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“The Bell Jar” is the only novel by Sylvia Plath, the American author. It was first published in 1963 under Plath’s pseudonym “Victoria Lucas.” However, it was not accepted by the publishers at first and became a best-seller after the author’s death. It owes its inclusion to classics to the feminist movement which was in search of the literature to help in defeating patriarchal tradition. The novel is considered autobiographical but the real facts are veiled among the invented (McCann 75). This piece of writing reveals the concept of gender in general and “the role of female protagonists in a largely patriarchal world” in particular (McCann 75).
In the novel, the author’s life facts are fictionalized. For example, Plath herself stayed in a psychiatric hospital and so did Esther, the main character of the story. Her last name, Greenwood, refers to the family name on Plath’s grandmother’s side thus bringing in more autobiography (McCann 75). Another common feature of the author and Esther Greenwood includes working for a magazine in New York City during summer, an attempt of suicide, and finally institutionalization (McCann 75). Wagner-Martin (qtd. in McCann 75) calls Esther “a stand-in for Plath: the golden girl, or star, who suffers and rises again”. The story is rich in symbols, themes, and stylistic features. The metaphor of the “bell jar” is worthy of a separate discussion.
The Image of the Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath herself commented on the story in the following way. “I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar” (qtd. in McCann 75). The bell jar is symbolic of the novel. The dictionary defines a bell jar as “a bell-shaped usually glass vessel designed to cover objects or to contain gases or a vacuum” (“Bell Jar”). In Plath’s novel, the bell jar is a metaphor used to refer to the society which surrounds the main character. In the narrower context, the bell jar can be treated as a metaphor for the life experiences of Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of Sylvia Plath.
The image of the bell jar pervades the novel. The main character believes she is under this jar. Esther does not think there is a possibility to change anything in her life. She mentions, “wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok–I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my sour air” (Plath 184). Her feelings could be probably explained by the position of women in general in the society of that time.
The young woman feels lonely and alienated. Her feelings are conditioned by discrepancies between the expectations put on any young girl living in 1950s America and her desires. She is supposed to be an obedient girl and marry an appropriate man. Her dreams of writing, successes in education, and winning awards by her talent are not respected. These discrepancies can lead to some psychological problems which later result in mental illnesses.
Women’s oppression often hurts their mental health (Busfield 523). The increase in the level of mental illness is frequently connected with stress. Thus, Cochrane (qtd. in Busfield 523) supposed that the rapid spread of psychiatric epidemiology is usually related to the post-war periods. Previously, the roots of stress and oppression as roots for mental illness were mainly related to the class distribution. However, after the 1970s, with the development of the feminist movement, the focus shifted to the concept of gender (Busfield 523).
One of the characteristic female roles is a marital one. The woman was expected to be dedicated to “the home and to domesticity” (Busfield 525). Such an attitude caused female’s frustration. The best outcome of the situation was a divorce. In the case of the worst scenario, a woman could come to “high levels of mental illness” (Busfield 525). On the whole, Gove (qtd. in Busfield 526) claimed that in developed countries married women are more exposed to mental illnesses than married men.
This approach was much criticized due to the lack of evidence apart from community surveys and some patient statistics. However, it got some support. Brown and Harris (qtd. in Busfield 526) suggested a concept of vulnerability in the context of investigating women’s depression. The factors that influence vulnerability included “lack of employment outside the home and a heavy burden of childcare (3 or more children under the age of fourteen)” (Busfield 526). These factors are related to the social role of a woman because of gender factors.
Female Madness and Patriarchy
According to Johnson, “We are trapped inside a legacy whose core is patriarchal (4). To figure out what is the essence of this fact and to find a way-out, the author suggests “to unravel the knot” and realize what it is like to stay inside a patriarchal legacy (Johnson 4). In fact, “patriarchy” is often interpreted as a code for the male population. However, it is not limited to defining men. Patriarchy can describe a kind of society in which both men and women participate. Nevertheless, this society is characterized by male privilege and is “male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered” (Johnson 4).
This domination is usually related to the issues of authority. It means that “political, economic, legal, religious, educational, military, domestic” powers are customarily supposed to be male (Johnson 4). In such a society, a woman who reaches superior positions is rather an exception than a rule. Such women are frequently compared to men in similar positions and their possibilities to succeed are often doubted. This approach hurts women’s self-perception and self-confidence. Their contribution is often under-evaluated. This fact also contributes to women’s psychological problems which result in more serious mental problems.
