thoughts through her writings points towards the possibility that she has some doubts about her own diagnosis. However, she can’t do anything but listen to him, because he has so much control over her. Whether this control is maintained by means of depriving her of things that will relieve her stress, such as visitors and writing; depriving her of her own autonomy and training her to be dependent on him; or guilt-tripping her into believing she is well for the sake of their future, all these tactics allow Dr. John to control every aspect of his wife’s life. John’s behavior is entirely calculated and manipulative, and our narrator would agree— even though she probably wouldn’t say so. “John is a physician, and perhaps— (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind–) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster” (Gilman 647).

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, The Literature of Prescription Exhibition, 2009.

Intersections with Madness Project: Gendered Power Dynamics in The Yellow Wallpaper

by Kathryn McGehee

Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the unreliable narrator to paint a dramatic descent into madness by a woman isolated by her family in the name of health. The short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” seems to open as a ghost story and has all the elements of gothic horror—the old and creepy house, the skeptical partner writing off the main character’s concerns, a specter making itself known through the narrative. But something insidious lives within the subtle cruelty of the dialogue. The speaker’s husband, John, paternalistically has removed every creative outlet that could help her cope and has isolated her away from anyone or anything that could possibly overwhelm her “delicate” state. In fact, she has been “absolutely forbidden to work until…well again,” due to a “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency,” (Gilman, 648). Instead, the narrator is left during the day near the watchful eye of the nursemaid who is in charged in the care of the speaker’s child, or her husband’s sister. Without any healthy outlet, the narrator is left with her newfound hyper fixation on the wallpaper of her bedroom: an ugly yellow wallpaper that seems to move. Is there a ghost trapped in the walls, or has the speaker been slowly driven made by the restrictive patriarchal beliefs Victorian society clung to regarding women—or is she actually sick?

At the narrative’s opening, the reader is given a glimpse of the subtle power dynamics taking place between the narrator and her husband, John. He seems on the surface to care for her wellbeing. He is concerned for her health and part of arriving at this residence is for the wife’s own convalescence while their home is under renovation. But like any other Victorian marriage, John hold all the power in their relationship, and in society at large. The typical Victorian woman was barely a step up from a child. She was also her husband’s ward and lacked the agency to move freely in the world of society. Furthermore, John’s chosen career in medicine further emphasize his authority as a man of science and a skeptic. When our unnamed wife expresses her trepidations at staying in the old house, she admits that John

…laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in a marriage. John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, and intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures. John is a physician….” (Gilman, 647)

The other authority in her life, true to Victorian society, is her brother. Both men have written off her mental struggles a temporary thing, a curable hysteria that only needs rest from all work and a removal of overstimulation. And the “rest cure” treatment which imprisons the speaker is tragically common to the time. He dismisses the speaker’s concerns in nearly most things, either as an impracticality or just another fit of fancy from her sex or her illness.  And the narrator seems to bow to that authority, leaning on his apparent ‘wisdom,’ even when everything in her body has reason to distrust that authority. From intuition about her own needs perhaps?

John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies. (Gilman, 649)

John’s warning repeats itself in her head as she deals with the strange things she sees in the bedroom walls. But sadly, also, John’s tendency toward rationality and leaning on the, albeit flawed, science of the day, has led to his dismissal of his wife’s urges for a visitation with friends, or even the chance to sleep in a different room.

Unfortunately, this prescribed rest treatment lines up with the beliefs of the day—that at the crux of hysteria in women is the pursuit of too much stimulus or burnout from trying to inhabit male social spheres, such as academia. Our narrator, like our author, is very much a writer. In the story, she must sneak her writing to odd hours, just to fulfill that primal need to maintain one’s identity through a trial. Yet the paternalistic view of the day, as illustrated in Plain Talk about Insanity: It’s Causes, Froms, Symptoms, and the Treatment of Mental Disease, worried that any such pursuit could put women in danger for their very sanity:

the same girls are apt to be quick, brilliant, ambitious, and persistent at study, and need not stimulation, but repression. For the sake of a temporary scholarship, they risk their health at the most susceptible period of their lives, and break down after the excitement of school life has passed away. For sexual reasons they cannot compete with boys….the list would be long of young women whose health of mind became bankrupt by a continuation of the mental strain commenced at school. Any method of relief … should be welcomed, even at the cost of the intellectual supremacy of women in the next generation. (Fisher, 1873)

