It would be fallacious to suggest that the latter half of the twentieth century was anything less than revolutionary as the American literary sphere was marked by various social uprisings that sought to weave nationwide equality into the fabric of mainstream society. Aside from being the cornerstone for a profound cultural shift among the general populace, American literature during the post-war period became increasingly experimental through the creation of hallucinatory fictional narratives in postmodern works from Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. With the postmodern aesthetic being at the forefront of most literary circles, it seemed that works of an autobiographical nature were seen to be less daring than those of a postmodern variety. Yet, this is untrue in light of the fact that autobiographical novels such as ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath and ‘The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts’ by Maxine Kingston have been heralded as prominent pieces of feminist literature through the way in which they have deconstructed female identity via occidental and oriental lenses in order to provide a commentary on the human condition. Contrary to this, both works are not without their flaws for two reasons: Firstly, their placement under the autobiography genre is rather questionable. Secondly, Kingston is particularly controversial since certain scholars have accused her of fabrication rather than being entirely truthful about certain aspects of her book.
It can be said that categorising the two works as an autobiography is a tricky task since Plath and Kingston are both rather dubious in light of combining fictitious elements with real life experience. Helga Schwalm helps to distinguish an autobiography from other potential genres by suggesting that an autobiography ‘signifies a retrospective narrative that undertakes to tell the author’s own life, or a substantial part of it, seeking (at least in its classic version) to reconstruct his/her personal development within a given historical, social and cultural framework.’ Undoubtedly, Schwalm’s definition of an autobiography in relation to ‘The Bell Jar’ and ‘The Woman Warrior’ is simultaneously helpful and hindering: On one hand, by defining a seemingly complex genre in a comprehensible and concise manner, Schwalm is able to effectively encourage debate. Also, Schwalm’s definition is applicable to both works as they clearly function retrospectively to provide an outlook of the lives of their respective protagonists; Plath provides her readership with a moving insight into the mental consequences of social pressures that she experienced in America, whereas Kingston portrays her arduous struggle with her Chinese-American identity as a woman living with an authoritarian, traditionalist Chinese family. On the other hand, Schwalm’s definition is a hindrance due to the fact that she clearly states that her definition is limited to classical texts as opposed to having a contemporary outreach.
Although the retrospective element of autobiography is clearly intact in both books, pigeonholing both works as being exclusively autobiographical would be doing a great disservice to Plath and Kingston as their ability to write within multiple frameworks would be downplayed. Kingston more so than Plath skilfully utilises alternative modes of writing through her biography; Kingston establishes her role as a skilful writer from the outset of the book through her interesting use of the narrative form and Chinese oral tradition. Guiyou Huang posits that Kingston clearly goes beyond the autobiographical form through multiple narrators ‘The Woman Warrior alternates between the third person and the omniscient narrator to recount tales of heroism, violence, revenge, racism and sexism.’ It is perhaps the use of such folktales that is most significant to Kingston’s deviation from the genre; the various allusions to Chinese folklore in ‘The Woman Warrior’ are used to transcend cultural boundaries which consequently serve three functions within her writing:
Firstly, they strengthen her Chinese-American identity. Secondly, the folktales validate her experiences as a woman of a different ethnic makeup as they are unique and distinct from the experience of a homogenously white America. Thirdly, they serve as a means of establishing the text as a piece of transnational fiction since Kingston travels to China and America and America to China in a literal and figurative sense. In spite of this, Kingston’s anecdotes are not without controversy since Asian-American writers have reacted to ‘The Woman Warrior’ with vitriol: ‘Frank Chin, among others, accused Kingston of distorting Asian American reality on the one hand, and catering to the demand of the dominant culture for exoticism and stereotypes on the other.’ Though Chin is passionate about ‘The Woman Warrior’ being a deliberate fabrication of the Chinese-American experience, his argument lacks substance. Kingston is not pandering to an American readership through these folk stories to as they blur the lines between fact and fiction to make things complex; Kingston uses myth allegorically to construct notions of womanhood and to lay down her grievances towards the systematic patriarchy of America and China, hence why Kingston uses the word ‘girlhood’ in the title as it crystallises the fact that Kingston is collectively speaking for all Chinese-American women. Similarly, due to Sylvia Plath’s extremely personal reflections of her life, it could be argued that ‘The Bell Jar’ is only semi-autobiographical in nature since the book easily falls under the bildungsroman genre. A bildungsroman novel is characterised as a novel ‘that deals with the maturation process, with how and why the protagonist develops as he does, both morally and psychologically. The German word Bildungsroman means “novel of education” or “novel of formation.”’ It is perhaps the latter translation that is of primary concern here, in spite of the fact that the bildungsroman aesthetic seems to be non-inclusive females, it is obvious that Plath strays away from creating a cliché, traditional autobiography and instead creates a female bildungsroman through Esther Greenwood who evolves from an ordinary, suburban kid in Boston to being a teenager who has gained a prestigious internship at a magazine company in New York: ‘So poor that she can’t afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and there and ends up steering New York like her own private car.’
