Feminist Aspects in "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath
In an article announcing the release of Sylvia Plath’s complete diaries, Plath was said to be “considered a feminist martyr” (Associated Press 12). If she were a feminist, then it would only make sense to assume that her writing would be put into the category of feminist literature, but one should never assume anything. The Bell Jar is a feminist novel, not because it was written by a feminist, but because it deals with the feminist issues of power, the sexual double standard, the quest for identity and search for self-hood, and the demands of nurturing.
The Bell Jar is a novel about a young woman, Esther Greenwood, who is in a downward spiral that ends in an attempted suicide and her challenge to get well again. Esther is increasingly fascinated by death. When she feels as if she is losing control over her life, or losing power, she begins to take control of her own death. She had always been a high achiever in school. She was at the top of her class and won many awards. All of that high achievement lead to her obtaining an internship with Ladies’ Day magazine, the focus of the first part of the novel. It was while working at the magazine in New York City where she began to lose control. Then, when she returned home, she found out that she had not been accepted to the summer writing program that she had been looking forward to. She really began to lose her own power and self-confidence. She could no longer sleep, read, or write. She needed this power that she had always had, but she had lost all control. Esther began to plan her own demise at this point; it seemed to be the one thing she had power over. It seems to me that Esther is much like a person with an eating disorder. People who suffer from eating disorders lose control over their lives and compensate by controlling their food intake.
Sexual Double Standard
Esther’s other great fascination in the novel seems to be birth. She refers to the babies in the jars at Buddy Willard’s medical school several times. She also describes Mrs. Tomolillo’s birthing experience in detail. In this detailed description, she refers to the birthing room as a “torture chamber” (Plath 53). Esther is feeling the demand placed on women to be natural mothers, or nurturers. She feels as if she will have to give up herself if she decides to marry and have a family. She expresses this when she says,
I also remember Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems anymore. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state (Plath 69).
This demand for being a natural nurturer ties in with the issues of the sexual double standard and power. Esther often expresses her feelings that having children is a man’s way of keeping power over his woman.
Esther often thinks about the sexual double standards that she faces in society. In particular, she has constant thoughts about her sexual status. She is a virgin for most of the novel, and this constantly weighs on her mind. As she says,
When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue. Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another (Plath 66).
She was brought up to believe that a woman must still be a virgin when she got married. She assumed the same was true for men. Then, she discovered that Buddy Willard was not a virgin. In fact, he had slept with a waitress a couple of times a week for a whole summer. Esther soon discovered that it may be “difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one” (66). She “couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not” (66). She didn’t like this sexual double standard, so she was determined to find a man and lose her virginity. If it was alright for a man to do, then it was alright for her, a woman to do.
Searching for Self
The novel deals especially well with the feminist issue of a woman searching for her identity, or self. One of the reasons that Esther loses control over her life is that she thought she knew how her life would pan out. She really began to think about her future, the vast possibilities open to her, and the decisions she would soon have to make for her life when she was interning in New York. She was overwhelmed. She wanted to be everything at once while realizing that she couldn’t be everything at once. Esther had always been such a high achiever; failure had never really occurred to her. Suddenly she was off her track. She made this realization when she was talking to her boss, Jay Cee. When Jay Cee asked Esther what she wanted to do in the future, Esther froze and thought,
What I always thought I had in mind was getting some big scholarship to graduate school or a grant to study all over Europe, and then I thought I’d be a professor and write books of poems, or write books poems and be an editor of some sort. Usually I had all these plans on the top of my tongue.
‘I don’t know,’ I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true (27).
Esther suddenly felt the pressure of having to know who she was going to be, and she wasn’t prepared for the journey towards that discovery. Looking at women such as Jay Cee and Doreen, she thought that she should automatically know. This lost feeling made her feel powerless.
Have you read "The Bell Jar"?
Plath's Feminist Agenda and the Fig Tree
I believe that Plath’s feminist agenda in the novel is summed up in the fig tree analogy. Esther imagines this fig tree where each fig represents a choice in her life, such as a husband, a career as a poet, or an array of exotic lovers. Faced with all of these choices, she cannot choose. She says,
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 grow black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet (63).
Sylvia Plath shows the reader the dilemma that a woman faces in her life through the story of Esther Greenwood. A woman faces the issue of power. She can take control of her own life, as Jay Cee seems to have done, but face possibly living a lonely existence. She can give that power to a man, and lose her identity to motherhood and being a wife. She can choose a career or motherhood, but in Esther’s opinion, not both. Through the analogy of the fig tree, Plath is saying that a woman cannot have it all, as much as she may want to. Unlike men, who can have a family, a career, or ‘it all,’ a woman has to choose one thing or nothing. For this reason, I believe that The Bell Jar is a feminist novel.
Associated Press. “Sylvia Plath’s complete journals describe joy, despair.” Keene Sentinel. 20 March 2000: 12.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.
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© 2012 Donna Hilbrandt