A Victim Of 1950s Social Constraints: Esther Greenwood From The Bell Jar

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The effects of forcing societal conformity and restraints upon an individual can truly be damaging. Sylvia Plath’s, The Bell Jar, tells the story of a nineteen-year-old females journey from sanity to madness. Throughout the novel the main protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is overcome by mental illness as she faces the harsh realities of conforming to 1950s society and standards. Plath establishes that the expectation of the ideal housewife and mother suffocates women by applying a devastating amount of pressure. Furthermore, as a result of a male dominated workforce women exhaust themselves attempting to succeed and be proven equal. Moreover, the conceptions and double standards regarding women’s sexualities create unhealthy expectations that prove . The social constraints and pressures that Esther faces ultimately result in the suppression of her individuality and significant damage to her mental well-being.

Women carry the constant ideal of domesticity, leaving Esther feeling smothered as she is faced with choosing conformity or the expression of her female independence. At the beginning of the novel, Esther is introduced to the societal expectations of a young woman as she makes the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It is made apparent that Esther holds a strong loathing towards these expectations of conformity, despising the idea of being secondary to a man. For instance, when a boyfriend of Esther’s proposed the idea of marriage and children Esther was quick to reply with the observation that, “when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about as numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state” (Plath, 89). Highlighting the oppressive patriarchy in which she lives in, Esther realizes that society demands the polar opposite to her beliefs and aspirations. By creating comparisons to being brainwashed and numb, it is made clear that 1950s society truly does descend a metaphorical bell jar over every woman; entrapping them in their own personal suffocating state of limitations and confinement. As the novel progresses further, the newly introduced confinements of society lead to Esther’s damaging alienation and self-harm as she feels that she is no longer her own person. This is exemplified during a scene where she commits her first attempt at suicide using a razor. Although, she found herself unable to execute the self harm as, “the skin on my wrist looked so white and defenceless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at” (156). Esther’s extreme urge to be free from the sexist and confining society she is trapped in leads to her mulitple attempts at suicide; the ulitmate feminist revolt. This quotation makes it apparent that Esther already sees her tangible self dead, rotting away in the bell jar of 1950’s culture. It is her intangible self that she truly desires to kill through these attempts, wanting to end the suffocation that she is experiencing which isolates Esther from her true self, her environment and those around her.

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Women attempting to prove themselves in a male dominated work industry face the consequence of losing their sense of self and aspirations. Firstly, Esther’s career goal of becoming a poet, considered highly ambitious at the time as it was a field dominated by men, is suffocated in the hands of society ideals. While on a date with a man, Esther begins to come to the realization that she feels inadequate in regards to many aspects of her life. This realization begins to scare her as she explains:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story… 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… and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. 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… as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped on the ground at my feet” (80).

The differences between each fig branch is representative of societies restrictions. Esther can either choose life with a career or life as a wife and mother; but not both. It can be observed that Esther’s indecisiveness is a consequence of her subconscious knowledge that all of these perspective possibilities are unattainable to her in the current society she lives in. Esther desires to never marry. This consequently leaves her with the path of life consumed by a career. Although in this quote Esther comes to the realization that her likelihood of achieving this dream in a male dominated profession is slim, as the standards of society are working against her. It is in this confrontation of an empty future that her sense of self crumbles and Esther recognizes that the development of her female self is permanently arrested. She will forever be left “starving” for the expression of her true self. Moreover, Esther’s recognition in which her dream career is unattainable encourages her to lose what little individuality she had left. Upon losing her ambitions, Esther’s depressive state worsens to where she “hadn’t slept for fourteen nights… couldn’t read or write or swallow very well” (142). Now that Esther has lost her artistic abilities of reading and writing, she has lost a substantial part of her identity as well. These artistic traits that had defined her distinction from the generic female sterotype, are now destroyed at the hands of public ideals. This consequently leaves Esther with a distorted image of herself. At the hands of societies suffocating limitations, Esther becomes an empty shell of a woman. This empty shell resembles the tole society is able to have, possessing the power to smother a women’s hopes and ambitions to the extent of losing all will to live.

The pressures, conceptions and double standards regarding sexuality in the 1950s restrict women’s interdependence leading to the harm of Esther’s physical and psychological self. Firstly, the confinements that are created by the expectation for women to remain ‘pure’ until marriage establish a double-standard that belittles Esther’s existence. There are several instances present within the novel where the drastically different standards for men and women are brought to light. For example, during a night out with a man she had just met, Esther finds herself thinking back to her mother and a magazine article she had mailed to Esther called “In Defense of Chastity”, where:

“This woman lawyer said the best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if

they weren’t pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex. Of course they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her… they would end up by making her life miserable… Now the one thing this article didn’t seem to me to consider was how the girl felt” (84-84).

Here, Plath reveals the troubling standard that determines a woman’s value by their ability to limit themselves in the expectation of pleasing their future husbands. This article makes the statement that what matters most about a women is whether she is “pure” or impure. Yet again, it is exemplified how society is able to trap females within personal bell jars and limit their existence to superficial qualities defined by idealized American femininity. Furthermore, Esther’s attempt to escape these double standards leads her to be threatened by violence, objectification and rape. Upon attending a country club dance, Esther is met by a man which she immediately pegs as a “woman-hater”. Although being aware of this, Esther allows this man to lead her to a secluded area where he proceeds to verbally, physically and sexually assault her. During this sequence of events, Esther gives a graphic and detailed description with, “‘Slut!’ The word hissed by my ear. ‘Slut!’ The dust cleared, and I had a full view of the battle. I began to writhe and bite. Marco weighed me to the earth. ‘Slut’” (114-115). These events that Esther is subjected to gives the impression that during this decade, violence in a sexual relationship is an unavoidable outcome as women are seen as inferior to men. Marco’s character symbolizes and embodies the immense power that both men and society have over women, weighing them down and defining their existence with degrading sexual terms such as “slut”, “whores” ,“virgins”. In conclusion, the 1950s was a time where women fell victim to both men and society. It is exemplified through The Bell Jar and Esther’s character that those who live within the wrong era are destined for tragedy when they are unable to happily conform. The constant sense of suffocation, entrapment and restrictions that Esther faces reflect the physical and psychological cost that a woman faces when residing in a society denying female liberation. 


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