Conflict between Individuality and Conformity in The Bell Jar
In Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood seems incapable of healthy relationships with other women. She is trapped in a patriarchal society with rigid expectations of womanhood. The cost of transgressing social norms is isolation, institutionalization and a lost identity as woman. The struggle for an individual identity under this regime is enough to drive a person to the verge of suicide. Given the oppressive system under which she must operate, Esther Greenwood's problems with women stem from her conflict between individuality and conformity.
In formulating my topic, I have relied on Adrienne Rich's book Of Woman Born, as well as Cathy Griggers' essay "Lesbian Bodies in the Age of (Post)mechanical Reproduction." Rich discusses the cultural institutionalization of motherhood, while Griggers brings a Feminist and Marxist perspective to the topic of lesbian body image in a capitalist, market-driven society. Both consider the effects of patriarchy and heterosexism in their treatment of the experience of lesbians in society. I found these texts to be very helpful in offering an explanation of Esther's harsh negative reaction to Joan, as well as in illustrating the anxieties of women in an androcentric, heterocentric, and conformist society.
Esther's fundamental problem with female relationships is best exemplified in her conflict with mothering and mentoring figures. These women defy her desire to be independent and free. Rich describes the tendency toward matrophobia, the fear of becoming one's mother. She explains that "the mother stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman" (236). This fear of becoming like the mother/...
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