Book Review · Feminism

Feminism in “The Bell Jar”

Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, ‘The Feminine Mystique’ was ground-breaking in its dealing with a period in women’s history in America which had previously been overlooked. Although set a decade earlier, Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ was published during the same year as Friedan’s book and it “explores the very problem that was Friedan’s subject”[1]. She was concerned with the role of women after the First World War and their widespread unhappiness, despite the fact that American culture asserted that the contentment of women could be found through marriage and housewifery. She shows that the editorial decisions with regards to women’s magazines were made principally by men, who insisted on stories and articles that showed women as either happy housewives or unhappy careerists, thus creating the “feminine mystique” – the idea that women were naturally fulfilled by devoting their lives to being housewives and mothers. This was the “dream image of the young American women and the envy, it was said, of women all over the world”[2].  It seems fitting to search for Friedan’s ideas of the feminine mystique within ‘The Bell Jar’ where Plath deals with the cultural and social norms and gender restrictions in America, while focusing on the struggles of the female protagonist.

 

Plath’s novel performs on several literary levels, but it is perhaps most predominantly a representation of the limitations imposed on young, intelligent women of 1950s American society. It follows the mental collapse and subsequent recovery of Esther Greenwood, “a talented girl at a time when marriage and motherhood were held out as the only appropriate avenues for women seeking fulfilling lives”[3]. ‘The Bell Jar’ offers a cynical perspective on the smug satisfaction of middle-class American society in the 1950s. All the symbols of American success, such as consumerism and the baby boom, are presented as oppressive and overpowering. Furthermore, the overwhelming demands to obey the rules of conventional social standards – of femininity, for example – lead to the restraint of individuality. Throughout the novel, Esther continually tries to resist submission to the standardised role of femininity by attempting to become the active subject in her own life – one who maintains control and is able to make decisions for herself – rather than settling as the inactive feminine object in society. Patriarchal conventions remain a constant restriction and Esther struggles to find a balance between her own ideas and those of her society. Her feeling of being trapped under a bell jar not only represent her mental deterioration but also acts a general metaphor for a society that is stifled into uniformity by its own conventions.

 

There are only three women in the entire novel who have broken free from their gender constraints and fashioned genuine identities for themselves, detached from the men in their lives. The uninteresting editor Jay Cee had to sacrifice a certain amount of femininity to reach independence; the writer Philomena Guinea has prospered creatively on her own terms; Esther’s psychiatrist, Dr Nolan, appeared as a compassionate, knowledgeable professional – these, however, are exceptions in Esther’s frame of reference. Friedan points out that Freud’s unverified notion of “penis envy” had been used to label women who wanted careers as irrational, and that the popularity of Freud’s work and ideas elevated the “feminine mystique” of female fulfilment in housewifery into a “scientific religion” that most women were not educated enough to criticise. This is the case for the majority of Esther’s social circle and she concentrates much of her energy into men as potential husbands or as a means of losing her virginity. The novel ridicules the notion that women are inferior to men by representing the hypocrisy and moral flaws of the male characters – for instance, Buddy Willard’s sexual impurity.

[1] Michael B. Snyder, Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender, (Greenwood, 2000) p. 35

[2] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, (W.W.Norton & Company, Inc., 1963)  p. 18

[3] Michael B. Snyder, Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender, (Greenwood, 2000) p. 35

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