The Bell Jar is a feminist work of art, representing the constraints that modern society placed on women of the 1950s and 60s and the psychological turmoil that comes with it. Sylvia Plath herself was a troubled individual, and this novel is interpreted to be semi-autobiographical. The feminism in The Bell Jar is highly significant, as it is a critique of society imposing unrealistic standards upon women, to which they are expected to conform to. If they do not, they are trapped in “the bell jar” which is a metaphor for being isolated from the world. It is important to note at the beginning that Esther seems to be the perfect straight-A student on the road to success, however Plath emphasises how depression can happen to anyone, even the ones who would never expect it. This question interests me because mental illness written from the perspective of a woman in the 60s is ultimately a timeless theme as these issues are relevant today.
At the start of the novel, Esther is a young woman, who has won an internship at a prestigious magazine in New York, looking as if she is on the road to success. She is supposed to be having the time of her life, “and wins a prize here and there and ends up steering New York like her own private car” and yet she grapples with indecision and unhappiness, “only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself.” Mental illness is either about control, or the lack of it. Esther cannot control the way her life veers and so she remains stationary, unable to make a decision that will positively impact her life. As a consequence, this young woman who is alone, despite being surrounded by people in New York, begins to feel disillusionment even though her dream of being independent and successful is beginning to take off. Furthermore, she feels suffocated in New York, viewing the city as superficial, “I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” This suggests a distance between Esther and society, and the use of the word “hullabaloo”, gives connotations of life in New York being dizzying and nonsensical. In addition, the imagery used of a tornado conveys the lack of control and how life seems to sweep her by, which she is unable to keep up with. Although she is keen to break out of her poor background, she is still swept away by the harshness and falsity of society which will eventually lead to her downward spiral. At this point, her depression is not fully fledged but is just beginning as she tries to navigate her future. Therefore, Plath presents mental illness in a significant way, by displaying how it can happen to anyone, no matter how perfect their life may seem.
A substantial factor contributing to her depression is that she is disillusioned with society, “the silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.” The use of “my” is possessive and signifies how Esther’s feelings are self-inflicted and her mental illness is hers alone, that no one else would be able to understand. It is beginning of feeling numb and void, a symptom of depression, by the silence alienating her from the hustle and bustle of the city. She is beginning to feel the clutches of the Bell Jar. Her previous clear direction in life begins to seem meaningless, “After nineteen years of running after good marks and prizes… I was letting up, slowing down, dropping clean out of the race.” Plath demonstrates the tiredness that Esther feels, by hinting what exactly is the point to doing so well and adhering to social norms. It also represents her tiredness at always being expected to be perfect all the time, with the commas and metaphor representing a runner heaving after an exhausting race. Plath seems to be saying, success does not equate to happiness, even if you are independent and different. Despite all the success Esther has achieved, she reproaches herself, “and what did I do but balk and balk like a dull cart horse?” Feelings of insecurity begin to creep into her life and she can’t seem to understand what the exact cause of it is. This lack of awareness of her own feelings leads to her internal conflict eating her from within. This confusion results in depression, feeling aimless and insecure about anything she has previously achieved. Her previous successes all seem to be insufficient, being significant in that Plath portrays the insecurity and how remote a depressed person can feel from society.
Another root of Esther’s discontent, is that Buddy Willard is not what he seems. Everyone expects her to marry Buddy Willard and yet she does not as he is a “hypocrite.” Furthermore, Buddy Willard seems keen to always argue with her, “When I was with him I had to work to keep my head above water.” She always has to be on guard around Buddy, hating his desire to always catch her out. Plath is sure to make the reader know that this is not love, but the typical theme of power and control. In addition, the portrayal of Buddy and Esther’s relationship is uncomfortable, unequal and unromantic, suggesting that in reality the man will always have the higher position in the relationship. The fact that Esther gets to go to the Yale Junior prom with Buddy Willard earns her respect from her college peers, “nobody made any more nasty loud remark outside my door about people wasting their golden college days with their noses stuck in a book”, implying that conforming to societal norms earns one recognition. Society expects people to be intelligent and to get a good degree but doesn’t accept it when they see one working for it. Esther’s diligence alienates her from the typical college crowd, as a result she becomes lonely and shut out. Her bad experiences with the men in her life, and not finding the ‘right one’, also negatively impacts her self esteem. Plath shows how depression is multifaceted and is down to a range of factors.
