The Bell Jar is commonly viewed as a withering critique of expectations of women in the 1950s. The novel is perhaps this, but it is also more. Themes of the stifling roles of women in the ‘50s are present, yes. Yet the alternative to these traditional roles, as represented by independent, career minded women, are not necessarily portrayed positively either. For this reason, the Bell Curve offers a view of gender relations much more nuanced, and perhaps realistic, than what is on offer from the feminist narrative so familiar today. The book is not particularly political; or if it is political, it doesn’t serve any particular faction as neatly as one might expect.
There are various female characters who represent either conformity to a so-called patriarchal system, or those who rebel against such a system. Yet neither type of character is a source of positive inspiration for Esther. This is part of the protagonist’s dilemma–not knowing which way to turn. As such, the moral of the story is a lot more subtle than “independent woman good, mother and wife bad.”
…the moral of the story is a lot more subtle than “independent woman good, mother and wife bad.”
Protagonist and narrator Esther Greenwood is a stand-in for the author herself, Sylvia Plath. That is why Plath’s mother sought to block the book from publication; she feared the harm to individuals portrayed in the Bell Jar. Harold Bloom states that Esther is “plainly Plath.” Incidentally, the curmudgeon goes on to state that he cannot find any “aesthetic merit” in the novel (9).
The 1st person narrator Esther is deeply disturbed that her romantic interest Buddy Willard has not maintained his virginity. She is crestfallen and this shows a sweetness to her and a longing for purity:
“What I couldn’t stand was Buddy pretending I was so sexy and he was so pure, when all the time he’d been having an affair with that tarty waitress and must have felt like laughing in my face” (71).
She is repulsed by her friend Doreen’s drunkenness and hopes to disassociate herself from her reveling friend in the eyes of the prim European housekeeper. Ironically, a sense of tradition and purity keeps Esther moored, and the lack thereof that makes her begin to unravel and ultimately land in a mental institution. Drinking alcohol and premarital sex are both causes and symptoms of this unmooring.
The flip side of this attitude is her stubborn independence and rebellion against the norms of the 1950s. When looking back on her missed opportunities and life blunders, Esther recalls that she failed to learned shorthand. “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way, I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters” (76). It was just for her to think so, given her latent writing ability. This dislike of “serving” men, though, could be seen in light of an overall refusal to conform to society’s expectations on a multitude of fronts. She doesn’t seem keen on conforming to her female boss’s expectations either.
Esther perceives a hypocrisy in the role of husbands and wives, and that men seem to lead secret double lives. Here she launches a vague complaint about gender relations that would be well at home in modern feminism:
“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket” (83).
But Sylvia Plath is no ordinary woman. She has a sense of her place in history, which is more than just being a wife. Should that be the model of every woman, even those not destined to be famous poets? It seems now we have millions of Plath’s in temperament–which is to say women who have adopted a rebellious and disagreeable persona–just without the talent. Plath is an individual case in this sense.
Marriage does not appeal to her. Of course, marriage in the ‘50s implied something quite different for a woman. Yet Sylvia Plath’s path doesn’t need to be the blueprint for women in the 21st century; rather, it is the quirky preference of a talented individual, as expressed through the narrator Esther.
Esther in some regard rejects the tropes of modern feminism. She senses how some of the feminist figures in her life hold antithetical values to her, and is viscerally repulsed by them:
“...the famous woman poet at my college lived with another woman–a stumpy old Classical scholar with a cropped Dutch cut. And when I told the poet I might well get married and have a pack of children someday, she stared at me in horror. “But what about your career?” she had cried” (220).
Esther refers to these proto feminists as “weird old women” (220) who seemed to be attracted to her, as they sought to recruit her into their manless, career-focused world. Critics seem disappointed that Esther does not want to pursue lesbianism. It is “homophobia,” they claim, and lament that Esther “resorts to stereotypes” (Bloom 54). Indeed, it is surprising to stumble upon sentiments that would now be labeled as racist and homophobic in the Bell Jar.
The editor of the magazine where Esther is interning, Jay Cee, might at first blush seem to be a role model as an independent career woman, yet ultimately she is portrayed rather as an “admonitory figure” (Wagner 71).
The men in the novel range from boring to villainous. Buddy Willard writes a cringeworthy poem and has it published in a magazine. He writes to Esther that he thinks he has fallen in love with a nurse at the TB hospital. Esther’s date for a dance, Marco, attempts to sexually assault her in a garden courtyard, after which he declares, like a caricature of a villain, “Sluts, all sluts…Yes or no, it is all the same” (109). After her foray with Marco, her would be rapist, she keeps the blood from his nose smeared on her face while riding in the train, “like the relic of a dead lover” (113). However strange it must have seemed to the other passengers, in her emerging madness, it makes sense to her.
As Esther grows increasingly mentally unbalanced, Plath shows a certain inner-logic to the self-talk of such an individual, in which what seems like insanity is otherwise explainable in the sufferer’s own head. She describes her desire to commit suicide in a “lucid, logical voice” (Bloom 44).
She can’t eat, can’t sleep, and can’t write. And what’s the point of bathing when you just get dirty again? If she weren’t otherwise interesting, these complaints would seem self-indulgent. Esther describes hari-kari in gruesome detail. Another suicide fantasy is slitting her wrists, yet the skin on her wrists looks “so white and defenseless” (147) she just couldn’t do it. Throughout, there is an irony and detached quality to the writing which drives the narrative through an otherwise relatively uneventful plot in Esther’s quest to explore options for killing herself.
When she is in the process of implementing a nearly successful pill overdose, she writes, “Then I laughed. I had forgotten the most important thing” (168); namely, the pills. The tone of the writing, the wry black humor, is what makes this novel special, not its political manifesto. According to Britannica, the Bell Jar was “[i]nitially celebrated for its dry self-deprecation and ruthless honesty, The Bell Jar is now read as a damning critique of 1950s social politics.” It should instead continue to be celebrated for its dry self-deprecation.
Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Guides: Slyvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. NY: Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Marsh, Nick. “The Bell Jar.” Britannica. Accessed May 5, 2022:
Plath, Slyvia. The Bell Jar. NY: Harper, 2013.
Wagner, Linda W. “On the Female Coming of Age Novel.” Bloom’s Guides: Slyvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. NY: Infobase Publishing, 2009.
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