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The ability to embrace femininity has always been a uphill battle in relation to the issues women have dealt with in Western society: in recent years, liberating ourselves through our sexuality has become apparent through movements like “SlutWalk”, a march that demands an end to rape culture, or even “free bleeding”, in which women refuse to hide their menstruation by allowing themselves to bleed without the help of tampons or other methods of concealment. Whether or not one agrees with these radical movements, most would agree that feminine bodies still lack complete autonomy and are often the site of blame and disgust by the infamous patriarchy. In her one and only novel, The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath gives clear definitions of the societal expectations placed upon the characters of the novel, by proxy defining issues American women dealt with in the 1950s. This is done largely through the male characters of the novel: Marco, Buddy Willard, and Irwin clearly place certain roles and expectations upon Esther, the protagonist, forcing her to either comply with or reject certain ideals of femininity. Although certain women in the novel also place expectations upon her, especially her mother, the men of the story are the ones who most directly coerce Esther to act certain ways; thus, by rejecting these advances and expectations, Esther comes closer to being an independent feminine being, beyond what 1950s Western society deemed to be ‘okay.’ Because of Esther’s choice to reject these three characters who symbolize and act through patriarchal values, she alienates herself from the norm, coming closer and closer to who she actually is as she rejects more and more people who oppress her desires. This also leads to her increasing self-alienation, which, although mainly attributed to her depression, can also be linked to a desire to distance herself from traditional ideals of femininity. As Esther becomes more isolated, her true self shines through more brightly, resulting in a much stronger character emerging at the end of the novel.
In the narrative, women are meant to fit into a certain ideal of what they aspire to be: Esther’s mother constantly wants her to take shorthand (a female-dominated ‘practical’ skill that requires all thought and innovation to, ironically, come from a man), motherhood and marriage are expected of all the female characters, and in Esther’s specific case, marrying Buddy Willard is the expected and ‘sensible’ thing for her to do. Although the women in the story are allowed to lead more progressive and independent lives (attending university, having their own career, etc.), they’re only permitted to do so within certain patriarchal constraints; for example, you can attend university, but you still do have to raise multiple children and know how to cook and clean (in other words, serving men should still be a main priority). This is shown especially well through Buddy Willard’s mother, who Esther describes with disdain: “I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor and had been a private school teacher herself” (80). Although Esther acknowledges that Buddy’s mother is an educated woman, she still follows through with the classic stay-at-home-mom trope, evidently not using her intellect for anything other than to serve her husband. This is not to say that being a stay-at-home-mom is necessarily a bad thing: what is inherently sexist is the fact that Buddy’s mother most likely lacked the option to be anything but that, and it’s this inability to choose that disgusts Esther. The belief that intellect is lost after marriage is also reinforced by Buddy, who, wanting to marry Esther, tells her that “after [she] had children [she] would feel differently… [and] wouldn’t want to write poems any more” (81), reinforcing the idea that if Esther were to follow through with what is desired of her (marrying a ‘good’ man), she would become “numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state” (81). The more that Esther comes to realize this, the more she wishes to distance herself from this traditional lifestyle. Her awareness of other forms of sexism present in her world are hinted at throughout the narrative; she comments on the unfair double standards concerning virginity by stating that “[she] couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not” (77), and early in the novel goes on to say that “[she] hated the idea of serving men in any way” (72), as well as establishing the fact that “[she] never intended to get married” (24). Although she clearly realizes the unfair standards placed upon her and has a desire to break away from them, one could argue that she isn’t able to completely alienate herself from that lifestyle until she breaks off her relationships with the characters who impose this sexism on her the most: Marco, Buddy, and Irwin. The personalities and actions of these three men symbolize three distinct but related spheres of oppression that affect all women, so that as she rejects these three men, she correspondingly rejects these ideals.
