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The Bell Jar: Changing Gender Roles In Society

1320 words - 5 pages

The Bell Jar, written in the 1960s and set in the 1950s, comes at a time when the roles and gender expectations of women were changing substantially in society. Women had contributed to the war effort by taking a place in the workforce, earning their own keep and contributing to society as a whole. These same women were expected, now that the war was over, to obediently return to their rightful place as wives and mothers. The titular object of the bell jar is a metaphor for the trapped feeling that Esther experiences when faced with a world in which she does not fit. We see her struggle to find her place within the female archetypes she is presented with. The conventional wife and mother represented by her mother, Mrs Willard and Betsy; the rebel represented by Doreen and the career driven Jay Cee. Esther, however, embodies not one but all of these archetypes. She represents a new perspective in a world on the cusp of change, a woman who wants to have her own goals and successes whilst also being a wife and mother and finally a woman who is aware and in control of her own sexuality.Aside from our protagonist Esther, the roles of the women in The Bell Jar are clearly defined. In Mrs Greenwood, Mrs Willard and Betsy we see the traditional social convention. Mrs Greenwood encourages Esther to remain 'pure' for her husband, by sending her articles emphasising the importance of guarding ones virginity, and also to learn appropriate life skills such as shorthand which will help Esther to find work as a secretary (Plath, 1971), an appropriate job for a lady, with the ultimate aim of finding a proper husband. The epitome of the traditional 1950s housewife, Mrs Willard defines the female position in life as being wholly dependent on men. She describes men as "an arrow into the future" and women as "the place the arrow shoots from" (Plath, 1971). This statement implies that a woman's only purpose in life is only to be support and guidance to help a man, not to have any goals or successes of her own. This sentiment is mirrored in Buddy's views that once they are married Esther will give up on her plans to write and become the dutiful wife (Plath, 1971). In Doreen we see the beginnings of what will become the sexual revolution; the belief that women should be afforded the same rights with regard to sexuality as men. Doreen appears to do everything she can to rebel against societal conventions. She drinks heavily, to the point of vomiting then passing out drunk, she is sexually promiscuous and tries her best to not do what is expected of her, regardless of the consequences (Plath, 1971). Unfortunately, as portrayed in Esther's memories, Doreen has created a new convention, her own version of the bell jar, under which she is also trapped. Initially Esther seems to aspire to be the girl who Doreen represents but we see, after the encounter with Lenny, that Esther's opinion of Doreen changes; that rebellious as she may be, Doreen is still living her life to...

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