The Feminine Ideal In The Bell Jar

1671 words - 7 pages

Throughout The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath explores a number of themes, particularly regarding the gender roles, and subsequently, the mental health care system for women. Her 19-year-old protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is the vessel through which Plath poses many probing questions about these topics to the reader. In the 1950s when the novel was set, women were held to a high standard: to be attractive but pure, intelligent but submissive, and to generally accept the notion of bettering oneself only in order to make life more comfortable for the significant male in her life. Esther not only deals with the typical problems faced by women in her time, but she has to experience those things through the lens of mental illness though it is up for debate whether or not it was those same issues that caused her “madness” in the first place. In particular, Esther finds herself both struggling against and succumbing to the 1950s feminine ideal- a conflict made evident in her judgments of other women, her relationships with Buddy Willard, and her tenuous goals for the future.
Whenever a new character is introduced, the reader is immediately subjected to Esther’s painstaking physical description of them, which leads to her ultimate judgment of their character. For instance, when Esther introduces one of her fellow interns, Doreen, in chapter one, she says, “ Doreen . . . had bright white hair standing out in a cotton candy fluff round her head and blue eyes like transparent agate marbles, hard and polished and just about indestructible, and a mouth set in a sort of perpetual sneer . . . as if all the people around her were pretty silly and she could tell some good jokes on them if she wanted to” (Plath 4). It is clear that she admires Doreen’s ice-queen beauty and accompanying cold attitude. Even spending time with Doreen makes Esther feel “wise and cynical as all hell” (8). Despite this initial attraction to, and appreciation of, Doreen’s messy, flirty lifestyle, Esther still remains stuck in a traditional mindset. She turns on Doreen after she witnesses what she perceives as Doreen’s whorish, sloppy behavior in the incident with Lenny, where in which Doreen had drunk herself sick and acted promiscuously with a man she had met on the street just a few hours before. Esther even states that “[d]eep down, I would be loyal to Betsey and her innocent friends. It was Betsey I resembled at heart” (22). Earlier in the novel, Doreen and Esther had made fun of Betsey’s wholesome, goody-goody personality, calling her “Pollyanna Cowgirl” (6) behind her back. Even though Esther was originally awed by Doreen’s boldness, she feels naturally compelled to stay true to the clean, innocent lifestyle preferred for women in the 1950s.
Esther’s judgmental attitude is not just reserved for her peers. She also makes decisions about the adults she encounters –including her superiors and mentors- based upon their physical attractiveness. When Esther first brings up Jay Cee,...

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