“Seeing Through the Bell Jar: Distorted Female Identity in Cold War America

“Seeing Through the Bell Jar: Distorted Female Identity in Cold War America

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The essay “Seeing Through the Bell Jar: Distorted Female Identity in Cold War America” by Rosi Smith, argues that the book, “The Bell Jar”, by Sylvia Plath is about women in 1950s America who struggled to find their personal identities outside what was defined by the Cold War Ideology of the role of women in the household. According to Smith, the character Esther Greenwood’s inability to integrate her identity is because of the state of the political environment and time frame in which the book is written. Smith argues that, “In a society where paranoia and surveillance were rife it is impossible to separate image, performance, and identity, because all are ideologically constrained and Esther’s profoundly personal self-alienation is inextricable from the external political climate” (35). Smith is saying that Ester is hampered by outside forces other than her own mental state or pathology.
The story about Esther is that she is an intelligent young woman who is attending a prestigious college. Esther has won scholarship after scholarship and is currently working on an internship at a magazine in New York. But after disappointing news that she was denied entry into a coveted writing course, Esther starts to enter into a state of depression. Her depression is compounded by the fact that society expects her to desire to be a stay at home wife and mother and not the hard-working, intelligent, self-sufficient female that she is capable of being. We see Esther spiral into self-destructive behavior where she makes a suicide attempt and ends up in a mental hospital. Esther is ‘punished’, as she sees it, with shock therapy. The end of the novel brings us to Esther’s evaluation in front of several doctors to decide whether she...


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...the backdrop of today’s political and social ideals I might not have felt much empathy for Esther as I do with her placed in the Cold War era, with limited life choices for intelligent, fulfillment seeking women. Women of this era were confined by their femininity and it left those who were more intellectual thinkers to feel unfulfilled in their expected gender role of ‘housewife’.
In conclusion, I enjoyed Smith’s arguments on gender roles and what was expected of women in the Cold War era. It was enlightening to see how far women have come today, based on the ideal role of the 1950s woman.




Works Cited
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.
Smith, Rosi. "Seeing Through the Bell Jar: Distorted Female Identity in Cold War America." Seeing Through the Bell Jar: Distorted Female Identity in Cold War America. 33-55. Print.

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