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The Bell Jar - Feminist Thought
The Bell Jar This autobiographical novel by Sylvia Plath follows the story of Esther Greenwood, a third year college student who spends her summer at a lady's fashion magazine in Manhattan. But despite her high expectations, Esther becomes bored with her work and uncertain about her own future. She even grows estranged from her traditional-minded boyfriend, Buddy Willard, a medical student later diagnosed with TB. Upon returning to her hometown New England suburb, Esther discovers that she was not selected to take a Harvard summer school fiction course, and subsequently starts to slip into depression.
Esther finds herself unable to concentrate and perform daily tasks. Therefore she decides to undergo a few sessions with Dr. Gordon, a psychiatrist, and even undergoes treatments of electroshock therapy. As the depression sinks in, Esther becomes obsessive about suicide, and tries to kill herself by crawling into the cellar where she subsequently ingested a bottle of sleeping pills. Esther's attempt fails and she is taken to a city hospital, and then over to a private psychiatric institution by the intervention of a benefactor. As Esther begins to recover, she develops a close relationship with her psychiatrist Dr. Nolan, and eventually leaves the hospital as a transformed woman.
This transformation, spiritual reassessment or moral reconciliation is exactly the kind of happy ending described by Fay Weldon. In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath ends the book with the scene of Esther going into meet the doctors of the mental evaluation board. She is standing outside the room with Dr. Nolan, observing the people around her and making observations about herself:
'Don't be scared,' Doctor Nolan had said.But inspite of Doctor Nolan's reassurances, I was scared to death.
There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice patched, retreaded and approved for the road, I was trying to think of an appropriate one when Doctor Nolan appeared out of nowhere and touched me on the shoulder.
All right, Esther.
I rose and followed her to the door..and guided myself by them (the doctors), as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room. (pg.199)
This particular assessment is significant to the rest of the work because Esther goes through a drastic change in order to get where she is now. At the start of the novel, Esther is seen as very intelligent, yet she faces the woman's dilemma of choosing between career and family to the ambivalence of remaining a virgin.
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Throughout most of the novel, Esther firmly believes, I never intended to get married. She truly sees herself as an old maid never finding the right man to marry even thought Buddy Willard was interested. I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closes I immediately saw he wouldn't do at all. However, Buddy loses his interest, and Esther reflects on a past conversation about marriage just before being released:
"I wonder who you'll marry now, Esther. Now you've been here."
And of course I didn't know who would marry me now that I'd been where I had been. I didn't know at all.
Her view now is not one of definition, as it was previously. She's not dead against marriage; now it's just the idea of someone not waiting to marry her because of her mental breakdown.
As far as the dilemma of remaining a virgin, Esther wouldn't have given sex another thought especially after she finds out that Buddy had an affair. Esther didn't see the point in losing her virginity. After all, she wasn't planning on getting married or having any kids, so why have sex just to say "I'm not a virgin''? Although, the stigma of Esther's attempted suicide and hospitalization seems to free Esther from this less traditional behavior. She becomes defiant, rejecting her previous morals, and loses her virginity to a man she met on the stairs of Harvard's Widner Library.
These unmistakable threads of feminist thought, which are interwoven within Esther's circumstances, clearly intensify Esther's bewilderment, disappointment, paranoia, and apprehension. But at the novel's end, Esther describes herself, optimistically, as transformed for the better.