The Feminine Ideal in The Bell Jar Essay

The Feminine Ideal in The Bell Jar Essay

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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 1950s 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 faced by women in her time, but she 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 1950s feminine ideal- a conflict made evident in her judgments of other women, her relationships with Buddy Willard, 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 Dore...


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...ire her to abandon all of her other lukewarm plans- a choice that she is unwilling to make at this point in her life.
On the eve of her freedom from the asylum, Esther laments, “I had hoped, at my departure, I would feel sure and knowledgeable about everything that lay ahead- after all, I had been ‘analyzed.’ Instead, all I could see were question marks” (243). The novel is left open-ended, with a slightly optimistic tone but no details to help the reader fully understand the final step of her healing process. Esther desired to be free of social conventions and double standards, but consistently imposed them upon herself and on the people around her. Her evolution in understanding never reaches a satisfying conclusion, and the reader is also left with nothing but question marks.



Works Cited

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

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