Home » The Characters of Women in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Bell Jar

The Characters of Women in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath’s renowned autobiographical legend “The Bell Jar” and Margaret Atwood’s fictional masterpiece “The handmaid’s tale” are the two emotional feminist stories, which basically involve the women’s struggle. Narrated with a touching tone and filled with an intense feminist voice, both novels explore the conflict of their respective protagonists in a male dominated society. In spite of several extraordinary similarities in terms of influential characterization and emotive themes, both novels are diverse as far as their respective style, structure and setting is concerned.

While Plath’s preference of frequent flashback is admirable and absorbing, Atwood’s choice of presenting her novel in terms of headed chapters that alternate between her peaceful past and chaotic present is, indeed, fascinating. On the contrary, although Atwood’s symbolic style enriched with biblical metaphors is ironical and inspiring, Plath’s touching use of meaningful motifs and descriptive imagery suits its admiration as one of the best autobiographical fiction.

The Bell Jar” penned by Sylvia Plath, is a tragic tale of Esther Greenwood, her depressing experiences of life and social relationship and her eventual mental breakdown resulting with her attempts of committing suicide. On the other hand, Margaret Atwood’s award winning novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” depicts the haunting experiences of Gilead, where sexual repression and religious extremism was not uncommon. Both novels have female protagonist, who are victims of rape and sexual violence.

Marco, a guy on a blind date with Esther, calls her a “slut” and tries to rape her, and Esther’s struggle can be revealed when she says “I began to writhe and bite. Marco weighed me to the earth. ” (The Bell Jar. P. 120). While, the shock of such dreadful experience leaves a profound impact on Esther, the protagonist of “The Bell Jar” resulting in her mental downfall, it is common for Offred, the protagonist of “The Handmaid’s Tale” to uncensoredly accept the reality of her world, as sexual involvement is her profession.

We are for breeding purposes. There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts. We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices (The Handmaids Tale, p. 176). ” and “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will… There were limits, but my body was nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me…

Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I, am and glows red within its translucent wrapping (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 95). ” These two are the outstanding quotes narrated by Offred, showing her acceptance to the actuality. In addition both novels convey similar themes of sexual exploitation and restricted role of women in the society.

The Bell Jar” represents sexual exploitation in 1950’s which is true to a certain extent, since the origin of pornography due to the impact of movies and “sexual revolution” which became rampant during this era. On the contrary, it is indeed, ironic that “The Handmaid’s Tale”, a novel set in “not so distant future”, portrays exploitation of women as a norm of the society exposing the hypocrisy regarding the belief of equality of men and women in today’s society.

Moreover, “The Handmaid’s Tale” also satirizes the increased use of medication and widespread pornography through the vivid depiction of its protagonist’s life as a handmaid. “My nakedness is strange to me already. My body seems outdated. Did I really wear bathing suits at the beach? I did, without thought, among men, without caring that my legs, my arms, my thighs and back were on display, could be seen. ”

“Men are sex machines… They only want one thing. You must learn to manipulate them, for your own good. The Handmaid’s Tale, P. 144). These quotes give us the idea of the rampant pornography. In addition to the restricted role of women in society, “The Bell Jar” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” also represents the isolation and loneliness of the protagonists. Despite a striking similarity in the characterization of the two novels, the structure of “The Bell Jar” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” are contrasting in many aspects. Atwood has presented her novel in the form of headed chapters, alternating between past and present of the protagonist.

The track involving Offred’s past depicts how she became a victim of the oppressive Republic of Gilead. On the other hand, the tremendously miserable present life of Offred as the handmaid has been painted and presented in alternation with her past life to highlight the contrast between her past and present. On the contrary, her present life appears to be emotionless, since she has been deprived of her children as well as, how she, has to work as a handmaid, accepting her reality.

Moreover the novel ends with an epilogue, a comment of the audience at the end, which creates sympathy for the protagonist and is, indeed, thought-provoking as the story ends with the sentence “Are there any questions? ” Contrastingly, “The Bell Jar” has been presented as a flashback through the mind of the protagonist depicts how the protagonist suffered mental breakdown. In fact, Plath’s use of Esther as a narrator allows her to portray her own feeling as she herself suffered from the nervous breakdown and an attempted suicide.

Moreover, the shift of perspective from the present to the past through the use of a single flashback which is well-hidden for a major part of the novel, allows the author to present the climax of her novel with amazing effectiveness. For instance, the novel begins with a normal person going on a New York.

However, as the novel progresses with the protagonist committing suicide the reader realizes that the story presented so far has been the past of the protagonist as suggested by the narrator’s quote “the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly. The Bell Jar, p. 92), showing that she has a baby now. Although the characterization and theme of the two novels are similar, the styles of their respective author are unique yet interesting. Both “The Bell Jar” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” have been presented with a first person point of view that allows the respective authors to solely focus on the dilemma felt by their protagonists.

However, the narrator of “The Bell Jar”, Esther, is mentally challenged and therefore unreliable to a certain extent compared to the reliable narrator of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Offred. Moreover, Atwood has frequently used the motif of the “red color” to symbolize fertility, birth and life positively and, indignity and sin, negatively, while Plath has used “blood” as a motif to symbolize the willingness of Esther to forfeit anything for the sake of experience. “The red gloves are lying on the bed.

Everything except the wings around my face is red; the color blood, which defines us. ” (The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 17) Atwood uses various biblical terms such as “Guardians of Faith” for the local police, “Commander of the Faithful” for the commanders, “Angels” for the soldiers, while Plath depends on vivid depiction of various things to indicate the observant yet isolated nature of her narrator. “Great white bearskin lay about underfoot, and the only furniture was a lot of low beds covered with Indian rugs.

Instead of pictures hung up on the walls, he had antlers and buffalo horns and a stuffed rabbit head. ” (The Bell Jar, pg. 27) and “Around the middle of the glass there was painted a pink lasso with yellow polka dots. I drank about an inch below the lasso and waited a bit, and when I went to take another sip, the drink was up to lasso-level again. ” (The Bell Jar, pg 29) are some incredible examples from the “The Bell Jar. ” In addition, the use of diction and dialogue by the respective authors arises greatly.

The title of “The Bell Jar” symbolizes how Esther is wrapped up by insanity and could easily be descended. The bell jar is an inverted glass jar usually used to maintain vacuum. “How did I know that someday . . . the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again? ” (The Bell Jar, p. 296). Conversely, the title of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is straightforward which gives an initiative to the reader that it is a story of a handmaid struggling to survive in the midst of the cruelty.

From the literary analysis of the novels it is evident that, both stories have similar themes and both authors used female characters to convey their feelings about feminist issues, especially in terms of loneliness and isolation. However, there are many diversities between these two stories, especially in terms of structure and style. In a nutshell, “The Bell Jar” and “The Handmaid’s tale”, are indeed, literary gems in the field of feminist literature that would definitely satisfy the literary thirst of their aspiring readers.

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