Her first rejection of the patriarchy involves her direct combat and eventual triumph over an instance of sexual assault. This instance includes one of the most domineering characters of the novel: Marco, a man Doreen sets her up with who Esther describes as a “woman-hater” (102). It’s important to note that although Esther clearly despises him, she also finds him to be quite tempting: she even refers to him as a “snake” (101), which immediately brings to mind the the temptation of sin brought forth by the serpent in the Garden of Eden; Like the snake tempting Eve, Marco seeks to bring Esther down to a position of suffering. It becomes apparent early on that he sees no value in women other than their sexuality, which he believes is something that can be taken without consent. It’s clear that Marco doesn’t care about Esther’s mental and physical well-being: Esther describes how, “Marco gripped my hand in such a way I had to choose between following him on to the floor or having my arm torn off” (102), his tight grip paralleling the constriction many snakes use to kill their prey. Almost unexpectedly, he attempts to rape her that same night. When the assault begins, she initially thinks “It’s happening. If I just lie here and do nothing it will happen” (104), which is what she first does—nothing. Yet, as he repeatedly begins so call her a “slut”, she takes matters into her own hands and kicks him in the leg and “fist[s her] fingers together and smashe[s] them at his nose” (105). Within a matter of seconds, Esther undergoes a crucial transformation; although at first she sees herself as a mere victim, by the end of the incident she refers to it as a “battle” (105), engaging in combat herself and fighting the often one-sided violent actions of rape. After the incident, she almost literally sheds her old skin by throwing all her lavish clothes out of the window, implying that she no longer cares about her external sexuality in relation to the ‘male-gaze’ by ridding herself of clothes that make her appealing to men like Marco: “Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York” (107). The next day, she reflects that “I hadn’t… felt like washing off the two diagonal lines of dried blood that marked my cheeks. They seemed touching, rather spectacular, and I thought I would carry them around with me, like a relic of a dead lover, till they wore off of their own accord” (108). She carries around her battle wounds proudly, which not only reveals that she’s proud of her act of self-defense, but also that she doesn’t care that she doesn’t look as pristine as she is expected to. The presence of blood also foreshadows a later instance of oppression again concerning her sexuality, which reflects that within the novel, her own body is almost a literal battleground, garnering wounds, blood, and scars as the story continues. Following the bloodshed, she emerges a much stronger character, by ideologically and physically by saying ‘no’ to something she doesn’t want. This drastic change is observable in comparing her attitudes just a few pages earlier, when Buddy teaches her to ski even though she could care less for the sport. In this instance, Esther notes that “it never occurred to me to say no” (91), which reflects upon the idea that in general, women are taught to only say ‘yes’ and are only desirable when they’re docile. By learning to say ‘no’ in the instance with Marco, Esther begins to reject the negative standards related to femininity, increasing her own autonomy.
The second major positive rejection Esther initiates deals with the casual sexism that men impose on women, a subtle form of oppression that seeks to place women in a secondary role in which serving men is a first priority. This issue finds itself embedded in Buddy Willard, a man who she could have easily married had she not taken charge of her own desires and needs. Esther never seems to actually like Buddy, which seems strange given her drawn-out romance with him. When they kiss for the first time, she “kept [her] eyes open and tried to memorize the spacing of the house lights” (57), revealing a striking emotional detachment from him even from the beginning. Perhaps she only continued her affair with him because he was exactly what any respectable woman at the time should have wanted in a man. She notes that “he was the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for” (64), acknowledging that he was such a ‘good guy’ that societal norms dictated that it was worth keeping her virginity intact just for him. Yet, even though he is considered the perfect man by most, she finds him dull and doesn’t seem to like the idea of being with him—as mentioned previously, he clearly believes in very traditional marriage values, including the cooking-and-cleaning-wife-and-mother stereotype that his own mother was forced to abide by (and that he wants for Esther). Esther observes this same issue early on with her own mother, who, immediately after marrying Esther’s father, was told by him, “‘now we can stop pretending and be ourselves’” (81), Esther observing consequently that “from that day on my mother never had a minute’s peace” (81). This implies that the fantasy of romance disappears once marriage has imprisoned the woman into a state of service for her husband. Negatively reacting to this issue, Esther tells Buddy “I’m never going to get married” (89), to which he replies “you’re crazy” (ibid.), revealing that he doesn’t understand how a woman could possibly not want to marry, remaining independent. After many encounters with him, most of them quasi-robotic, she receives a letter from him notifying her that he fell in love with another woman. She almost unfeelingly replies to the letter and rejects him in return, finally leaving behind a man who could have given her an extremely patriarchal life:
I turned the letter paper over and on the opposite side wrote that I was engaged to a simultaneous interpreter and never wanted to see Buddy again…. I stuck the letter back in the envelope, scotch-taped it together, and readdressed it to Buddy, without putting on a new stamp. I thought the message was worth a good three cents. (115)
The fact that she doesn’t even write him back on a fresh sheet of paper shows just how detached she was from him, and thus, because he embodied so much of what the patriarchy stands for, just how much she doesn’t belong to that lifestyle. As previously mentioned, Esther “hated the idea of serving men in any way” (72), and because what Buddy and so many other men like him wanted was a marriage dependent on this form of service, her repulsion seems only natural. Therefore, by finally getting rid of Buddy, Esther takes part in her second male-cleansing of the narrative, learning to embody her feminine independence along the way.