Fisher declares the cause of feminine hysteria to be overstimulation, especially when females take on those more “male” spheres of academic rigor. The cure is rest, and by rest they mean the total removal of any kind of stimulus. T.W. Fisher warns well meaning family about falling for any kind of sympathy or voiced “exaggerations” by the patient and warns that loved ones should stay away until emotions can be regulated to prevent relapse until self-control is totally re-established (Fisher, 62). And so, our narrator is denied the chance to visit with beloved nearby friends, and denied anything that could be interpreted as “work,” from household duty to simply engaging in writing. It is for this same reason also that Nellie Bly is initially stripped of her own writing implement when she is admitted into the Blackwell Island Asylum during her expose Ten Days in a Mad-House—another example of the denial of the female voice for reasons of paternalism (Bly, 41). The result, in the name of “rest,” is the removal of the agency of the female voice entirely.

Our speaker has been muted by circumstances, infantilized, and stripped of her voice through dismissal and gaslighting by those who claim to love her. Writing is her last vestige of personal power, that which also gives her life, her coping mechanism and voice. And here she is having to sneak and scramble her writing past the watchful eye of the same spouse who prescribed the activity’s very absence. This secret journal, though, is what builds the story for us to read. It is her last remaining voice. Still, we never learn the narrative’s name. Her identity is written out of existence first by this fact. Furthermore, she exists only in relation to her husband, as his wife, and from him, never by name, but always by terms of saccharine endearment.  She is his “darling,” his “dear,” his “blessed little goose,” his “little girl” with a “little heart.” Every pet name he has for her is a diminutive of herself, at best. Even where John means well, his caring has become a great cruelty which also strips our narrator of hope as well as self. Without hope, one can deteriorate into depression or madness easily. And she struggles to speak up against the subtle social systems keeping her at bay.  “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time,” writes our narrator (Gilman, 650). The inability to speak up for herself to her husband, even when her body knows the doctors are wrong about her real needs, has led to a mourning of her loss of self. Or perhaps this is just a symptom of her depression? Even when she begs for change, her arguments fall on deaf ears and the science of the doctors wins out over her desires and needs. She is painfully lonely, especially during the day when John works, yet in her room she remains confined finding both comfort and repulsion.

The space her every being is transfixed and repulsed by reduces our speaker further, just the same as John. Her first reaction to the house as a unit is a positive one. She hopes for a bedroom downstairs opening to a piazza, but John rejects this request and insists on more room for the two of them upstairs.. This room is described as “a nursery first, and then a playroom and gymnasium,” (Gilman 649). The windows are barred, to prevent children from harm, yet adding to the prison like aura of the space as the story unfolds. The wallpaper’s descriptions evolve with our heroine’s mental decline. At one point the undulating lines of the pattern capture her imagination—at another, it is a “debased Romanesque,” (Gilman, 651). Yet, the paper seems to have an undulating and ever-changing pattern, depending on the speaker’s mood at each time of writing. She is disgusted by it, and knows right away she wants a change, and at first her husband agrees: “At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said I was letting it get the better of me and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies,”lest she possibly fall into some slippery slope of requesting more household repairs. (Gilman, 649). A very good argument can be made for the presence of a toxic mold in the wall, as the narrator’s horrible visions do get worse when wet weather makes everything in the house damp, the smell penetrates the speaker’s senses, the wallpaper stains whatever it touches, and it is difficult to figure out from the unreliable narration if the mushroom shapes are a part of the wallpaper’s design or really coming out of the wall.  The space permeates their life, magnifying the drama between human beings. The speaker, at one point, states her relief that the baby is not staying in “this nightmarish room” (Gilman, 651). However, there seems to be an irony here—the true inhabitant of the space is someone with even less power than the baby downstairs. The narrator is the true child of the nursery, her mental state and her husband’s infantilizing gaslighting having diminished the speaker down to a rebellious specter hiding in the walls of her psyche, behind the window prison bars. Her voice was stripped entirely in this space, so her ghost must now howl on the story’s last page.