Esther feels stagnant as she begins to see men in an unsavoury light whilst still grappling with career choices. She abhors the idea of having to work with men, “I hated the idea of serving men in any way,” preferring to have an independent profession. Her unhappiness is as a result of men treating women like her as objects such as how she is treated by Marco. Although from an outsider’s perspective she is successful, her self esteem beings to drop,” I had been inadequate all along,” reflecting how she grapples with uncertainty. This is reiterated by Plath’s metaphor of the fig tree. Each fig represents a path Esther’s life could go down, one was “a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet …” At this time in the 60s, being both a mother and a career woman was unheard of, it was either one or the other. This conflict is represented by this fig metaphor: “I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest,” and from this point onward Esther comes to term with her identity crisis. As her academic life was the only thing providing her security, as it begins to crumble, so does Esther’s personal life. She now longer is certain of what she wants to be, highlighting how mental illness can stem from a lack of truly knowing one’s self.
Furthermore, Esther is not in control of herself. When told to smile, Plath conveys the undertone of displeasure and influence of control, “obediently, like the mouth of a ventriloquist’s dummy, my own mouth started to quirk up.” The use of “ventriloquist” gives connotations of hypnosis, emphasizing the true power that the female stereotype of being ‘obedient’ can have on people. Therefore, she adheres to what is expected of her, even when she is reluctant to do what is told of her. Furthermore, when dancing with Marco, she allows herself to be led, “moving as he moved, without any will or knowledge of my own,” feeling discomfort as she is simply forced to as he can’t take no for an answer, similarly to Buddy and the skiing incident. Another shock comes to her as she receives news that she didn’t make a writing course, it being a safe net for her, “a bright safe bridge over the dull gulf of summer.” As realization kicks in, she sees it disappear and “a body in a white blouse and green skirt plummet into the gap.” This is a foreshadowing of her eventual suicide, with her rejection of the writing programme and her sexual harassment being triggers, as her suicide is the only thing that she can be in control of.
Her downward spiral continues as her depression begins to have a more central role in her life, not washing her hair and not sleeping, manifesting into a more severe version of depression. It is a rapid personal disintegration, demonstrating how crippling depression can be. Her descent into a fully fledged version of depression is significant due to the unbearable void her summer has become. Furthermore, she goes on to see a psychiatrist, Dr Gordon, and gets electrically shocked, “I wondered what terrible thing I had done”, representing her hopelessness and Plath highlights that depression is not self inflicted, but can happen to the best of us. The reader realizes that even the people who have it all figured out, sometimes are allowed to get it wrong. The bell jar is almost a protective net at the harshness that the world throws at you: “To the person in the bell jar, blank and spotted as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.” In turn this gives connotations of isolation and death, signifying Esther’s helplessness, viewing death as the only way out. At a private hospital in Walton, Plath comments on societal pressure to remain sane, as Esther’s mother remarks after visiting a psychiatric hospital that, “I knew you’d decide to be alright again.” This represents the ignorance associated with mental illness and the perception that it can disappear instantaneously. It is a sad moment as Esther continues, “the more hopeless you were, the further away they hid you”, conveying her feelings of being trapped and how society are ashamed of people who are ‘weak’.
Ultimately, the main themes in The Bell Jar are of feminism, and of mental illness. Esther’s lack of control is framed by her uncertainty about her future. Plath realistically presents the difficulty of making a perfect vision of yourself come true. The societal pressure to be “perfect” are the constraints that society places upon women, and when you do not live up to it, one experiences disappointment. Her road to success and her direction in life, becomes blurry and her purpose in life begins to disintegrate. Religion that typically gives one meaning in life is rendered inadequate: “No matter how much you knelt and prayed, you still had to eat three meals a day and have a job and live in the world.” The ordinary practice of life is stifling, sometimes seeming as if an agonising chore. Furthermore, the fig tree metaphor summarises the difficulty of being a woman and how “wanting to be everything” is impossible. It is this realisation, leading to her feeling isolated from society that makes her struggle. Plath creates a character who can’t match her inner life to the perfect life she has to present, this conflict resulting in Esther’s trials and tribulations. In conclusion, the way that Plath presents mental illness is significant as it is presented in a fleshed out way with Esther feeling disconnected due to the social barriers placed on woman of the 50s and 60s. However, the novel ends with the road to recovery being a possibility, “there ought… to be a ritual for being born twice- patched, retreaded and approved for the road,” an optimistic end that there is always the hope of starting again.