The Chains of Femininity

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Throughout The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath explores a number of themes, particularly regarding the gender roles, and subsequently, the mental health care system for women. Her 19-year-old protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is the vessel through which Plath poses many probing questions about these topics to the reader. In the 1950’s when the novel was set, women were held to a high standard- to be attractive but pure, intelligent but submissive, and to generally accept the notion of bettering oneself only in order to make life more comfortable for the significant male in her life. Esther not only deals with the typical problems a woman would face in her time, but has to experience those things through the lens of mental illness- though it is up for debate whether or not it was those same issues that caused her “madness” in the first place. In particular, Esther finds herself both struggling against and succumbing to the 1950’s feminine ideal- a conflict made evident in her judgments of other women, her relationships with men, and her tenuous goals for the future. Whenever a new character is introduced, the reader is immediately subjected to Esther’s painstaking physical description of them, which leads to her ultimate judgment of their character. For instance, when Esther introduces one of her fellow interns, Doreen, in chapter one, she says “Doreen . . . had bright white hair standing out in a cotton candy fluff round her head and blue eyes like transparent agate marbles, hard and polished and just about indestructible, and a mouth set in a sort of perpetual sneer . . . as if all the people around her were pretty silly and she could tell some good jokes on them if she wanted to” (Plath, 4). It is clear that she admires Doreen’s ice... ... middle of paper ... ...em, but choosing one meant losing all the rest” (77). As a woman, Esther feels that she cannot have everything that she wants in life, because becoming a housewife and a mother would immediately rule out her other ambitions of fame and travel. In today’s society, it would be quite possible for a woman to choose many, if not all, of the figs that Esther describes. However, even though Esther exaggerates the total black-and-white nature of the decision, there still remains an element of truth in her lamentation. While a male could feasibly choose both a successful career (or multiple careers) and a family, Esther would be expected to put taking care of a home and children ahead of making advances in her chosen field. Therefore, she is restricted by her femininity and cornered into making choices that will force her to make major sacrifices regarding her future.

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