How powerful is The Bell Jar as a feminist text?

The Bell Jar is an attempt by Sylvia Plath to write about growing up as a woman, in America during the forties and fifties. It was first published in January 1963, before the fights for equal rights were debated in the late sixties and seventies. This was one of only a few novels, at its time, in which the main character and narrator was a woman. The novel may also show Esther’s search for her identity, she thinks she knows what she wants but she becomes more and more uncertain as the novel unfolds. The struggle for women in those days is something which would we could not possibly understand.
A lady could not even get a loan from the bank without her husband or father co-signing it. Unmarried women were denied birth control, and girls should not attend college. If they did it was expected that they were looking for a husband. The other girls in Esther’s dormitory in college told her she was wasting her “golden college years”. Throughout the book, there are many possible role models for Esther, not all of who have a positive influence on her. Jay Cee is an experienced, successful editor at the magazine where Esther has won an internship. Plath writes of Jay Cee as being somewhat masculine.
This may have been because at the time only men were successful so she felt for a woman to be successful she had to be manly. However Esther starts to aim some of her anger towards Jay Cee – “Jay Cee wanted to teach me something, all the old ladies I ever know wanted to teach me something, but I suddenly didn’t think they had anything to teach me. ” Esther dreamt of becoming a poet, but even her mother did not believe in her ambition. Her mother felt the only way she would succeed was if she learnt shorthand, as the highest position she would ever get was to be a secretary. Mrs.
Greenwood never listened to what Esther had to say nor did she respond to her in any meaningful way. Mrs Greenwood felt that she was the perfect mother and the only way to show that was by bringing up the perfect set of children. The children’s role was to behave well to reflect their mother’s goodness. So when Esther refused to have shock treatments, Mrs. Greenwood said, “I knew my baby wasn’t like that, I knew you’d decide to be alright again. ” A lot of Esther’s anger is aimed towards her mother and may even be the root of her illness. Mrs. Greenwood is everything that Esther doesn’t want to be, which is the reason she hates to conform.
She feels that if she starts doing what “normal ladies” do she will end up like her mother. Esther even went as far as talking off her own mother’s death. When they both slept in the same room, Esther says, ” The piggish noise irritated me, and for a while it seemed to me that the only way to stop it would be to take the column of skin and sinew from which it rose and twist it to silence between my hands. ” After writing the book, Sylvia Plath told her brother that she wanted the novel to be published under a pseudonym. In those days, or even today, death wishes were not exactly the things to satisfy parental dreams.
Buddy Willard is first seen, in the text, as a typical American male. Mrs. Greenwood says of him “he’s so athletic and so handsome and so intelligent… kind of person a girl should stay clean for. ” Before Esther gets to know him she thinks he’s wonderful, but as they get better acquainted her attitude towards him changes. Buddy Willard is a prime example of a cocksure male. He thinks men rule the world while women should just do what they’re told. This does not help Esther when she is trying to find her role within society to feel accepted. Buddy Willard is shallow and does absolutely nothing to make Esther feel good about herself.
He’s insensitive and clumsy in his dealings with Esther. He refers to her poetry as dust; thereby dismissing the one thing that she believes has great value, through arrogance. The motive for her hatred for all the men in the novel except for one may stem from the fact that Sylvia Plath’s husband left her in 1962 and she wrote “The Bell Jar” a year after. However her poem “Daddy”, which she wrote in the very same year was a lot harsher towards her father and was more of a gut response. Another thing that deeply annoyed Esther was the double standard for men and women.
If a man slept with a woman without loving her it was perfectly acceptable, yet if a woman slept with a man whom she didn’t love then she could be labelled a whore. There are proper codes of behaviour, particularly sexual ones for women and Mrs. Greenwood makes sure Esther knows of those by sending her a pamphlet about these codes. However Buddy is not expected to adhere to the same set of rules, so when Esther finds out he slept with a waitress, she shouldn’t be hurt because it didn’t mean anything! It is one of Esther’s desires to be sexually liberal, along with being a poet or a successful writer.

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