The last patriarchal figure Esther rids herself of in order to gain more freedom provides a much less obvious form of liberation for her, because at this point, Esther is almost entirely free from the effects of the patriarchy on herself (or as free as she can be in her current state). In this instance she emotionally reclaims her own virginity, which demonstrates her newfound ability to take charge of her sexuality beyond the self-defense inflicted upon Marco. This instance of emotional combat is distinct from the previous two, for here she not only manages to rid herself of a form of oppression, but also reclaims a part of her own feminine identity in the process. This specific form of oppression finds itself within the character Irwin, a man who Esther “decided to seduce” (216). Even at the beginning of the anecdote, in which Esther ‘decides’ to have sex with him, she has already asserted just how far she’s come since the beginning of the novel; near the start, her encounters with men such as Buddy and Marco were much less about her making a choice and more about what the men wanted out of certain situations. However, with Irwin, we witness a new, confident woman, one who is able to make an active decision in terms of her own sexuality. When she begins talking to him, she “match[es her] stride to Irwin’s” (216), revealing that even in certain less obvious ways, she is his equal. Although Esther has clearly made great strides in her journey towards freedom from the oppressive side of femininity, she still observes that her “virginity weighed like a millstone around [her] neck” (218), revealing that she still sees her own sexuality as somehow crude or a nuisance, which is a concept that many women still grapple with as a result of sexist views towards one’s purity. Right before having sex with Irwin, she believes that a “miraculous change [will] make itself felt” (218), thinking that her entire being will transform due to the presence of a man changing who she is—an inherently sexist and problematic notion. Once she loses her virginity, she begins to bleed heavily, reflecting again the symbolic issue of her body acting as a war-zone. As Esther bleeds more and more, Irwin displays barely any signs of distress. When she asks him to grab her a towel to put between her legs, he “stroll[s] back” with it (219), his nonchalant attitude implying that he has little to no regard for her safety. Although he does drive her to Joan’s house in order to be taken care of, he still doesn’t seem very concerned for her well-being. Days later, he calls her up and asks “when am I going to see you?” (231), to which she sassily replies “never” (Ibid.). By rejecting him, she takes the power of her sexuality out of the hands of the man who ‘took’ her virginity, almost reclaiming it in a sense. Although it’s never explicitly stated, one could imply that this sort of terse rejection wouldn’t have been seen as socially acceptable, especially for a ‘proper’ woman such as Esther. By not complying with the wishes of Irwin, as well as the other aforementioned male characters, Esther finally allows herself freedom from male dominance. A few pages later, Esther states that she is “perfectly free” (232), which, as well as referring to the death of her ‘friend’ Joan, also relates to the issue that she no longer has any men controlling her and that, if any would wish to do so in the future, her newfound sense of independence would not longer allow that.
In The Bell Jar, Plath explores common anxieties of femininity through Esther’s experiences. From the beginning, Esther clearly despises certain patriarchal ideals, yet it’s only when confronted with these issues head-on that she is forced to take action. If Esther had decided to remain docile (as she is expected to), she would have been raped, married off to a man she deemed boring, and in general, sentenced to a life of sexist values that so many women preceding her had no choice but to abide by. Yet she doesn’t allow for these events to control her, and instead fights back against patriarchal powers that seek to keep her in a state of no control. Thus, Esther becomes a beacon of hope, not only for the other women in the narrative, but also for women as a whole, demonstrating that to fight against systematic oppression can help liberate one’s femininity.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. Print.