Analyzing Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar through a Feminist Lens
Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, is about an intellectual young woman’s role in the society of the 1950s. The novel describes the oppressive and patriarchal society in which the main character lives. The work of literature exposes the main character, Esther Greenwood’s ambition to be a career woman in a field dominated by men, the obstacles she faces, and the mental breakdown that occurs as a result. Feminism is the belief that women should be considered equal in all aspects of life. The feminist lens is modeled with the correlation between literary texts, and the roles of women in society. In this paper, logical methods are applied to demonstrate, explain, and dispute the oppression of women. Through the feminist lens, The Bell Jar’s main themes of lack of control, dehumanization based on gender, and stereotypes of women are demonstrated, explained, and disputed.
Sylvia Plath was born in Boston Massachusetts on October 27, 1932. She was born to Biology and German Professor, Otto Plath, and Aurelia Schober, who majored in English and later worked as a typist to support her family. Otto was a writer for most of Sylvia’s young life, and published a book on bumblebees before he died in 1940. Her father’s writing may have influenced Sylvia as she went on to receive prizes and scholarships for her literary work.
Sylvia Plath was enormously committed to academics, specifically writing. She was given a scholarship to the prestigious women’s college, Smith College, where she pursued literature and focused on her writing. Sylvia Plath’s desire to make writing her profession was not rational considering the society in which she lived (Barnard 16-17). As Plath lived from 1932 through 1963, her options were limited on the basis of her gender. During the era in which Plath lived, society had constructed roles that were ‘socially acceptable’ for women and men. Society’s set roles included a dominant working man and an inferior wife and mother. Sylvia Plath did not accept society’s constructed roles.
While in college, Plath wrote numerous poems and other literary pieces. Although Plath was very gifted, she submitted many articles to be published with little success. Her "failure" to be recognized as an author led Plath to feel worthless, frustrated and angry at herself and at society (Telgen 23). Based on this, Sylvia Plath once wrote a letter to a friend in which she wrote, "For the few little outward successes I may seem to have, there are acres of misgivings and self doubts" (Telgen 23). Sylvia was frustrated with the choice she would have to make which was either to follow her desire of becoming a "free-spirited poet", or falling into the wife/mother role society was imposing on her (Telgen 23).
Sylvia Plath also became frustrated by her mother. Plath’s mother was an inspiration to Sylvia because she was behind her during her youth taking on the role of typist and agent for her. Her mother encouraged Sylvia to write just as she had done with her husband, but this caused Plath to feel anxious. Anxiety was added because Sylvia felt as though she had to succeed, not for herself, but for her mother. "After 20 years we should start bringing in big dividends of joy for her" (Barnard 17). Sylvia’s frustration led her to strive for perfection each time she wrote, and anything less was not acceptable (Barnard 17).
As she put all of her free time into creating literature, she became frustrated even more when her peers did not understand why she was writing, or what it meant to her. Very few people could comprehend Plath’s desire to write as she was a woman of the 1950s and writing was not realistic or logical. All of these frustrations were mounting. Conditions improved after college. However, frustration did not disappear completely. In 1956 Sylvia Plath met and married British poet Ted Hughes. The couple did a lot of traveling and writing together when they were first wed, but that didn’t last very long. Sylvia was forced to put her dream of writing aside when she obtained employment doing secretarial work to support her husband while he worked on his writing. She put her own life on hold to sit back and watch as her husband’s work was published (Barnard 20).
The Hughes’ resided in England, far away from Plath’s family, and her home in Massachusetts. As her family life progressed with the birth of children, Sylvia Plath had less time to focus on her dreams and became increasingly frustrated and unoriginal. "Her duties as mother, wife, and secretary left her little time to write, and the submissive conjugal role which she accepted contributed to a growing feeling of personal unfulfillment" (Barnard 21). Plath fell into the socially constructed role of a "typical" woman, which was what she believed she had to do as a wife and mother. Plath didn’t dislike looking after her family; in fact she quite enjoyed being married and guiding her children. Plath began to resent all she had done when news of Ted Hughes’ infidelity became known. That news caused Sylvia to feel as though all of her dedication to the family was for naught, and that she put her desires on hold went unappreciated. She felt as though she was a victim, thus causing her to feel disillusioned by herself, and generally unhappy. Those feelings increased after a separation from her husband later in life. Sylvia Plath published The Bell Jar in 1963, and later that year frustrations grew too much to bear and she ended her life on February 11, 1963.
