Analysis of The Bell Jar
The ultraconservative air of the 1950’s breeds the Betty Crocker kind of woman, satisfied with her limited role in a male-dominated society, one who simply submits to the desires and expectations of the opposite sex. The Bell Jar, by Syliva Plath explores the effects of society’s traditional standards on a young woman coming of age. The main character, Esther Greenwood, a nineteen year-old college student, receives messages about a woman’s place in society throughout her life. Esther’s aspirations of becoming a writer, specifically, a poet, are obvious. Carrying out these aspirations in the 1950’s is not so clear-cut, though. Esther’s environment presses her to marry, settle down, have children; to be the happy housewife. For nineteen years she puts on a facade, pretending to be the woman everyone wants her to be, trying to please her family and peers, until she mentally breaks down and attempts suicide.
Her mother serves as the first of her teachers in conveying this message. For example, Mrs. Greenwood wants her daughter to learn shorthand because it will get her a living until she can marry, because it can even get her a husband. She consistently emphasizes the importance of Esther staying “pure,” so she can get the best of possible husbands. So early on Esther realizes that, for most women, marriage and family comprise the main substance of their lives.
Esther receives more lessons from her medical student boyfriend, Buddy Willard. He often spits out remarks like one day Esther will “stop rocking the boat and start rocking a cradle.” He also says that once she has children she will “feel differently,” and not want to write poems anymore, that she will be “brainwashed and numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.” This was what happened to Buddy’s mother, who, after marriage, let her husband walk all over her like a “kitchen doormat.” It is his mother Buddy quotes when he says, “What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinite security” and “What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from.”
Even the editors of Ladies Day, the magazine which awarded Esther and 11 other girls a free trip to New York due to winning their fashion magazine contest, accentuate the girls’ femininity. On their arrival in New York, the editors drive the girls around from fashion shows to beauty parlors to gala lunches to publicity parties. Then, after dressing them up like Cinderellas, the editors pose them in front of a camera with a dozen other “anonymous young men with all-American bone structures.” The magazine is clearly not interesting in promoting the girls’ intellect that won them the contest in the first place. It is no wonder Esther becomes weary of this stale, unprofitable environment which only stifles her personal growth.
Before Esther went to New York, her life was safely circumscribed. She was always “running after good marks and prizes and grants of one sort an another” for as long as she could remember. During that fateful summer in the city questions suddenly confronted her: What does being a woman mean? What female role should she play?
The book presents a variety of female roles: Dodo Conway, a perpetually pregnant woman whose face glows with a “serene, almost religious smile”; Buddy Willard’s mother, a professor’s wife and leading citizen who constantly quotes words of wisdom; Doreen, the Southern blonde bimbo who always snags the men she wants; Betsy, the blithe, innocent, and simple Midwestern fashion model; Philomena Guinea, the best-selling novelist who endows Esther with a college scholarship; and Jay Cee, the successful fashion magazine editor. But despite Dodo’s placid contentment, Jay’s cleverness, Mrs. Willard’s womanly wisdom, Doreen’s attractiveness, and Betsy’s innocence, all are essentially flawed as humans, and as women. Besides good looks, Doreen also possesses an innate vulgarity and frivolity. Dodo, though maternally content, represents no more than a flabby, misshapen animal. Mrs. Willard, though seemingly refined and cultured, actually lets her husband walk all over her like a doormat. Philomena Guinea’s novels are not literary masterpieces, but endless, gossipy soap operas, while Betsy represents the empty-headed “nice girl.”
For all of these women, it is impossible for them to assert their independence, to stand alone on solid ground, to be their own person. These male-dependent, bubble-headed, flawed women constantly bombard Esther’s mind; their world and way of life do not satisfy her needs or desires. One of the novel’s key passages best describes the conflicting emotions running through Esther’s mind, and shows a vision of her life branching out like a green fig tree:
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor. . . and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. . . I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs 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 plopped to the ground at my feet.
This passage of Esther’s symbolic tree shows the amazing complexity and confusion characteristic of the choices women have to make. One common root emerges into thousands of different branches, and she faces the dilemma of choosing one and only one path.
Negative images of childbirth and babies are also prominent throughout the book. In a gynecologist’s office, watching a mother lovingly caressing her baby, Esther wonders why she does not feel these same maternal sensations, as biological and social roles suggest. To her, babies represent a trap, and sex as the bait. She realizes they represent life, but not the life she wants to live. She does not want fulfillment though childbirth, as many women would; she wants to fulfill herself, by herself, with no help from anybody. Between the enormous fetuses on display at Buddy’s hospital ward and her neighbor, Dodo Conway, as a permanent slave to her seven children, Esther feels overwhelmed, even sickened. Babies lure Esther toward suicide by presenting to her only two options: either giving oneself completely to the child or dying. The choice to live looms so visibly and painfully that she takes matters into her own hands by attempting to kill herself later on.
She also witnesses childbirth in the hospital where Buddy, works.
The woman’s stomach stuck up so high I couldn’t see her face or the upper part of her body at all. She seemed to have nothing but an enormous spider-fat stomach and two little ugly spindly legs propped in the high stirrups, and all the time the baby was being born she never stopped making this inhuman whooing noise.
The head doctor. . . kept saying to the woman, “Push down, Mrs. Tomolillo, push down, that’s a good girl, push down,” and finally through the split, shaven place between her legs, lurid with disinfectant, I saw a dark fuzzy thing appear.
In this scene childbirth seems like a frightening ordeal, in which the “dark fuzzy thing” emerges from between the woman’s legs. The pain of Mrs. Tomolillo is quite apparent with her “spider-fat stomach,” “ugly, spindly legs,” and “inhuman whooing noise.” The child itself is streaked with blood and “blue as a plumb.” It is like a foreign object that violates the mother’s body. After observing the “sewing up of the woman’s cut with a needle and long thread,” Esther wonders “if there were any other ways to have babies.”
All of these conservative messages about the roles of women in society take their toll on Esther’s personality. On the outside, people see Esther as the fashionable college girl with her patent leather bag and matching pumps; the brainy English major, who is equally comfortable on the party scene or behind the books. These images confirm the fact that Esther has always played the roles others wanted her to play. For her mother is “the perfect good girl.” For Mr. Manzi, her physics professor, she is the model student, though secretly she loathes physics. For Buddy, she is only sweet and agreeable. For Doreen, Esther seems tough and sophisticated. For Betsy, she is the fun girl who enjoys sappy movies. Finally, Esther breaks down when she attempts to paste a forced smile on her face while modeling in front of the Ladies’ Day photographers. Dissolving into tears, the whole artificial facade of the past 19 years crashes down on her. Before leaving New York, Esther abandons all of her fashionable clothes provided by the magazine, letting each item float down over the city from the top of her hotel. This action represents the renouncing of the feminine standards, and obliteration of the self. After her distressful month in New York, Esther returns to Massachusetts, where she attempts suicide in the basement of her house by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. The years of gender inequality messages, false identities, and artificial contentment weigh her down, as she finally takes matters into her own hands.