Why did American women prefer traditional roles in the 1950s when their predecessors, the suffragettes, had been important pillars of society and pioneers of the feminist movement? And why did not college educated women pursue a career? The novel The Bell Jar provides the answers.
In her only novel The Bell Jar, American poet Sylvia Plath astutely presents the American era of the 1950s from the perspective of college student Esther Greenwood. In short, the plot discloses «a woman’s clinical depression that’s exacerbated by the […] limited life choices she has as a woman» (1)Topping, Alexandra. (2013). ‘The Bell Jar’s new cover derided for branding Sylvia Plath novel as chick lit’. The Guardian, 1 Feb. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/01/the-bell-jar-new-cover-derided.
The story continues to be highly popular despite being set in the summer of 1953. The plot reflects society’s timeless function to exert pressure upon its individuals. The symptoms that today’s social expectations generate range from low self-esteem and fear of failure, to depression and self-harm. Consequently, the text may be interpreted as a strong encouragement to self-discovery and self-acceptance, in order to achieve and maintain the desirable state of well-being.
«The housewife syndrome»
The Bell Jar reflects women’s realities of the middle of 20th century, a collective unhappiness called “the housewife syndrome”. Plath raises the problem of a dysfunctional gender ideology by building the narrative on the fear of becoming nothing more than a suburban housewife. In the 1950s, women were expected to find satisfaction and fulfilment as suburban housewives. These expectations were a result of the highly adopted misogynist Freudian thinking, suggesting that women are physically and intellectually inferior to men. In addition, the end of World War II resulted in many women losing their jobs (2)Friedan, Betty. (1963). The Feminine Mystique. W. W. Norton, New York..
Nowadays, women are free to pursue both career and family life. Back then, there was no in-between. Esther wishes to have both family and career but fears that marriage could lead to her renouncing her professional plans. On the other hand, women who forged their way into the public sphere based on their intellect alone, were seen as being eccentric because they didn’t fit the social standard image of women. Many women even faced hostility and loneliness (3)Friedan, Betty. (1963). The Feminine Mystique. W. W. Norton, New York.. Esther’s inability to fit in such a society makes her feel as if living inside a bell jar.
Exploration of sexuality before marriage
According to Plath’s narrative, female physical attractiveness and sexual practice before marriage appear to have been highly encouraged by the American culture of the 1950s. With a rebellious mind, the protagonist decides to be flirtatious and explore her sexuality before marriage for different reasons. First, sexuality is seen as one of the very few adventure opportunities for women back then. Second, Esther ventures to lose her bodily purity to spite her boyfriend Buddy who believed that premarital chastity only applied to women.
The male vs the female psychiatrist
Plath also unmasks society’s dehumanizing treatment of clinically depressed women. She portrays psychologists and psychiatrists as threatening and frightening instead of reassuring and dependable. It seems that her male therapist, Dr. Gordon, evinces lack of professionalism and an avid interest in money which lead to Esther’s institutionalization into an asylum.
On the other hand, Esther is pleasantly surprised to see that her female psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, differentiates herself from her male colleagues. She is kind, patient and considerate about her patients’ needs:»I promise you it won’t be anything like what you had before» (4)Plath, Sylvia. (2009). The Bell Jar. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) refers to changes in brain chemistry by administering patients under anesthesia electric currents to the brain (5)Mayo Clinic, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/electroconvulsive-therapy/about/pac-20393894. Discovered in the early 20th century, ECT remains a successful form of therapy when other forms of therapy and medications have little effect (6)Mayo Clinic, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/electroconvulsive-therapy/about/pac-20393894. However, ECT has a stigma attached to it because it used to be administered to conscious patients in high doses, causing trauma, memory loss and other severe side-effects (7)Mayo Clinic, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/electroconvulsive-therapy/about/pac-20393894.
Initially, electroconvulsive therapy seems to worsen the mental health of Esther who is diagnosed with severe depression. At first, ECT is wrongly used, making her feel as if «darkness wiped me out like chalk on a blackboard» (8)Plath, Sylvia. (2009). The Bell Jar. Harper Collins Publishers, New York. Later on, it proves successful when administered correctly: «All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head, I was open to the circulating air» (9)Plath, Sylvia. (2009). The Bell Jar. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.
From a feminist perspective, this book is about a woman’s «inability» to adjust her individual thinking to the collective mindset. As a result, Esther Greenwood perceives herself as a victim of the patriarchal world. That is why, on the one hand, The Bell Jar is a powerful critique of women’s regression in the 1950s and 1960s, and, on the other hand, an attentive exploration of women’s confrontation with social pressures and search for equality. To a large extent, The Bell Jar is also a social invitation to asylum reform.