Sylvia Plath and the main character in The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, shared many commonalties. Esther Greenwood was a contentious and gifted writer, and attended a prestigious women’s college on a scholarship. Esther won a prize to work in New York City on a magazine staff. The once poor, young woman dined in high-class restaurants, met renowned people, and resided in elegant facilities. She was, however, not content with all of her "opportunities". Her dejected feelings came from the lack of control she felt she had as a woman. Esther felt she would never actually be able to have choices in life because of society’s pre-constructed "housewife" role (Telgen 23). "A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years. So poor she can’t afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself" (Plath 2). The fact that Esther felt she couldn’t follow her dream of writing depressed her, and eventually led to her destruction.
Esther acknowledged the ‘double bind’ that the oppressive society enforced on women. Opportunities for women who wanted to pursue a career and live their own lives were made ‘available’. Although those opportunities were present, women’s identities were solely defined by their relationships with men (Bonds 9). That exemplified the idea that women of the 1950s could not have careers other than secretarial work. Society imposed beliefs that other than having work as a secretary, women could do nothing except wait to be married and become a mother. "And they were all going to posh secretarial school like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other" (Plath 3). Women could not be executives; they could only work for men who were executives. Marriage, secretarial work, and housewifery did not interest Esther. She wanted to be a writer, and that was what she went to school to grow to be.
While attending college, Esther met many women who influenced her life in some way. Esther looked up to many women who eventually let her down and were full of rejections and separations. All of the women Esther met symbolized an aspect of some stereotype of womanhood. They dramatically impacted Esther’s life. Although Esther ultimately rejected the stereotypes the women represented, they were all responsible for shaping Esther’s life, making her the person she was. However, once the women fully gave in to the negative socially constructed role of womanhood, Esther became depressed and her mental breakdown began (Bonds 5).
Esther admired Doreen, another young woman also working on the magazine staff. Doreen was a "wise-cracking" woman who rejected the "cookie cutter" image that most young women held. Doreen also befriended Esther asking her to go out with her. Esther looked up to Doreen for those reasons. Esther felt let down by Doreen after noticing Doreen’s dependency on men. Once Doreen let a man disrespect her, Esther lost all respect for her. "I made a decision about Doreen that night. I decided I would watch her and listen to what she said, but deep down I would have nothing at all to do with her" (Plath 19).
The women in Esther’s life were not the only ones who let her down. This is exemplified through Buddy Willard, who was Esther’s love interest. Esther thought the world of Buddy until she realized he was absorbed in his own beliefs and desires. After she had been dating Buddy for a short time, women looked at Esther in a different, more accepting way because she was in a relationship with a man. Hence, only the man she was with defined her. At one point, Buddy developed tuberculosis (TB) and was placed in a medical facility away from Esther. That move was a relief for Esther, as she did not desire a relationship with Buddy, for the reason that she believed he was hypocritical. After he was set in the facility, Esther channeled all her energy into her passion, writing. When she stayed in her room reading or writing on a Saturday night, it was accepted because peers felt that she was "working through a broken heart." It was believed that Esther was substituting her studying for romance, thus suggesting that love and work could not exist together in a woman’s life (Telgen 35). "I simply told everyone that Buddy had TB and we were practically engaged, and when I stayed in to study on Saturday nights they were extremely kind to me because they thought I was so brave, working the way I did just to hide a broken heart" (Plath 59). After Buddy was in the hospital, Esther went on to meet a number of men who let her down in one way or another.
One man she met symbolized the worst kind of disrespect a woman could face. Esther was introduced to Marco who was described as a "woman hater." While Esther was out with Marco he called her degrading and dehumanizing names such as "slut." Perhaps the most horrible act that occurred was the attempt to rape Esther that Marco made. Marco represented the patriarchal society in which Esther lived as a whole, forcing his ideas on Esther and degrading and objectifying her by thinking of her as his personal object or possession. "Marco set his teeth to the strap at my shoulder and tore my sheath to the waist. I saw the glimmer of bare skin, like a pale veil separating two bloody-minded adversaries. Slut! The words hissed by my ear" (Plath 89). Esther fought back and pushed Marco off her, punching him and injuring him. That act was symbolic because when Esther rejected him she was also rejecting society's roles and beliefs. Esther asserted her voice rather than having it diminished. That was one instance in which Esther took a stand against men and society in general.
Another example of Esther standing up for herself was brought on by a conversation between Esther and Buddy. Buddy Willard asked Esther to marry him, and she explained her "unconventional" beliefs to him. Esther wouldn’t choose marriage over her dreams of a writing career (Luis 14). An article printed in "Housekeeping Monthly," on May 13, 1955 described typical duties of a "good housekeeper." Those chores included having dinner prepared, being "more interesting for him," and "remembering that his topics of conversation are more important than yours." Esther knew what marriage would denote, "It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash up dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted. This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s…" (Plath 68). Esther discussed her confusion about the choices she would be forced to make if they were to wed, and she assertively told him that she couldn’t, and more importantly wouldn’t choose. Buddy called her "neurotic" (Luis 14). "Neurotic, ha! I let out a scornful laugh. If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at once and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days" (Plath 76).
