Is The Bell Jar is a staple for the female tradition?
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a cornerstone of the female literary tradition, providing a platform to discuss female sexuality and how women battle with mental health. The Bell Jar is a raw and telling story about mental illness and going hand-in-hand with the unquestionable numbness of existence (exactly what you need on a Sunday afternoon). And it was all from the point of view of a woman suppressed by a sexist institution.
For the 60s that was a revolutionary combination. Even now, 2018, the tormented or tortured female character is still considered avant-garde and ‘risky’. Only semi-approved by the elite film industry, in films like Ladybird and Three Billboards (please watch!).
For those of you who haven’t read The Bell Jar, you can read this little summary of why you must and then leave! There will be spoilers, and trust me, you’ll want to avoid them. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath stars Esther Greenwood as the protagonist and some scholars say she is a mirror of Plath herself. Greenwood is a literary major, just trying to navigate her steps into a career, or marriage, or something else – she doesn’t really know yet (sound familiar?). The novel as a whole looks at mental anguish and how to understand feelings of isolation and restriction; how to fight when you have no control.
The notion of tradition
The women we choose to be today is founded upon a tradition, whether it be purely patriarchal, or we may decide to seek inspiration elsewhere – perhaps in feminist literary figures. Exploring the anguish weaved into Plath’s prose is a fruitful treasure map to find a female tradition. It may seem counterintuitive, right? However, once we accept that tradition, we can begin to set an example for the future.
T.S Eliot defines tradition in literature to be the fusion of past tradition and the supposed success of the contemporary nature of the present.
Plath’s protagonist Esther Greenwood struggles to break free from the old commodity of women. In Doreen what we see is someone who may be defined as a “Liberated Women” of the time. Women’s studies pioneer, Pat Mainardi defines a Liberated Woman as one who
“…has sex a lot and has a career, preferably something that can be fitted in with the household chores-like dancing, pottery, or painting.”
The transformation from the old commodity of a 50s housewife to liberation was welcomed, but only in the limit of patriarchal imagination. In the 60s (particularly in a contemporary city), the culture shifts from the old women to the new “liberated” women. Of course, ultimately, the standards for what defines this “liberated” women remained in the power of male academics.
Now, in reference to Esther, she is lost in a world transitioning from the 50s housewife to the “liberated women”. She cannot understand herself in a society that has very strict parameters for female identity. She is lost without the tradition of empowering women.
You can apply the ideal of tradition to trends in culture. Taking bits and forming a new style for that generation to identify in. The strict diagram that Esther tackles throughout The Bell Jar is built on the tradition of the enslaved housewife with the added spice of the man’s progressive “liberated women”. To combat such a diagram, Plath documents her journey through a minefield of mistreated mental illness and sexual violence, combined with her own inability to fit into a category.
Her battle with mental health
Something that is evident from Plath’s novel is Esther’s ability to confront her own despair. Her character is never ignorant of her feelings. Her feelings caused the utmost turmoil in her mind. Esther’s voice allows us, as the reader, to witness her feelings.
The discussion of mental health has certainly progressed a lot since the early 60s. In storytelling, the widespread popularity and criticism of Thirteen Reasons Why is a good indicator on how we treat the discussion of mental health. Of course, there is not simply one way to tell a story. However, looking at Thirteen Reasons Why and The Bell Jar, you can see the likeness. The Bell Jar is, of course, a subtler portrayal, but both stories illustrate a theme of patriarchal oppression and its destructive role in mental health.
Don’t believe me? See for yourself. In each story, you can plot the points of patriarchal oppression and deterioration in mental health.
The Bell Jar
Thirteen Reasons Why.
In The Bell Jar, we see men’s rhetoric of power affect her mental health in relation to her sexuality and also in the treatment of her severe clinical depression. After suffering from lack of sleep and losing the ability to write or read, Esther is sent to Dr. Gordon and undergoes intensive shock therapy. John Ehrenreich, an author, academic, and clinical psychologist, who critiques the modern health care system, states;
“The “scientific” knowledge of the doctors is sometimes not knowledge at all, but rather social messages…wrapped up in technical language.”
Shock therapy as a viable treatment in the 50s was inspired by women’s hysteria. This hysteria was derived from the idea that when a woman simply conveys extreme emotions, she should be knocked down. They were distanced from their humanity. We see this concept explored in Bojack Horseman, (essay to come!), we see it in Orange is the New Black (Sam Healy’s Mum), and in Zelda Fitzgerald’s life (for more info on her life, read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald).
