The Bell Jar was published in 1963. The book dealt heavily with mental health and how it was treated and perceived at the time. The Bell Jar touched on gender issues at the time and was described as a feminist novel. In the 1950’s numerous historical events took place and references to those events were made in the book. The story centered around a young woman named Esther Greenwood, who aspired to be a writer. The book started off in the summer of 1953 in New York, where Esther was an intern for a fashion magazine. Early on it could have been easily seen that Esther was not happy where she was at all.
Which could be confusing since she had so many privileges and awards she”… Was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me all over America. ” Despite all of her successes, Esther was not enjoying herself and she seemed somewhat empty. Later on in the story, it was implied that she was experiencing the early signs of depression then. Next in the story Esther went out with a friend, but ended up walking back home when it was over, alone, drunk, and felt more detached and isolated from the world than ever before.
The next day when her boss asked her what she wanted to do with her life Esther said she did not know. Later she compared that to a fig tree with her potential life choices presented as figs that she could not choose from so they all died. Despite her determination and previous drive she had no clue of what she wanted to do with her life and did not seem as motivated then as she sounded in the past. She knew she was not doing what she should have like she did before, and she also knew that she did not fill the role of a rebel; that made her more depressed, as she did not fill any role that she felt she should.
It was next revealed that Esther had an on again off again boyfriend named Buddy who wanted to marry her. Although she compared a story of a doomed relationship to her and Buddy’s relationship. They watched a woman who was given drugs give birth and Esther was disturbed by it. Later she began to dislike Buddy because he did not follow the traditional rule of remaining chaste until marriage while he still presented himself as innocent. Buddy then caught tuberculosis and Esther was glad she did not have to see him very often anymore.
Esther was confused because what was expected of her traditionally and what she was and wanted to be do not match up. She wanted to pursue her own dream of writing and not keep house and nurture the dreams of her future husband. She also did not want to have kids or get married, although as it was hinted earlier she did recover from her depression and eventually did have kids submitting to the traditional norms of women at the time. Esther returned home to find she not accepted to a writing course she had been hoping to take.
That disappointment caused Esther to sink deeper into her depression and she was recommended to a psychiatrist. She had not slept or washed and said she was unable to read. The psychiatrist prescribed her shock therapy, which Esther did not want and she planned, unsuccessfully, to run away. The shock therapy was unsuccessful and worsened her depression which pushed her over the edge. Esther considered different ways to kill herself, but found she could not go through with any of the options she had thought of.
A trip to her father’s grave gave Esther the courage to go through with an unsuccessful attmept to kill herself with sleeping pills. After doctors helped her become physically well she was sent to a much nicer mental hospital. There she received insulin shots, successful shock therapy, and had a doctor who actually tried to understand her problems. While she was there Esther lost her virginity to an almost stranger, and her friend at the hospital committed suicide. Despite all of that, Esther eventually recovered and the book ended with her departure from the hospital.
The Bell Jar took place at an intense time in American history, and in the story that was demonstrated in a few events and common themes of the era. The Rosenberg’s execution, feminist ideas, the treatment of mental illness, and the traditional idea of the ideal 1950’s woman all made an appearance in the book. The very first sentence of the book mentioned the Rosenberg’s execution, that was one of the aspects of the book that was nonfiction. Back in 1950 a married couple named Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were accused of being spies for the Soviets.
In their trial they pleaded innocent, but were found guilty and like Esther said, were electrocuted. The Rosenberg’s were a part of what was called the second Red Scare. The second Red Scare was the fear of communist expansion, and was spurred on mainly by Harry Truman and an American senator named Joesph McCarthy. Truman implemented the Federal Employee Loyalty Program. The program basically meant that if there was a reason to believe an employee was having “un-American” thoughts they could be potentially fired.
Because of that program many people came forward to report others which lead to multiple unjust firings. From there the Red Scare grew. Actors and important people in government were investigated and the Smith Act declared that just being a member of the Communist Party was the same as planning to overthrow the government. That was where the Rosenberg’s come in. It was said that the information they had acquired from being spies had helped the Soviet Union build their atomic bomb. Evidence found later after their execution implied that Julius had been a spy but Ethel likely was not.
