Between a Rock and a Hard Place: How the Psychological Afflictions of Plath’s Esther Greenwood and Shakespeare’s Ophelia are products of binary worlds in The Bell Jar and Hamlet

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Joseph DelBigio

(UBC Arts One, Brandon Konoval seminar)

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet were written hundreds of years apart, but certain characters in the two works seem to have their lives controlled by similar conditions. Both Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar and Ophelia in Hamlet live in worlds characterized by extreme political unrest and misogyny. These conditions give rise to a world of binaries, where one must conform or be cast out, and perhaps even die. The political tension in 1960s America and Shakespearean Denmark create the binary oppositions, and the low position of women in each society leaves female characters with even more pressure to conform. This pressure to choose between personal ambitions and societal expectations leads to both neuroticism and eventually attempts at suicide on the parts of both Esther and Ophelia.

In both The Bell Jar and Hamlet, the homelands of Esther and Ophelia—the United States and Denmark—are facing the threat of other countries: Russia and Norway. The backdrop of conflict creates great unrest that can be seen from the beginning of each work. The Bell Jar begins with the sentence, “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs” (Plath 1). The Rosenbergs were accused of being Russian spies and were sent to death under policies influenced by US Senator Joe McCarthy. Those policies and the related accusations created intense paranoia, and many people such as Esther followed the stories of persecution very closely, horrified and intrigued by the scenarios.  A similar unrest is seen at the beginning of Hamlet when Barnardo opens the play by posing the question “Who’s there?” (Shakespeare 1.1.1). The uncertainty of Barnardo, who is guarding the gates to the palace, sets the tone of the political dimension of Denmark at the time. The paranoia created by threats of harm from other countries leads to characters questioning even their own friends as seen when the other guard, Francisco, answers Barnardo by saying, “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself!” (Shakespeare 1.1.2). Here, neither fellow guard is willing to accept just the voice of the other as proof. This completely overwhelming paranoia leads to the creation of the binary of friends or enemies, soon to be followed by many others.

In addition to the opposition of friends and enemies, the settings of both works are permeated by many other binary oppositions, both more and less significant. One of the less significant binaries experienced by Esther is revealed when she exclaims “I am neurotic. I could never settle down in the country or the city” (Plath 89). Although seemingly less important than the other oppositions in the work, the proposition that Esther’s desire to live a life ungoverned by polarization is diagnosable as neurotic shows the extent to which the problem is pervasive. Binary oppositions are also present in Hamlet with the contrast of the dark and uncertain night in act one scene one, and the warmth felt inside the palace in act one scene two as revealed by the King’s more relaxed speaking: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” (Shakespeare 1.2.63). The King has moved past the death indeed, murder, of Hamlet’s father and is already in a more lighthearted mood. The juxtaposition of darkness outside of the palace and lightheartedness within further develops the atmosphere of a land governed by binary oppositions. Both works develop a polarized world in distinctive ways, but they converge when the discussion turns to women who are viewed either as objects of purity or as sexual heathens, with no apparent middle ground.

The juxtaposition of good and sensual is first seen in The Bell Jar through Esther’s descriptions and observations of Doreen and Betsy. Doreen is singled out by Esther as being different from other female colleagues, not only in terms of personality, but attire. Esther explains that,

the rest of us had starched cotton summer nighties and quilted housecoats, or maybe terry-towel robes that doubled as beachcoats, but Doreen wore these full-length nylon and lace jobs you could see half through, and dressing-gowns the colour of sin, that stuck to her by some kind of electricity. (Plath 5)

The description of Doreen is entirely sensual: the comparison of the opaque cotton nighties and the transparent lace-jobs show that Doreen is much less modest than other women in the group. Furthermore, the use of electricity to describe the fit of Doreen’s clothing serves to illustrate not only its tightness, but also the sheer energy emitted by Doreen’s persona. Esther is entranced by Doreen’s lifestyle, but ultimately chooses to align herself with Betsy, the innocent “Pollyanna Cowgirl,” stating that she would be “loyal to Betsy and her innocent friends” (Plath 6, 21). Esther’s difficulty in choosing between following Doreen or Betsy comes to represent her greater struggle to follow her sexual ambitions or conform to the societal standard, a struggle that Ophelia will also encounter as she is torn between her love of Hamlet and her family’s aversion to such a relationship.