After Esther receives shock therapy her mental health rapidly deteriorated. She attempts to commit suicide several times. She is then saved by a brilliant, renowned author Philomena Guinea, who pays for her treatment at another private hospital.
You can also tie Plath’s portrayal of how she battles with mental health together with women and the question of sexual freedom. Through Esther, Plath weaves together an inspiring tale of battling the horrors of mental health.
Answering the question of female freedom and sex
Now we all that know that violence and sex do not go together but unfortunately, Esther only sees sex through the lens of violence. Her sexual identity can only be founded in the patriarchal parameters of the time. She saw her sexuality as complicit, something that had to be explored, but only to the satisfaction of the norm.
We see Esther’s restricted sexuality in how she uses violent language to articulate what she witnessed. A clear example this violent rhetoric is towards the beginning of the book, when Esther has a night out with Doreen and Lenny:
“Leggo, you bitch,” Lenny shouts at Doreen.”
Esther continues to describe the scene unfolding in front of her. She uses violent language, pairing every action with an aggressive tone.
“…As she circled belly-down on Lenny’s shoulder, thrashing her legs in the air and screeching…”
Removed from the context of the surrounding scene, Esther is seemingly describing a violent sexual encounter, one where the female has no control. This is a reflection on how Esther saw sex and her own sexuality. She wanted to comply with contemporary Manhattan norms, however, feared losing control of her body.
With the patriarchal glare casting a long shadow over her mind, her mental health and sexuality continues to spiral. Blotted by a suicide attempt, and institutionalisation. Her relationship to Bobby is a testimony to her lack of control. She’s constantly underwhelmed by Bobby, and he fails to spark any interest in her sexuality, however, she feels obligated to entertain him – feeling that is the right thing to do.
Plath explores repressed sexuality beyond the obvious trope of the bored 50s housewife. Oh no, she goes further. She takes a look at the other end of the spectrum with Doreen’s character. Doreen appears to be living a life of sexual liberty, but really Esther cannot see herself as free if she lived like Doreen. She cannot see herself free in any sexual choice she makes. She’s always operating on men’s expectation.
Plath also examines how loaded words like virginity and slut restrict a woman’s ability to truly reclaim her own sexuality. The dilemma mirrors the arching theme of the novel; the bell jar. The idea that Esther is trapped, without an escape, no matter where she turns. And she knows she’s trapped.
Plath’s ending delivers us hope for Esther. Whilst still being treated at the centre, Esther discovers contraception. A way to control her own body. This is a game changer. It’s a game changer for all of us.
The Bell Jar is a great platform to dissect the question of sexual freedom, as it’s a map of how this freedom is forged. From Esther’s violent relationship to sex, to embracing the gift of control over her fertility. It gives us as women an example of how to begin our journey to sexual freedom. A 2018 example of pressing forward in the journey to sexual freedom is decriminalising abortion (at least in Australia) and widespread of availability of contraception.
Unfortunately for Esther and Plath, there wasn’t a lot of hope for sexual freedom in the 60s; however, in the modern era, are we getting any closer? Some may say yes. The stigma surrounding casual sex has shifted acceptance and women are free to dress as they choose. On the flip side, some may say that the prolific state of rape culture in 2018 suggests that our road to sexual freedom is still too long and they see no destination on the horizon. Like most things in the modern debate, I think it’s a bit of both. Yes, women from third-wave feminism have paved a beautiful path of diversity and acceptance, but is it enough to proclaim the war for our sexual freedom won? That’s what I want to explore as I write more essays, to take a deeper look at the question of reclaiming sexuality and whether it’s even possible.
This is our tradition
Sadly, despite The Bell Jar’s hopeful ending Sylvia Plath committed suicide on the 11th of February 1963, only a month after The Bell Jar was released. As women living in 2018, literary figures like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf and Zelda Fitzgerald are our tradition. They should not be hidden away in the attic of history, to collect dust and passed off as tragic yet trivial. Turning to these women for inspiration and teaching is what creates empowering literature and art that instigates a cultural change. Following women who were not afraid to confront their own despair usually at the expense of their lives. Our tradition is women courageously relaying their tales of their battle with the patriarchy. Their battle with mental illness in the face of patriarchal oppression is where we begin our conversation and discover our empowerment.
Get to know the editor
Sean Bradley is the editor behind the scenes at Fatally Narrow. He is a true literature enthusiast and feminist comrade, who never fails to pick up on my misplaced commas.