Senator Joseph McCarthy contributed to the Red Scare since he used people’s fears to gather support in hunting down communist supporters. Most of his claims were wrong, however, people were so afraid at the time that they believed him and it spiraled from there. That was where the term McCarthyism came from. The 1950’s were known for being picturesque in its familial ideals and was strict in its expectations for men and women. The Bell Jar had an abundance of examples where Esther felt the backlash and repressive side effects of those expectations.
One could have assumed from having read The Bell Jar that the “ideal” 1950’s woman was cheerful, submissive, pure, and she strove only to be a good wife and mother. Esther, however, was a more cynical character who did not go down without a fight and had her own dreams. She wanted to go into either writing or publishing, but felt society pressuring her to be a wife and mother. Esther thought she had to choose one or the other as she could not have both. Her boyfriend Buddy Willard backed that choice up by commenting that she would not write poems once she had children.
Esther’s fellow students at her college made fun of her for being studious and only seemed to respect her once she was dating Buddy. The college girls felt the societal pressure to get married and went along with it and they shunned those who did not, which included Esther. Esther’s mother and Mrs. Willard are the representation of the ideal 1950’s woman in the novel. They were both proper women who doted on their families. Her mother took up shorthand which at the time was a traditional woman’s skill.
Esther’s mother encouraged her to follow her dreams, though she did also try to encourage traditional beliefs in her daughter. Mrs Willard believed that women should be there for their husbands to support them in their dreams and nurture them when they were home. Esther was an analytical and progressive thinker for her time, Dr. Nolan who was her female psychiatrist helped to support those traits in Esther. In the book Sylvia Plath’s Fiction: A Critical Study the author made a good point between the Rosenberg’s and Esther.
He said “Esther sees in the Rosenbergs her own fate – pretend to be someone else or die. In the 1950’s the pressure to assimilate and bow to society was very strong, if one did not fit in then they were an outsider. One could imagine Esther feeling that way when she was trying to fit in and find her place in the world, especially since she did not fit in with the ideal standards of the 1950’s. The Bell Jar was considered a feminist novel because of Esther’s feminist views. Esther noticed a double standard going on in society, where it was perfectly normal for a man to have premarital relations while women were expected to remain pure for their future husbands.
She also disagreed with Mrs. Willard’s arrow analogy, where men are the arrow and women are supposed to be where the arrow shoots off from. When Buddy took Esther to watch the pregnant woman give birth, it was not the birth part that disturbed Esther. What disturbed Esther was the fact that the woman had just been given drugs to forget the pain, and she imagined it as a sort of brainwashing. Because she thought the woman would forget the pain she had gone through and be convinced to have another child.
As one could imagine of the restrictive 1950’s culture, mental illness was not something that was talked about often or viewed in a positive light. This was evident in the novel when Esther received visitors who thought her mental illness was fake. It was also shown once again when Buddy rhetorically asked Esther who would marry her now that she had been in a mental institution. Since Buddy at one point was wanting to marry her that question was made really to show how stigmatized mental illness was.
The treatments described in the book for mental illness seem absolutely barbaric now. Insulin shots, electric shock therapy, and lobotomies were described as treatments in The Bell Jar. None of Esther’s electric shock therapy treatments were truly successful in the book. One left her worse off than before and the other, while somewhat helpful, messed with her memory. Lobotomies were also an extreme, yet common, fix at the time. In the story Esther met a girl named Valerie who had a lobotomy who was nice yet she had no desire to leave the hospital ever.
The first time I read through the book I did not understand why The Bell Jar was an important or popular book. Personally I liked the book, but it did not stand out to me. Through researching the background and significance of the book | understand why it could be considered a classic. Sylvia Plath included so many details in the book about how mental health was seen, feminism, and the strict standards of the 1950’s that it gave The Bell Jar another layer that you might have to look closely to see.
Learning about mental health in the 1950′ was interesting to me because I myself am interested in going into psychology. I do know that today electroshock therapy, or electroconvulsive therapy, is still used but it is much more refined now. I thought this book was bittersweet since Sylvia wrote it based off of her experiences and since she also died shortly after writing the book. She left a great legacy to her name though, because of The Bell Jar.