The Bell Jar – A Feminist Critique

MAY 10TH, 2010

a brief excerpt…

On the morning of February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath committed suicide in her flat in London, England. She left behind two children, a divorced husband, countless poems, and one novel: The Bell Jar. Plath first published The Bell Jar in England, under the pseudonym, Victoria Lucas, in 1963. Her poetry was not selling well, and she was afraid her novel would meet the same unlucky literary fate. Also, her novel depicts the lives of people in her life: 

Plath was concerned that the novel, which could be read as autobiographical, could anger family and friends, since some characters were based—very loosely—on living people, Plath had decided to play it safe and release the novel under a pseudonym (Alexander, 268).

Using a pseudonym also helped hide the parallels between Plath and Esther Greenwood’s lives. The novel was republished in Plath’s name in England in 1966, and published in America in 1971. The Bell Jar became a best-seller. However, The Bell Jar is a reflection of gender roles in the 1950s; therefore, it is appropriate to conduct a feminist reading of this novel. Feminist criticism’s purpose is “to challenge and critique this patriarchal vision established in both culture and literature, denouncing and rejecting all phallocentric assumptions” (Bressler, 168). In The Bell Jar, the women Esther encounters are viewed as objects on a display shelf. Their options in life were limited to either becoming a “happy housewife” or a secretary. Plath and Esther both did not want that life. So, Plath used The Bell Jar as a forewarning to the young women of America and England to move past the controlling patriarchy of society, or they would risk their mental health by repressing their desires and dreams. In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood’s voice is stifled by society because she was a woman aspiring to become a writer, an uncommon feat.  This confinement leads to her breakdown because she was unable to positively express herself mentally, sexually, or physically. As you read the novel, you can witness Esther’s struggles with her voice and identity. The 1950s era led to the confinement and depression of Sylvia Plath; as   a result, Plath used The Bell Jar as an outlet to relieve her depression, to write her autobiography, and to further reject the norms of society.

The Bell Jar was written at an important part of Plath’s life in the late 1950s. She was travelling between America and England, she was married, she was teaching at Smith, and she was publishing her poetry. Very few people understood Plath’s motivations behind writing in a society that looked down upon it, that she was not just doing it for herself, but for her mother as well. Therefore, being less than perfect was not acceptable. The plotline for The Bell Jarwas very familiar to Plath, with mental breakdowns, sex, and suicide attempts as the main topics for the novel. “Society allowed a man to write about going mad, but when a woman approached the subject was disparaged” (Alexander, 322). Since The Bell Jar is a coming-of-age story, we watch Esther grow from her experiences with suicide and depression, and successfully move back into her collegiate world. When we meet Esther, she is a nineteen-year-old collegiate woman who is generally not content with her life. She is spending the summer in New York, working for a magazine (like Plath), and she exhausts herself mentally. As she journeys further into her depression, we see her reaching out from the restrictions of her editing job, college life, and her relationships with men: 

After nineteen years of running after good marks and prizes and grants of one sort and another, I was letting up, slowing down, dropping clean out of the race  (Plath, 29).

Esther did not want to be a submissive housewife, but she also did not want to be a lonely writer. She notes that she does not want to get married: “That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security…I wanted change and excitement” (83). She was not content with her options and felt a lack of control. Esther had fears of losing her numerous options if she does not choose a path in life, symbolized through the fig tree on page 77. Her lack of control was due to her confinement: her literal confinement in the basement of her house when she tried to commit suicide, the confinement society placed on women in the 1950s, and her mental confinement: “her ‘madness’ is presented as a necessary consequence of the world surrounding her” (DeLauretis, 125). Esther is unable to write what she wants, and she realizes that society will not let her be a wife/mother and a poet. She wants to write a novel but, “I decided I would put off writing a novel until I had gone to Europe and had a lover” (Plath, 122). This shows that Esther was eager for experience, particularly sexual experience. Plath, like Esther, “believed much of her apprehension grew out of her confusion about boys and sex…She also fought a powerful sex drive” (Alexander, 89). During her stay at Caplan, Esther receives electrotherapy shocks, which dulls her sharp mind temporarily. Esther continuously feels that no one thinks the way she does, or about the things she thinks about, furthering her decent into madness. She is then moved to Belsize; typically from Belsize, patients went home, but Esther did not feel well enough to move to Belsize. She felt like she had to get better, or she would fall from mental hospital to hospital and eventually become nothing. Esther also cannot identify her face when she looks into mirrors, leading us to believe she has no identity as a woman. This leads Esther to see two possibilities of the things around her, and she feels as if she is forced to pick a side. Esther finds strength in rejecting the norms of society. From this, Esther continues to grow, even though regeneration in the novel is seen as painful, but her growth from her suicide attempt is seen as noble and dignified. Plath uses Esther’s illness as the reason for her instability: not men, society, or Esther herself. However, American feminists blame “society’s patriarchal power structure” for Plath’s destruction (Alexander, 357).


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