Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Bell Jar Essay

The Bell Jar Essay

It could be said of Sylvia Plath's only novel "The Bell Jar" that it attempts to place responsibility for Esther's breakdown on the social pressures and conventions of the 1950s, or at least relates the breakdown to the times. Esther's observations of her social world contribute to her emotional downfall. Chapter Six of the novel does particularly well in describing her restricted and patriarchal social world, and her confusion concerning her role in it.

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Esther's disillusionment with her adult world is portrayed especially well in Chapter Six of the novel. This chapter works much like the rest of the novel does - through the process of juxtaposition. The two main scenes, a birth and the discovery that Buddy is not a virgin, contrast greatly. The first event is not personally connected to Esther, but has an effect on her, and the second event is much more personal and is actually inside Esther's world, yet her disappointment in both links the two disparate experiences. This chapter highlights Esther's patriarchal social world - men have the authority, and consider themselves just slightly superior. This chapter also shows how Esther involuntarily lets herself be dominated in most situations, and her lack of control in such circumstances.

Esther meets a fat medical student who sneers, "At least your mother loves you" (67) at her. This is a hostile introduction to the hospital and to the chapter. Guided by Buddy into the hospital, she encounters this display of dominance. The subtext seems to say that this is not a woman's territory - she is a stranger in a foreign land, or at least is regarded so by the male students. She has been thinking about how a woman would kiss someone like this man, and because of her dreaminess, misses a retort to this insult. Her lack of command and failure to stand up for herself renders her a little inadequate and weak, at least in the eyes of those around her, i.e. the males.

From the beginning of the novel, many of Esther's little illusions are shattered. Few are related more strikingly than when she watches a woman give birth in hospital. Esther has vividly imagined herself giving birth, and feels "the most important thing "was actually seeing the baby come out of you yourself and making sure it was yours." (70). Her dreams of her first baby starkly contrast the reality of a drugged woman making an "unhuman whooing noise" on what looks like an "awful torture table"(69). This is a disappointment to Esther - an instance where she discovers her social world is uglier than she has believed previously. Esther is made even more confused in her role as a woman by viewing a birth which is very different to her own ideals. If she chose a family over a career, she states that she would want to see the baby straight away. Instead, she sees what she perceives as a strange, clinical, dehumanised and vaguely cruel scene. Esther thinks the drug is something a man must have thought up, to trick women out of remembering the pain of childbirth, yet still having to go through it. This adds to her conscious or subconscious distrust of men.

This chapter takes place on one of their weekends that she and Buddy take. Esther says, "He always arranged our week-ends so we'd never regret wasting our time in any way."(71) As usual this weekend has a plan, which Esther is to follow. Once again, Esther has little control over her circumstances. Buddy, to try and help himself understand what is most important to her, schedules her poetry readings. They are somewhat incompatible people, but their families and society are putting pressure on them to get along.

Later on, it is Buddy who initiates another disappointing scene. He shows himself to her, again in a clinical, awkward way. He suggest it to her, by saying, don't you think you would like to see me?" (71)

This proposal triggers Esther's recollections of her mother and grandmother hinting that Buddy was a "fine, clean boy" and was someone to "stay fine and clean for"(72). Her female family members have already subtly pushed ideas of marriage on Esther, strengthening the pull in Esther's mind between family and career. These hints are society's intentions. The ideals of Esther's world are purity and family.

This emphasis on staying "clean" only serves to intensify the betrayal that Esther believes Buddy to have committed. His admission to not being a virgin cracks open the ideals that Esther has been taught and has believed in. She is taken aback by Buddy's confession, and angry. In her mind he has been duplicitous and dishonest. She becomes disillusioned in one of the few males she is close to. This letdown is one of the many factors that lead, from her confusion in her social world, to her eventual breakdown. She now finds a double standard between genders regarding sex, and the male has the upper hand. Buddy's mother places great emphasis on virginity - "for men and women both". "What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinite security"(75). Buddy would rebuff any argument of Esther's by saying that his mother "still got pleasure out of his father" it must mean she really knew what was what." Buddy is a believer in the traditional patriarchal society: where men and women have their separate and confined roles. He repeatedly attempts to instil this docility in Esther, at a point in her life and mind where she is struggling to come to terms with the choices she faces in her adult social world.

Esther uses further evidence of Buddy's hypocrisy to strengthen her case of disillusionment. AS well as his facade of purity and cleanliness, he is very proud of his perfect health. He tells Esther her sinus troubles are psychosomatic, which she thinks is an "odd attitude for a doctor to have" (76), and then later on contracts tuberculosis. Although this "hypocrisy" is involuntary, Esther holds it against him, as his illness prevents her from breaking up with him. This situation is yet another where Esther's control of a situation is taken away from her.

Esther's reaction to Buddy's illness is a little strange. “I told Buddy how sorry I was about the TB and promised to write, but when I hung up I didn't feel one bit sorry. I only felt a wonderful relief." (76) She reasons that his illness is a punishment for Buddy's “double life” and apparent superiority complex. Coloured by her feelings of betrayal, she interprets this event in an irrational way. She goes on to think “how convenient it would be now [she] didn't have to announce to everybody at college [she] had broken off with Buddy and start the boring business of blind dates again.” (77) The pressures of her social world at college would force an unattached Esther to go out on dates. Esther relishes the freedom of an absent boyfriend, while still having the security of being attached. This somewhat off-centre logic of Esther's gives an early hint of the breakdown to come.

This chapter highlights the lack of romance in Esther's social world. She has dreams, poetic ideas of how things should happen, and she is let down by what appears to be the society's norm: a more unromantic, almost clinical, patriarchal outlook on human interaction. Plath illustrates the growing disillusionment that a young woman faces when coming to terms with the adult world and her loss of innocence in 1950s America. The rusty and jarring progression of social values from a patriarchal structure {especially those pertaining to women} happening in the 50s, and continuing to the 60s and beyond, takes its toll on Esther. She is part of a new era, but this upheaval is invisible to her. The old and the new both tug at her, and she does not have the awareness or understanding to look outside her position and relate it to society in order to save herself.


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