Conservative Roles of Women in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The ultraconservative air of the 1950’s breeds the Betty Crocker kind of woman, satisfied with her limited role in a male-dominated society, one who simply submits to the desires and expectations of the opposite sex. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath explored the effects of society’s traditional standards on a young woman coming of age. The main character, Esther Greenwood, a nineteen year-old college student, receives messages about a woman’s place in society throughout her life. Esther’s aspirations of becoming a writer, specifically, a poet, are obvious. Carrying out these aspirations in the 1950’s is not so clear-cut, though. Esther’s environment presses her to marry, settle down, have children, to be the happy housewife. For nineteen years she puts on a façade, pretending to be the woman everyone wants her to be, trying to please her family along with everyone else in her life, until she mentally breaks down and attempts suicide.
Her mother serves as the first of her teachers in conveying this message. For example, Mrs. Greenwood wants her daughter to learn shorthand because it will get her a living until she can marry, because it can even get her a husband. She consistently emphasizes the importance of Esther staying “pure”, so she can get the best of possible husbands. So early on Esther realizes that, for most women, marriage and family comprise the main substance of their lives.
Esther receives more lessons from her medical student boyfriend, Buddy Willard. He often spits out remarks like one day Esther will “stop rocking the boat and start rocking the cradle.” He also says that once she has children she will “feel differently,” and not want to write poems anymore, that she will be “brainwashed and numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.” This was what happened to Buddy’s mother, who, after marriage, let her husband walk all over her like a “kitchen doormat.” It is his mother Buddy quotes when he says, “What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinite security” and “What a man is, is an arrow into the future and what a woman is, is the place the arrow shoots off from.”
Even the editors of Ladies’ Day magazine which awarded Esther and 11 other girls a free trip to New York due to winning their fashion magazine contest, accentuate the girls’ femininity. On their arrival in New York, the editors drive the girls around from fashion shows to beauty parlors to gala lunches to publicity parties. Then, after dressing them up like dolls, the editors pose them in front of a camera with a dozen other “anonymous young men with all-American bone structures.” The magazine is clearly not interested in promoting the girls’ intellect that won them the contest in the first place. It is no wonder Esther becomes weary of this stale, unprofitable environments which does nothing but stifle her personal growth.
Before Esther went to...