Although Esther stood up for herself and her beliefs in those instances, the feelings of alienation by society caused her to later feel self-alienation further leading to Esther’s mental breakdown and suicide attempts (Bonds 1). Throughout the novel it was clear that Esther was not mentally well, however it was inferred that society’s repressions for females contributed to her collapse (Telgen 30). The suicidal undertones throughout many parts of the novel revealed Esther’s mental instability. "The thought that I might kill myself formed in my mind coolly as a tree or a flower" (Plath 79). After Esther’s mental breakdown she went on to try to commit suicide numerous times. Esther tried to commit suicide at least three times before receiving proper help. First, Esther tried to take her life by drowning herself. She believed that if she swam an extraordinary distance in the ocean, that she would not have enough energy to swim back to shore, drowning herself. That attempt failed. Esther also tried to commit suicide by hanging herself, which again did not work. After Esther’s continual discussions about suicide and depression, and after suicide attempts, she was introduced to psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon.
Esther hated Doctor Gordon, and resented him the minute she walked into his office. She hated him because she believed he was perfect with photos set up in his office of his wife and children on his desk. Esther thought, "How could this Doctor help me anyway, with a beautiful wife and beautiful children and a beautiful dog haloing him like the angels on a Christmas card?" (Plath 106). Doctor Gordon also spoke to Esther as though nothing in her life was really wrong, only she thought something was wrong. He was so condescending and arrogant in speaking to her that it was no wonder Esther loathed the Doctor. Esther disliked the Doctor even more when he suggested using the crude procedure of Electro Shock therapy to "cure" her depression (Telgen 33).
Esther described her feelings on electrocution when she stated, "The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers…I thought it must be the worst thing in the world" (Plath 1). Esther attempted suicide one final time by swallowing fifty sleeping pills, before being checked into the mental institution that helped cure her. While in the hospital, she met a friendly woman Doctor named Dr. Nolan, who inspired her, as she was a woman, holding the position of "Doctor." Dr. Nolan and Esther bonded and Esther was able to discuss problems of the past. After treatments, Esther was apparently cured, as she was able to leave the hospital at the end of the novel.
Based on the obstacles that Esther Greenwood and Sylvia Plath had to overcome, The Bell Jar can be analyzed through the Feminist lens. Feminist criticism has to do with the way that assumptions based on gender are controlled in literary writings. Feminist criticism desires to either show how literary works uphold or challenge patriarchy (Moon 1). The title of the novel unequivocally represents the feminist undertones of the autobiography. In many stories, female characters are reduced to mere obstacles or prizes the male "hero" must achieve or encounter. "Women are brought down to the status of objects, while men are characters who are actually important "(Moon 2). The title, The Bell Jar, suggests that like a scientific object, women in the 1950s were looked at through ‘a bell jar’, or under a glass. Women were viewed as objects that belonged to ‘their’ men and the culture. This role that women were placed in was negative and dehumanizing (Sjlie 4). Furthermore, the title can also serve as the symbol of women’s roles in the 1950s. The word "Bell" written as ‘Belle’ describes a woman in American culture who was pleased to be a desired object of her husband’s. A woman of the 1950s, as the "Belle" was supposed to be content in the "housewife" role that was socially constructed and imposed (Sjlie 4).
The language and organization of a novel can reproduce gender inequalities by marginalizing women and femininity in general (Moon 1). Both Esther and Sylvia had to overcome culturally and socially constructed views of what were fundamentally "female traits" (Literary Theories 4). Esther and Sylvia had a passion for writing and a desire to make it a career, which was not "rational", based on society’s constructed roles. Society viewed having a career, as opposed to a family as being "un-feminine." Sylvia Plath urged women of the era to reject society’s constructed roles, and to become more independent. That is the reason she wrote the novel, The Bell Jar. Plath wanted to make it abundantly clear that if society continued to control women’s lives with the set structure of patriarchy, many would eventually go insane from repressing their dreams and desires.
Sylvia Plath integrated her own personal values, and her own personal life accounts into the autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. Her viewpoint was clearly depicted within the literary work through the feminist lens that tackled aspects of inequality, dehumanization based on gender, and stereotypes of women in the 1950s. Sylvia Plath committed suicide less than two years before the start of the women's movement. Perhaps she would have wanted to live and be a part of the movement had she not taken her life in 1963. Although she was not alive for the movement, her novel and her work was, and The Bell Jar was an important novel for women of the era. Sylvia Plath gave in to a patriarchal society and forfeited her life as a result.
Copyright: Kristen D’Elia 2003
Used by permission