During the second entry into the narrative, we discover our narrator’s status as a new mother when she expresses her trepidation toward being around her own child: “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous” (649). And here we have our first hint at what really could be going on. Today we might recognize postpartum depression, or even a postpartum psychosis, exacerbated by the tight restrictions set by her husband’s prescribed rest cure. While the speaker’s diagnosis at the time was most likely a blanket “female hysteria,” we know today how specific and debilitating post birth mental illness can be. I suffered from it so bad after the birth of my child that I am hesitant to have any more children myself. Luckily, unlike our narrator, I was encouraged by the medical professionals in my life to engage in my creative pursuits—they were not taken from me.

There is a great sadness that creative pursuits that could serve as a healthy outlet for unquiet minds were back in Gilman’s time considered “work” to be barred in the prescribed “rest cure.” I am not sure where I would be without my art. It should be obvious; a human starved for human attention and stimulation will get dangerously stuck in their own head.

Is the speaker’s supposed hysteria a symptom of postpartum psychosis, or a ghost in the wallpaper haunting an already fragile mind? Or is the narrator’s madness and mental decline the result of gaslighting, neglect, and the decimation of her own voice, of the constant dismissal at the blame of her husband and the social expectations of the time? Or is there yet another cause to the madness—perhaps a toxin hidden in the wallpaper itself, a lethal yellow mold eradicating the speaker’s own mind slowly? However, I don’t think that was the author’s intent. Such a reading may only be possible in our contemporary society, after the discovery of molds. Gilman’s short narrative seems to do more to spread the awareness of how delicately insidious the implied beliefs about the nature of women are to the woman entrapped by them. When a person is stripped of their agency in any way and for any reason, a slow loss of self can lead to the loss of self as experienced by our storyteller. If her husband got out of his ego just once, humored his “darling” wife in her requests just once, believed her just once, then this whole mad tale of yellow wallpaper may never have transpired.

Works Cited

Bly, Nellie, “Ten Days in a Mad House,” Miscellaneous Sketches: Trying to Be a Servant and Nellie Bly as a White Slave 1864-1922, Ian L. Munro, New York, 1877

Fisher, T.W. Plain Talk about Insanity: Its Causes, Forms, Symptoms, and the Treatment of Mental Diseases. Alexander Moore, 1873

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, The Literature of Prescription Exhibition Materials, 2009.

Catching Figs: The Bell Jar and Second-Wave Feminism

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.

Catching Figs

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.

Works Cited

Bennett, Paula. My Life a Loaded Gun: Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Budick, E. Miller. “The Feminist Discourse of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.” College English, vol. 49, no. 8, National Council of Teachers of English, 1987, pp. 872–85,

Cooper, Pamela. “A Body Story With a Vengeance: Anatomy and Struggle in The Bell Jar and The Handmaid’s Tale.” Women’s Studies, vol. 26, no. 1, 1997, pp. 89-123, doi:10.1080/0497878.1997.9979152

Fisiak, Tomasz. (2011). “Feminist Auto/biography as a Means of Empowering Women: A Case Study of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water.” Text Matters: A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture, no. 1, 2011, pp. 183–197,

Freidan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. W.W. Norton & Co., 1963.

Ghandeharion, Azra. “Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: a Mirror of American Fifties.” Kata, vol. 17, no. 2, December 2015, pp. 64-70, doi:

Kahn, Joan R., et al. “The Motherhood Penalty at Midlife: Long-Term Effects of Children on Women’s Careers.” Journal of Marriage & Family, vol. 76, no. 1, Feb. 2014, pp. 56–72, EBSCOhost,

Lestienne, Solenne. “Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath: The Self at Stake.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany, vol. 71, no. 71, Southern Connecticut State University, 2007, p. 12–15.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Harper Perennial, 2005.

Sande, Melissa. “Decentering Genealogies: Unbecoming through Genre in The Bluest Eye and The Bell Jar.” Papers on Language & Literature, vol. 56, no. 3, Southern Illinois University, 2020, pp. 274–319.

Verniers, Catherine, and Jorge Vala. “Justifying Gender Discrimination in the Workplace: The Mediating Role of Motherhood Myths.” PloS One, vol. 13, no. 1, Public Library of Science, 2018, pp. e0190657–e0190657,

Wimsatt, W. K., and M. C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 54, no. 3, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1946, pp. 468–88,