Esther is compelled to comply, not only by friends, but also by family. Esther’s mother implicates herself in Esther’s choice by actively advocating for purity and sending Esther pamphlets that give “all the reasons a girl shouldn’t sleep with anybody but her husband and then only after they were married” (Plath 76). Not only is Esther pulled in different directions by friendships, she is also pressured to meet the societal expectation presented to her by her mother. Ophelia experiences very similar familial pressures from her father Polonius, and brother, Laertes, as they attempt to dissuade her from marrying Hamlet. Polonius tells Ophelia that Hamlet’s gestures of affection should be ignored as they are,

springs to catch woodcocks — I do know/ When the blood burns how prodigal the soul/ Lends the tongue vows. These blazes, daughter,/ Giving more light than heat, extinct in both/ Even in their promise as it is a-making,/ You must not take for fire (Shakespeare 1.3.113–119).

Hamlet’s promises are but fleeting flames that are extinguished quickly and should not be mistaken for the long-burning fire that is love. Polonius worries that Ophelia will allow Hamlet to take her virginity, but will never end up marrying him, leaving her sullied and socially outcast.

In her article, “«We Are All Mad Here»: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as a political novel,” Laura de la Parra Fernández explores the idea of women being outcast, particularly as a result of limited options presented to them by society. Fernández further suggests that the limited options presented to women were the result of the United States’ Cold War creation of “the Other [which] is necessary for the creation of the One” (166). The ‘Other’ and the ‘One’ were used to differentiate between the United States and Russia in a larger political sense, but the ideology permeated all aspects of society.  In the case of Esther Greenwood, the ‘One’ is a housewife who provides the free service of childcare, allowing her husband to go to work and further fuel the capitalism-based superpower. The ‘Other’ is, as the dichotomy would suggest, anything other than a housewife. This is quite a difficult proposition for Esther for many reasons, one of them being that, if the personal ‘Other’ is read with a political subtext, there is an implication of being anti-American. The housewife, as promoted by the United States government at the time, was a capitalist symbol, leaving all women that weren’t housewives as, at a minimum, not supporters of capitalism or, as former Senator Joe McCarthy may have tried to imply, traitors. Given the political climate, in addition to making life choices based on personal happiness, Esther, like Ophelia, must consider what her life choices say about where her political loyalty lies.

To understand the intensity of the political pressure that may be felt by Esther, it is especially important to consider her reactions to the executions of the Rosenbergs, killed under suspicion of being traitors and Russian spies. Upon hearing about the executions, Esther exclaims that she “couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to be burned alive all along your nerves” (Plath 1). The chilling description of every single nerve ending, every receptor of pain in one’s body, frying in unison illustrates, as Fernández states, the “fascination and repulsion [Esther feels] towards their execution” (164). Fernández discusses Esther’s feelings as foreshadowing her future electroshock therapy, but her odd need to place herself in the Rosenbergs’ minds, to wonder how they must have felt, can be read as Esther considering the possible implications of her own treachery. Esther’s treachery, while not as serious as spying, is daunting.

Like Esther, Ophelia has dilemmas of political and personal loyalty that have intertwined themselves, much to her detriment. Her personal dilemma between her love for Hamlet and loyalty to her father, Polonius, is meshed with the idea of conflicting loyalties between the two potential leaders of Denmark. Ophelia loves Hamlet, who may take the throne back from Claudius, but also loves her father, who has allied himself with the King. Ophelia’s resolution of her personal struggle would also mean portraying herself as either firmly standing with Hamlet or with Claudius. This polarity of limited options—above all, in the extensive personal and political repercussions of choosing either option—drives the two young women into a state of limbo between their two possible paths. This desire to remain neutral is the cause of many conflicts both with others and within themselves.

