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“Seeing Through The Bell Jar: Distorted Female Identity In Cold War America

1589 words - 6 pages

The essay “Seeing Through the Bell Jar: Distorted Female Identity in Cold War America” by Rosi Smith, argues that the book, “The Bell Jar”, by Sylvia Plath is about women in 1950s America who struggled to find their personal identities outside what was defined by the Cold War Ideology of the role of women in the household. According to Smith, the character Esther Greenwood’s inability to integrate her identity is because of the state of the political environment and time frame in which the book is written. Smith argues that, “In a society where paranoia and surveillance were rife it is impossible to separate image, performance, and identity, because all are ideologically constrained and Esther’s profoundly personal self-alienation is inextricable from the external political climate” (35). Smith is saying that Ester is hampered by outside forces other than her own mental state or pathology.
The story about Esther is that she is an intelligent young woman who is attending a prestigious college. Esther has won scholarship after scholarship and is currently working on an internship at a magazine in New York. But after disappointing news that she was denied entry into a coveted writing course, Esther starts to enter into a state of depression. Her depression is compounded by the fact that society expects her to desire to be a stay at home wife and mother and not the hard-working, intelligent, self-sufficient female that she is capable of being. We see Esther spiral into self-destructive behavior where she makes a suicide attempt and ends up in a mental hospital. Esther is ‘punished’, as she sees it, with shock therapy. The end of the novel brings us to Esther’s evaluation in front of several doctors to decide whether she can be released back into society or not.
Smith says that Plath’s life mirrored that of Esther Greenwoods, but she chose to write fictionally to “comment more broadly on the process of entering adult womanhood in Cold War America” (35). The fact that the book opens with a discussion of the execution of the spies, the Rosenberg’s, alludes to the fact that those that reject the American ideal will be persecuted, says Smith. Ester is subjected to ECT without anesthesia, in which she then says “I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done (Plath 138). Smith says that the reference to the Rosenberg story is significant because in Cold War America the establishment tries to fix mental illness, criminality and homosexuality by the application of electricity. So those not conforming to the ideal in this society will be subject to ‘punishment’.
According to Smith, during the fifties, women that were still single upon leaving college were the exception not the rule and the most common age of marriage for women was 18. For women the role of homemaker was idealized and was given an ‘unjustified privileged status’ in society. Women were conditioned into believing that self-expression and fulfillment...

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