“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. 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 Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, 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. 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 go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
The Bell Jar which was published in 1963 is Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel. She originally chose to publish it under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas to protect the identity of other characters in the novel. She further does not endow the main protagonist of the novel with the author’s name as is usual in autobiographies. The story of Esther Greenwood is presented as fiction. It has even attained the status of a feminist manifesto among the critics as the novel critiques the repression of women in the 1950’s and gives voice to women who are usually silenced. We are shown Esther’s struggle within a society which continuously limits her choices because of her sex. By using feminist critical theory which focuses on women’s art and for the recovery of a uniquely powerful voice, i.e. Gynocriticism I shall review Plath’s work.
The branch of feminist theory sought to establish an alternative female literary canon to stress the identity of women as a separate community, culture, with their own customs and cultures who were hitherto side-lined by patriarchy.
According to Wagner-Martin “The accomplishment of the novel is in part that its author was able to break through the bell jar of the confining 1950’s culture to find her voice and her spirit as she identified herself as writer.” Therefore long before critics such as Judith Butler, Margaret Fuller, Charlotte Perkins Gilman et al, Sylvia Plath recognised the oppression of women.
The Bell Jar begins in the New York City in the summer of 1953 and closely follows Plath’s own experiences during her summer stint as guest editor at Mademoiselle following her junior year at Smith’s College. Female characters are trapped under a bell jar because of the repressive male dominated system in the 1950’s. For women like Esther Greenwood the only options available were marriage and motherhood as appropriate avenues. Esther too is left confronting the gap between her gender and her aspirations which leads to her being stuck and feeling numb under a bell jar. The choices that the female characters have made in the novel lead to self-dismemberment. As Diane Bonds points out that “the novel makes it sufficiently clear that she is torn apart by the intolerable conflict between her wish to avoid domesticity, marriage and motherhood, on the one hand, and her inability to conceive a viable future in which she avoids that fate, on the other.” Women either accept the role society has designated to them and forget their own self in that process such as Esther’s own mother, Mrs Willard, Dodo Conway, Betsy, or women like Jay Cee who pursue their career at the expense of womanhood are described as “plug-ugly looks”. Hence, the options available to women were really like the windows of Amazon hotel which were “fixed so that you couldn’t really open them and lean out.” Even the working women in the hotel are described as “…simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other.” Esther’s own mother advices her to learn shorthand so that she would be “in demand among all the upcoming young men.” The protagonist Esther however hates even the thought “of serving men in any way.” She refuses to accept the choices determined by society for her. For somebody like Esther with an academic and artistic talent even marriage is “a dreary and wasted life “and she is unwilling to undergo this metamorphosis where you just cook, clean and wash. It’s like being “slave in some private, totalitarian state”. Mrs Willard is represented as floor mat that gets trampled by men. Such continual subordination of women was defined as femininity in the 1950’s. Both the idea of a career and becoming housewife are equally uninspiring.
Through her relationship with Buddy Willard Esther realizes the hypocrisy of men where women are supposed to remain virginal until marriage but men can have sexual double standards ‘’one pure and one not.’ For Buddy a wife’s sole purpose is to support her husband and erase her own dreams. For critic Janet Badia the description of withering tree makes it clear that the problem with Esther is not that “she lacks choices or even that none of the options appeal to her, the problem lies in her desire to have what society tell her is impossible , ‘two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time’. Esther is supposed to choose between marriage and a career or ‘a pack of children’ and poetry.
The novel from a feminist perspective critiques marriage, motherhood and patriarchal medical establishment. Motherhood in the novel is described in grotesque and violent terms where a mother is cut to free her baby. Esther is outraged at the male medical establishment’s drugging the mother so that she would forget the obvious pain and willingly submit to the ‘torture’ of another childbirth. As Esther say’s ‘’I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent…” This is one of the early examples of medical establishments control over women’s body followed later by Esther’s experience with electroshock treatment. Mrs Greenwood herself delivers her daughter into the institutional torture as she combines femininity with her unquestioning respect for patriarchy. Plath gives a chilling description of her botched electroshock therapy with Dr Gordon and how he is uninterested in Esther’s treatment with his inappropriate questions about which college Esther attended, to further comment on how pretty the girls at college where when he worked there during war. Dr Gordon really doesn’t want to understand her suffering but to mold her into one of the “shop dummies”. Many critics and even women have interpreted their treatment and depression as a punishment for deviancy, for failure to fulfill their domestic duties and their inability to be contended by the allotted feminine roles. As Elaine Showalter articulates in her Introduction to The New Feminist Criticism that “women writers had a literature of their own, whose historical and thematic coherence, as well as artistic importance, had been obscured by the patriarchal values that dominate our culture” and that there existed a “female aesthetic .. that came out of a specific female psychology.” Esther’s story shows us how feminist movement was much needed in itself so as to find women like Dr Nolan, a progressive female psychiatrist in the novel who gives Esther the support, love and understanding that she needs to recovers plays a crucial role. Dr Nolan successfully fuses femininity with intellect. She is Esther’s mother substitute who widens her horizons and lets her openly reflect her views on sex, her own mother which were not socially sanctioned.
Jeannette Winterson notes in reflecting on Plath’s legacy in the Guardian that” why wouldn’t a woman go mad in a world like this? Why wouldn’t a woman as gifted as Plath become terminally depressed and end in suicide? Pills don’t change the world. Feminism did.”
For Esther women all around her were trapped in their own bell jars where there is power imbalance. When women face greater problems in constructing a self it ultimately leads to more difficulties in becoming an artist. Sylvia Plath’s own death in 1963 raises questions as whether her death was emblematic of the sheer impossibility of being both a wife, mother and the same time exercising both independent, creative self. During her time there was no recognition given for the anxieties felt by women. As Showalter correctly points out, Esther Greenwood “undergoes several trails for the un-American activities of intellectualism, resistance to marriage and motherhood and her desire to become a poet
Fifty three years later, the condition of women has not changed much. Plath’s voice still resonates with women where her problem was not individual but collective .Within a few years, women were active participants of the suffragette movement and gained the right to vote, fought for employment and equal pay and feminist literature came into being. Now, women have the option to choose more than one fig from the tree but with their own limitations. Women do enjoy more freedom than ever before but still the fight to challenge and question sexism is a continuous process till the bell jars that Plath has exposed shatters.
Plath,Sylvia. The Bell Jar. HarperCollins, 2003.
Bloom,Harold. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Fisher,Jerilyn. Women in Literature : Reading through the Lens of Gender.Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
Submitted By – Shobana ; Roll Number – 1078 ; Section – ‘B’.