The presence of characters attempting to force Esther and Ophelia into one of the moulds of either good or sexy also illustrates the double standard that women endure in the face of a male-dominated society. As Esther is being sexually assaulted by Marco, he is repeatedly calling her “‘Slut!’ The word hissed by my ear. ‘Slut!’” (Plath 105). Marco’s act of sexual assault forces Esther into the position he deems worthy of the term slut. This scenario illustrates the hopelessness of Esther’s situation: no matter what agency she tries to have with regards to her decisions, not only will people pressure her towards one side, but in some cases they may both force her to choose and reprimand her for it. A similar male hypocrisy is evident in the exchange between Ophelia and her brother Laertes, who advises her to fear her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia responds, “Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads/ And recks not his own rede” (Shakespeare 1.3.48–49). Laertes does not consider the implications of his own relationship with Hamlet, so Ophelia advises him to take heed of his own advice. At the onset of the play, the relationship between Hamlet and Laertes is amicable: Polonius has already allied himself and his family with Claudius, so Laertes’ friendship with Hamlet, a man in a position to contest the throne, would be a similar act of political treachery as Ophelia’s love for the same man. Of course, this hypocrisy is resolved in a somewhat ironic way when Laertes begins to hate Hamlet for killing Polonius, the man who originally attempts to foster said hate. In both works, then, men attempt to force Esther and Ophelia to fit one side of the binary, without realizing that in doing so, they are losing sight of their own morals.

Being torn apart by desires and unattainable societal expectations is enormously destructive for both Esther and Ophelia, but what further fuels the downward spiral into insanity appears to be the reluctant selection of one of the two opposing lifestyles. The selection is made in both works through the rejection of a lover’s letter. Esther receives a letter from Buddy explaining that he has fallen in love with another woman but could be swayed differently if payed a visit. Esther realizes how awful it would be to marry Buddy and “stuck the letter back in the envelope, scotch-taped it together, and readdressed it to Buddy, without putting on a new stamp” (Plath 115). This decision is representative of Esther choosing to live by her passionate side. In much the same way, Ophelia returns Hamlet’s letter to him, saying “My lord, I have remembrances of yours/ That I have longed to redeliver./ I pray you now receive them” (Shakespeare 3.1.92–94). Ophelia’s decision to return Hamlet’s token of love is representative of a larger decision to maintain her purity and reject her passion. The decision to polarize their lifestyles has a negative effect on Esther and Ophelia both mentally and physically.

The mental toll of committing to one polarized way of life leads both Esther and Ophelia to descend into madness. Esther begins by being unable to sleep: she relates how she “followed the green, luminous course of the second hand and the minute hand and the hour hand of the bedside clock through their circles and semi-circles, every night for seven nights, without missing a second, or a minute, or an hour” (Plath 122). Esther is having sleep issues, but it also seems as though she may be lying about the extent or misconstruing the seriousness of her issues, as the description of watching each hand all the time seems virtually impossible. If her account is true, then it is representative of an enormous spiral into insanity. Esther’s mental faculties are further disturbed when she returns from courting a sailor and can no longer read. It appears that the more she leans uniquely into her sensual side, the more insane she becomes. The same effect is experienced by Ophelia but for different reasons. Driven mad by her choice to suppress her love for Hamlet, who at this point in the play she has come to hate as well as love, Ophelia becomes wild, bursting into the Queen’s quarters singing songs:

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day/ All in the morning betime,/ And I a maid at your window,/ To be your valentine./ Then he rose up and donned his clothes/ And dupped the chamber door. (Shakespeare 4.5.48–53)

It appears that Ophelia wishes that she were Hamlet’s Valentine and is experiencing anguish due to their separation. Had she not allowed herself to succumb to the societal pressures, perhaps she would still be sane.

Not only do Esther and Ophelia suffer mentally, they suffer physically. Esther nearly kills herself by overdosing on pills and wakes up in the hospital. Once she regains vision, she observes her reflection in a mirror and comes to the realization that,

You couldn’t tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head. One side of the person’s face was purple, and bulged out in a shapeless way, shading to green along the edges, and then to a sallow yellow. (Plath 168)

The grotesque description of Esther’s face provides a startling insight as to how her mental illness is physically affecting her. In fact, she can hardly be identified as human, for she looks like neither a man or woman and has chicken-feather-like hair. Esther’s non-human appearance comes as a direct result of attempting to suppress a certain part of herself; in other words, part of her humanity. Ophelia is found dead and it is thought that, similarly to Esther, she tried to kill herself. This is revealed when the priest comments that Ophelia’s “death was doubtful,” in the sense that it was doubtful that it was a proper Christian death: one which is not self-inflicted. There is an implication that Ophelia, driven mad by her suppressed love for Hamlet, kills herself because she can no longer bear the pain.

