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On the surface The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a loosely based autobiographical account of a young woman's search for identity that is eventually found through mental breakdown. Because Esther Greenwood's aspirations are smothered by traditional female roles, she must find herself through purging her mind of these restraints.
Upon closer inspection, Esther plight is representative of her contemporaries and even of many women today who "over and over...(have) heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity" (Friedan, 461). It is with this notion that Esther and others like her wrestled with: "if a woman had a problem in the 1950's and 1960's she knew that something must be wrong with her marriage, or with herself" (464). This was coined the "housewife's syndrome" by a Cleveland doctor who first noticed this trend among young housewives. But for those like Esther- young, single, and educated- the problem is that society does not readily give them any more career options other than wife/mother or secretary. Because of this, the Women's Liberation movement begins, but only after Esther and her peers become Liberated Women.
The road to liberation is bumpy and sparked with electroshock treatments for Esther and others like her. Therapy is prevalent, whether it is weekly trips to a psychologist or lengthy stays in a mental institution. The end result of the treatment for many is a feeling of independence. As one woman states,
"It helped me develop a sense of self-worth and come to the understanding that I wasn't a bad person or worthless. My experience in therapy helped me have a better image of myself and I even started to look better and dress in a more attractive way. In short, I had more confidence in myself" (Susan, 489).
For Esther, leaving therapy is like being born again (199). She is now truly a free woman, after all.
Before Esther is liberated, however, she denounces her oppressors, Buddy Willard and her mother. Both are representatives of the male controlled society: Mrs. Greenwood of stifling women's aspirations and keeping women in their traditional roles, and Buddy of sexual purity.
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Mrs. Greenwood has taught shorthand and typing ever since her husband died. She was constantly pestering Esther to learn shorthand after colleges so she would "have a practical skill as well as a college degree" (32). Mrs. Greenwood was blatantly telling Esther she would always be in a subordinate position; she would always serve a man. Esther's mother was constantly reinforcing the popular doctrine that a woman's place was in the home or if she were forced to work, she would be a secretary or typist.
Esther resents her mother. She wishes she had a mother like Jay Cee, the famous editor she was apprenticed to while in New York. If Jay Cee were her mother, then she would know what to do about her future, a future that would be more than being a servant (32).
Jay Cee, however, is not society's ideal woman. This stereotypical career woman of the 1950s and 1960s is completely unfeminine looking. "She looked terrible, but very wise" (32). Jay Cee is truth that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education- only masculine women want these other things from life.
Many of these women who want more from life than being a housewife or secretary, those who want to be "poets or physicists or presidents" are unhappy. The other women, like Mrs. Greenwood, pity these neurotic, unfeminine women, in whom Esther is included (Friedan, 461-62). Mrs. Greenwood does not understand Esther's condition. She knows Esther is unhappy, but sees this as her failure in being a good mother. Rather, her failure is in not supporting and pushing her daughter towards complete independence.
Yes, Mrs. Greenwood wants Esther to learn shorthand so she will be more marketable and able to support herself, but still under the control and influence of men. Mrs. Greenwood does not urge Esther to be her own boss or to become a boss; that is outside of Mrs. Greenwood's world. Unfortunately, the Mrs. Greenwoods dominate the world Esther is forced to survive in.
Esther does not liberate herself from her mother's strangling grasp she tells Doctor Nolan, "I hate her." She finally says this out loud after her mother brings her roses for her birthday; Esther thinks that it was a silly thing for her mother to do (166). Mrs. Greenwood is celebrating the day of birth for a life that had done nothing but deteriorate into madness. In Esther's reality, her birthday has not come yet. Esther is not truly alive. By throwing away her mother's roses and saying "I hate her" aloud, Esther cleanses herself of her mother and those aspects of society that oppressed her. This act was necessary for her renewal. However, in order to become completely liberated, she must purge herself of Buddy.
Buddy oppresses her through his impurity and his hypocrisy. After telling Esther he had an affair with a tarty waitress whom he has sex with about 30 times, something inside her "froze up". She could not stand that Buddy had pretended he was so pure and she so sexy (57). She resents the sense of superiority he has over other people when he was the one living a double life (59). Because of his hypocrisy, Buddy not only lost his virginity, but his pureness.
Esther dwells on this concept of pureness. She orders vodka at a bar because she had "seen a vodka ad once, just a glass full of vodka standing in the middle of a snowdrift in a blue light, and the vodka looked clear and pure as water, so I though having vodka plain must be all right" (9). She "felt pure and sweet as a new baby" after taking a hot bath and "dissolving" all the dirtiness of the night from her skin. Esther is obsessed with purity; she feels "about a hot bath the way those religious people feel about holy water" (17). She seems to be compensating for Buddy's impurity, which is the reason she "felt as though she were carrying that cadaver's head around with her on a string, like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar" (1).
"There is something every woman wears around her neck on a thin chain of fear- an amulet of madness. For each of us, there exists somewhere a moment of insult so intense that she will reach up and rip the amulet off, even if the chain tears at the flesh of her neck. And the last protection from seeing the truth will be gone." (Morgan, 502)
The cadaver's head is Esther's amulet of madness. As she spirals downward towards mental meltdown, Esther manages to land on her feet. She frees herself of the stinking head by being fitted for a diaphragm and then losing her virginity during a one-night stand. In this act, Esther is in complete control. Afterwards, the body she had sex with, Irwin, means nothing to her at all; she will never speak to him again. Now she is perfectly free (198).
After Esther is purified of society's oppression, she becomes a liberated woman. She will the leave the mental institution an independent and confident women; a person who has found her identity. She was able to overcome the oppressive barriers and realize that "women's submission is not the result of brainwashing, stupidity, or mental illness but of continual, daily pressure from men" (Redstockings, 486).
With this realization, Esther, like many of her contemporaries said, "Goodbye, goodbye forever...male-dominated cracked-glass-mirror reflection of the Amerikan Nightmare." Together they will say, "Women...are rising, powerful in our unclean bodies...We are rising with a fury older and potentially greater than any force in history, and this time we will be free or no one will survive" (Morgan, 503).
Friedan, Betty. The Problem That Has No Name. "Takin' it to the Streets": A Sixties Reader. Ed. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines. New York: Oxford U P, 1995.
Morgan, Robin. Goodbye to All That. "Takin' it to the Streets": A Sixties Reader. Ed. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines. New York: Oxford U P, 1995.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
Redstockings. Redstockings Manifesto. "Takin' it to the Streets": A Sixties Reader. Ed. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines. New York: Oxford U P, 1995.
Susan, Barbara. About My Consciousness Raising. "Takin' it to the Streets": A Sixties Reader. Ed. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines. New York: Oxford U P, 1995.