Societal Expectations And The Quest For Identity In The Bell Jar

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The concept of conforming to societal norms is one that is explored throughout history. Societal norms are the accepted standards of behavior of social groups. This idea of feeling pressure to align with the expectations of society is demonstrated well in modern-day literature. In particular, this predicament is apparent in Slyvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Set in the 1950s, a time of high social expectations for women the protagonist, Esther deals with vast pressures to conform to social standards and as a result, she undergoes confusion about her identity. More specifically, Esther feels pressure to marry at a young age and start a family, however, she believes she would throw away her future in doing so. This leads to Easther’s confusion about sex and marriage which results in a desire to go against the societal norm. In addition, Esther aspires to be a poet but lacks support from society and receives mixed opinions from female characters which lead her to doubt her aspiration. This ambition goes against the conventional female role set out by society, leading to indecision about her career path. Furthermore, the male characters in the novel shape and reinforce the gender inequalities that exist in the day and age of high gender-discrimination. As a result, Esther feels additional pressure to conform which leads to the demise of her mental state. The novel The Bell Jar follows Esther’s struggle to find her own identity, described by her confusion and desire to rebel against the double standard of gender, and the level of gender discrimination at the time.

Within the novel, Esther struggles with conforming to societal pressures regarding sex and marriage, leading her to be confused and develop a desire to rebel. The expectations at the time were for women to marry at a young age and act as a loyal servant to their husband. When imagining what it would be like to be a wife, Esther says “this seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s, but I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night” (Plath 44). This shows that to Esther the idea of marriage is repulsive. She viewed being a wife as a full-time occupation instead of a meaningful commitment. Furthermore, she goes on to say “ 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 55). This further demonstrates Esther’s belief that as a wife and mother, she could no longer have a life or ambitions of her own as she would be consumed by the strict control of her husband. Not only did she view marriage life as appallingly unappealing, but she also did not agree with the standards that were set forth for women to be pure before marriage. At the time, society insisted that young women were to remain abstinent until marriage but men had the sexual freedom to do as they pleased. In the novel, Esther loves Buddy Willard until she discovers he is not pure and has had an affair with a waitress named Glady, a woman that was “free, white, and twenty-one” (Plath 38). She states, “ It might be nice to be pure and then to marry a pure man, but what if he suddenly confessed he wasn’t pure after we were married, the way Buddy Willard had” (Plath 43). This shows that Esther can not stand the idea of a woman having to remain pure meanwhile, men are encouraged to have sex before marriage. This double standard implants a desire within Esther to go against society’s expectations. Thus, she sleeps with another man to even the score between Buddy and her. Prior to losing her virginity, she says “I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.” (Plath 43). By losing her virginity, she does not feel the ‘spectacular change’ she anticipated, however, she feels liberated by breaking the oppressive rule to remain pure. To Esther, the desire to rebel against the double standard regarding the sexuality of men and women stemmed from her contradicting opinions of the mandate and the role of women in marriage.

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Not only is marriage a pressure within itself, but it also impacts female career and education decisions. Women were expected to be homemakers and caretakers and devote their time to their children and husbands rather than pursuing their own ambitions. The expectations to fulfill a stereotypical female role leads Esther to be indecisive about her future and question her innate career goals. Esther is a young woman who has the ambition to become a poet and a writer, an occupation outside of the female stereotype. However, many female figures within the novel portray the conventional female career path and suggest Esther follow in their footsteps. A prime example of this can be seen through Mrs. Greenwood, Esther’s mother. She has a traditional secretarial job and encourages Esther to learn shorthand, a critical ability for secretarial work. She hopes that Esther’s writing does not intrude on her future family duties. In addition, she heavily encourages Esther to go down the same path that she did because such work had a steady income and was recommended for women at the time. Alternatively, Jay Cee and Esther’s female doctors pursue careers that were categorized outside of the norms for women and, by example, advocate Esther to do so as well. These mixed influences contribute to Esther’s confusion about her future career path which negatively affects her mental state. Esther feels that she is pressured to succeed in the occupation she decides upon but struggles to decide what she will do in the near future. After reading a story about a fig tree, she compares each fig on the tree to a career path. 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.” (Plath 40). This demonstrates that Esther is overwhelmed by the decision to choose a career path. Furthermore, the novel establishes the role of education for women in the 1950’s. In the beginning of the novel when describing the young women staying at the Amazon hotel, Esther states “ they were all going to posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other.” (Plath 4). This quote displays that women of the time, educated or not, were simply waiting to get married instead of working and pursuing their own career paths. The use of education and suggested female career opportunities demonstrate a clear gender role in the time period. In addition, it also depicts the confusion Esther faces when deciding whether to abide by the gender stereotype or go against it and follow her own ambitions.

Throughout the novel, Esther feels the pressure from society to abide by several social expectations and gender stereotypes. Men create a standardized role for women that tells them how to conduct themselves and behave as an individual within society. The societal double standards placed upon women are as a result of male superiority that shapes and reinforces gender inequalities. For example, this gender gap can be seen by analyzing the relationship between Esther and Buddy. Buddy Willard is a young man who is slowly working towards becoming and a doctor and is Esther’s first real boyfriend. Esther admired Buddy for several years from afar but when they got to know one another, it was established that they were not very compatible. Buddy’s attitudes towards the role of women as wives and mothers align with most of the males during the time period. He automatically assumes that because Esther is women she will give up on her dreams of being a poet to marry him and start a family. Moreover, the book draws a comparison between sexuality and violence against women further displaying the patriarchal values that men uphold. This is evidently seen through Marco, a blind date for Esther that is set up through Doreen. Marco is a misogynist who sexually harasses Esther and attempts to rape her. When describing Marco, Esther says “I could tell Marco was a woman-hater, because in spite of all the models and TV starlets in the room that night he paid attention to nobody but me… because I’d happened to be dealt to him, like a playing card in a pack of identical cards.” (Plath 56). This quote demonstrates how many men including Marco viewed all women as identical objects that were used for their own sexual satisfaction. Marco’s misogyny takes form both physically and psychologically as he bruises her arm and calls Esther a “slut” multiple times. Marco utilizes sexual violence as means of asserting his dominance over Esther and women as a whole. In addition, when referring to women in general he says “all sluts… yes or no, it is all the same.”(Plath 58). This directly demonstrates Marco’s misogynistic attitude and further illustrates the level of superiority that several men feel they have over women. It is clear that within the novel, not only do the male characters abide by the social expectations but they strengthen the gap that exists between the women and men of society. This superiority is felt by Esther and contributes added pressure for her to find her identity.

By analyzing The Bell Jar, it can be shown how Slyvia Plath depicts the female struggle to find an identity in a gender-discriminant society. The burden of marriage and sex double standards overwhelmed Esther’s continence. She is utterly confused due to the mixed influences by female characters which result in a desire to rebel against the norm. In addition, societal pressures to pursue a conventional female occupation lead to further confusion about what she will do in the near future. She is torn between abiding by societal expectations or following her own dreams of becoming a poet and a writer. Moreover, Esther lives in a time period of patriarchy. She faces adversity and hardship in the hands of superior male figures that reinforce the unfair gender inequalities that exist between men and women within the novel. Ultimately, this extreme sexism that Esther faces causes her to question her identity further.  


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