The physical harm that Esther and Ophelia inflict upon themselves is certainly connected to the personally and politically polarized worlds in which they live, but it should be considered that the act of suicide is perhaps the most concrete opportunity for the women to achieve a form of agency. In her paper, “Assembling the Ophelia Fragments: Gender, Genre, and Revenge in Hamlet,” Sarah Gates inquires,

What other way could a female who is forbidden by gender to “take arms” and whose only asset is her pure body exact restitution for her injuries than by destroying the one thing that has value because men must stake their patrimony on it? (231)

This question is more pertinent to Ophelia than it is to Esther because, unlike Ophelia, Esther lives in a time period where women are beginning to fight to be heard and respected. Esther literally engages in that fight in her conflict with Marco, in which she attempts to physically assert herself. She describes her resistance as such: “I gouged at his leg with the sharp heel of my shoe…. Then I fisted my fingers together and smashed them at his nose. It was like hitting the steel plate of a battleship. Marco sat up. I began to cry” (Plath 105). Esther musters a fight worthy of the Amazonian women, possibly the namesakes of the Amazon, the all-female hotel that she and her coworkers live in at the beginning of the book. The use of the language “gouged” and “smashed” illustrates the ferocity with which Esther combats the assault by Marco. Nevertheless, Esther ends the battle on the ground, in tears, and in pain; although Esther has more opportunity to fight away the brutes in her life, she remains oppressed. Thus, she turns her desire for agency into violent action upon herself, joining in the trajectory of, if not the conclusion reached, by Ophelia.

Unlike Esther, Ophelia has no opportunity to, as Gates says, “take up arms” against those who have wronged her. Her situation is particularly difficult because those who have wronged her also happen to be those who she loves and is torn between: Hamlet and Polonius. Hamlet treats Ophelia poorly in much of the play, toying with her emotions and insulting her with statements such as: “marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” (Shakespeare 3.1.137–9). In the context of marriage, monster is a term used synonymously with cuckold. In making such a statement, Hamlet is insulting Ophelia’s honour by insinuating that she would be unfaithful, rendering her husband a cuckold. Hamlet’s injurious statements are compounded by his most injurious act: killing Polonius, Ophelia’s father. The killing of Polonius fills Ophelia with a rage strong enough to desire to kill Hamlet, but she is held back by her intense love for him. Hamlet commits the harshest acts against Ophelia; however, Polonius’ “transparently opportunistic handling of her love affair seems almost equally injurious” (Gates 231). Polonius wants to end Ophelia and Hamlet’s courting because he wishes to maintain his good standing with the King: Hamlet having a wife and potential Queen that could further the royal bloodline directly from the former King through his legitimate heir would increase the threat of being dethroned in the new King’s eyes and, as his ally, Polonius does not want his daughter to be actively enhancing it. So, equally injured by and in love with both her family and Hamlet, but unable to confront either of them, Ophelia takes her life to deprive either of ever loving her again.

Both Esther and Ophelia are driven to a point of inhuman insanity only because their respective societies do not allow for true humanity. The two young women are criticized for their attempts at neutrality in an alien world of binaries and polarizations: the external political situations of Denmark and the United States, as well as their domestic social policies and deeply-rooted cultural expectations, create societies in which only those who can suppress their humanity and diversity of thought can survive. The intermingling of political and personal lives further muddies the waters for each character with regards to choosing a path and exerting agency in their respective worlds. In the end, the male-dominated societies in which Esther and Ophelia live leave them only with the option of turning the violence they wish to expel outwards back upon themselves in an act of defiant protest.

 

Works Cited

Fernández, Laura de la Parra. “«We Are All Mad Here»: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as a political novel.” Revista de Filologiá Románica, vol. 33, no. Especial, 2016, pp. 163-170, https://doi.org/10.5209/RFRM.55845.

Gates, Sarah. “Assembling the Ophelia Fragments: Gender, Genre, and Revenge in Hamlet.”Explorations in Renaissance Culture, vol. 34, no. 2, Winter 2008, pp. 229-247, https://go-gale-com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&u=ubcolumbia&id=GALE%7CA208534875&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Faber and Faber. 1966.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.Bloomsbury. 2016.