The ultraconservative air of the 1950’s breeds the Betty Crocker kind of woman, satisfied with her limited role in a male-dominated society, one who simply submits to the desires and expectations of the opposite sex. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath explored the effects of society’s traditional standards on a young woman coming of age. The main character, Esther Greenwood, a nineteen year-old college student, receives messages about a woman’s place in society throughout her life. Esther’s aspirations of becoming a writer, specifically, a poet, are obvious. Carrying out these aspirations in the 1950’s is not so clear-cut, though. Esther’s environment presses her to marry, settle down, have children, to be the happy housewife. For nineteen years she puts on a façade, pretending to be the woman everyone wants her to be, trying to please her family along with everyone else in her life, until she mentally breaks down and attempts suicide.
Her mother serves as the first of her teachers in conveying this message. For example, Mrs. Greenwood wants her daughter to learn shorthand because it will get her a living until she can marry, because it can even get her a husband. She consistently emphasizes the importance of Esther staying “pure”, so she can get the best of possible husbands. So early on Esther realizes that, for most women, marriage and family comprise the main substance of their lives.
Esther receives more lessons from her medical student boyfriend, Buddy Willard. He often spits out remarks like one day Esther will “stop rocking the boat and start rocking the cradle.” He also says that once she has children she will “feel differently,” and not wa...
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Finally Esther breaks down when she attempts to paste a forced smile on her face while modeling in front of the Ladies’ Day photographers. Dissolving into tears, the whole façade of the past nineteen years crashes down on her at once. Before leaving New York, Esther abandons all of her fashionable clothes provided by the magazine, letting each item float down over the city from the top of her hotel. This action represents the renouncing of the feminine standards, and obliteration of the self. After her distressful month in New York, Esther returns to Massachusetts, where she attempts suicide in the basement of her house by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills and climbing into a crawl space. The years of gender inequality messages, false identities, and artificial contentment weigh her down, as she finally takes matters into her own hands.
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