However, male dominance also does not presuppose the absolute powerlessness of all women (Johnson 16). There are many examples in history when women had more influence than men could gain. Thus, secretary of state Hillary Clinton or Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Elena Kagan, are the illustrations of female power.
Nevertheless, such examples are rare (Johnson 16). Feminist movement attempted to end patriarchy. bell hooks considered patriarchy another name for institutionalized sexism (qtd. in Weiss 4). She suggested the necessity in a change of women’s minds and hearts to substitute “sexist thought and action with feminist thought and action” (Weiss 4). On the whole, the concept of patriarchy is traced in the feminist theory from its beginning to postmodern feminism.
Critics often connect the issue of patriarchy with the concept of mental illness when analyzing “The Bell Jar.” One of the problems regarded in this context is the life of “female protagonists in a largely patriarchal world” (McCann 75). The way to the realization of beginning mental problems begins with the awareness that something is wrong. Thus, Esther mentions, “I knew something was wrong with me that summer, because all I could think about was the Rosenbergs and how stupid I’d been to buy all those uncomfortable, expensive clothes, hanging limp as fish in my closet, and how all the little successes I’d totted up so happily at college fizzled to nothing outside the slick marble and plate-glass fronts along Madison Avenue” (Plath 16). Esther’s inner chaos finds reflection in the environment. There appears a problem of betrayal which is expressed through the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were accused of espionage. The issue of betrayal is more complicated when applied to Esther because it is difficult to understand if she betrayed herself or the society betrayed her. That is when she describes her living as a bell jar (McCann 77).
In the novel, the changing world is depicted through the perception of the institutionalized individual. In this case, it is difficult to understand what causes the misunderstanding, the problem that the protagonist does not suit the world or the mental disorders of this person. Luckily, there are some triumphs in the difficult way of the protagonist. These small victories are even more valuable in the patriarchal world where the skills and talents are underestimated due to gender. One such triumph is Esther’s staying in New York’s women’s magazine.
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This fact is one more parallel with Path’s real life. However, this triumph turns into a loss when Esther has to return home after failing to enter a writing course she was dreaming of. When she heard the news, her reaction was as follows. “The air punched out of my stomach. All through June, the writing course had stretched before me like a bright, safe bridge over the dull gulf of the summer” (Plath 118). Return homemade a perfectionist like Esther depressed. Similarly to Plath, a young lady attempts suicide. Luckily, she survives but is finally placed into a mental clinic.
The novel tells the story of Esther from the past to the present. It figures out various influences that led to the sad final. The main focus if not on the institution. More attention is given to the step-by-step decomposition of the main character. Here belongs her mental disorder which was diagnosed as schizophrenia and the discrepancies between her personality and demands of the 1950s society for a woman. The concept of decisive choice should also be regarded. Esther Greenwood has to decide on her life which is not an easy thing in the patriarchal world.
She pictures the moment of choice necessity and refusal of all the possibilities as the condition of paralysis. She imagines a fig tree which fruits represent the possible choices. “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… 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 every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest” (Plath 84). Thus, being unable to select, Esther lost all the opportunities.
The issue of mental illnesses is usually a complicated one. It is conditioned by many factors. It should be considered that mental illnesses are frequently brought about by life experiences. In the case of Sylvia Plath, the family influenced her from an early age. It led to problems with self-esteem problems during the young years and in adult life. moreover, her unhappy marriage caused more problems. The woman desired all the opportunities in all life spheres. Similar to the majority of women, she longed for happy love, life, and successful work. The discrepancy between desires and reality causes the mental problems she observed (“Sylvia Plath Documentary”). It happened the same to her protagonist, Esther Greenwood.
The young lady was not able to decide on her future. She could become an obedient daughter and a good wife thus following the traditional perception of women’s fortune at that time. This choice would mean the refusal of her dreams and ambitions. Her writing and academic talent would be lost since the society did not approve of such occupations for a woman. Esther did not manage to stand against society. The bell jar of patriarchal tradition kept her inside without air for her dreams. This condition resulted in a big discrepancy between the desires and reality which finally took her to a mental institution after a suicidal attempt.
“Bell Jar.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 2017.
Busfield, Joan. “Mental Illness as Social Product or Social Construct: A Contradiction in Feminists’ Arguments?” Sociology of Health and Illness, June 2008, pp. 521-542.
Johnson, Allan G. The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. Temple University Press, 2005.
McCann, Janet, editor. Critical Insights: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Salem Press, 2012.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.
“Sylvia Plath Documentary.” YouTube, uploaded by Udos Television.
Weiss, Dennis. ” Theory, Feminism, and Feminist Theory.” PDF Story, 2017.