As the only book written in her lifetime, Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ encapsulates a time period in which extreme inequality among the sexes was commonplace. This single ideal suggests that feminism and Plath go hand in hand. Although Plath died well before ‘The Bell Jar’ impacted on the feminist movement, it goes without saying that the circumstances in which the book was written were foundational in linking femininity to internal and external plight. Rosi Smith writes that ‘Plath and her protagonist came of an age in an era where women were explicitly told that happiness can only be achieved through the enactment of biological imperative, in a society in which all deviance was treated with suspicion.’ It is sufficient to say that Rosi Smith’s choice of words is ingenious as she uses the term ‘biological imperative’ in a reductionist way to demonstrate that the sole purpose of a woman in the 20th century was to bear a child and be a mother. However, Plath’s protagonist Esther Greenwood has broken this societal mould by gaining a life changing internship in New York, through this, Esther assumes the role of a middle class everywoman in America despite the fact she did not begin her life with such an envied job and social status. But, upon her return to Boston, Esther is told by her mother her application for a creative writing course was rejected. ‘She was always on to me to learn shorthand after college, so I’d have a practical skill as well as a college degree. ‘Even the apostles were tentmakers,’ she’d say. ‘They had to live, just the way we do.’’ (TBJ 13). What is most harrowing is the latter part of the quote as Esther’s mother uses the tentmaker analogy to blasphemously denounce the religious contributions of the apostles by comparing them to a failing Esther. These lines are particularly bleak as it is an accurate depiction of an acceptable female experience during the post-war period; as an era fraught with pessimism and financial unpredictability, women had no time to develop as individuals and self-actualise. Plath’s ability to conjure up poignant imagery begins with the title of her autobiography ‘The Bell Jar’. A bell jar is a huge jar with translucent glass in the shape of a dome which usually has a brown base at the bottom of it. Arguably, Plath is extremely clever in her decision to name her autobiography after the bell jar due to its connotations. The title is apt since a bell jar is used by a person to trap a small object. The object in question can see everything outside of the bell jar, but it cannot escape unless the person who captured said object kindly unscrews the lid. In light of this, Marhukh Baig argues that the title serves as a metaphor to describe ‘the vacuum between self and society develops the idea of alienation and detachment from the world outside the jar causes a need for self-discovery and further provokes the notion of being enclosed.’ Baig is correct in his interpretation of the title as a bell jar is primarily used for trapping an object. Furthermore, the bell jar is also a metaphor that alludes to the systems put in place to oppress women in the unfair environment that is post war America. The plight of the post-war woman in the 20th century is a plight unheard as all speech inside of a bell jar is distorted.
An influx of Chinese migrants came to the US in the late 19th century to seek work as a result of an economic downturn in their home country. Unfortunately, the Chinese were unwelcome at this time and were subjected to xenophobia. A famous journalist named Jacob Riiss, an immigrant himself, bolstered xenophobic views at the time by describing the Chinese as ‘a constant and terrible menace to society who are in no sense a desirable element of the population.’ With this in mind, it becomes clear that the Chinese-American identity in ‘The Woman Warrior’ would have been influenced by a distinctly racist type of occidental fear. Debatably, ‘The Woman Warrior’ could be seen as an antithetical piece to Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ in view of the fact that Kingston depicts the Chinese-American experience as opposed to the White American experience. Nevertheless, Kingston’s depiction of female identity is very similar to that of Plath’s due to the oppressive nature of Chinese and American society. It is the portrayal Maxine’s mother that links ‘The Bell Jar’ and ‘The Woman Warrior’ together. The most striking line in ‘The Woman Warrior’ occurs in the first chapter of the book: ‘Oh, come now. Everyone takes the girls when he can. The families are glad to be rid of them. Girls are maggots in the rice. It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters.’
Contextually, Kingston’s use of the word maggot is derogatory; the word serves a metaphorical purpose through by offensively distorting China’s one child policy; the baby girls (maggots) assume the position of being an anachronistic part of a family history, this is reinforced by the fact that the maggots slither upon the rice (a staple dish eaten by families in China). In a similar vein, by placing geese higher on the societal totem pole than daughters, Maxine shows her readership that the patriarchy has outstretched to the orient since geese are seen as being easier to trade as a food substance for slaughter when compared to unwanted baby girls.
In conclusion, Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and Maxine Kingston’s ‘The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts’ are an expose of sickening injustices towards females within a patriarchal framework. The respective protagonists, Esther Greenwood and Maxine Kingston suffer greatly at the hands of their parents as their confidence is knocked back through language and crystallised by the societies around them. In spite of this Kingston triumphs in the face of adversity by the end of the book through self-actualisation as she enrols in college, in turn fulfilling her role as the woman warrior. In light of autobiographical writing, it is evident that Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and Maxine Kingston’s ‘The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts’ are not classical autobiographies, nor are they traditional in style; Plath’s utilisation of the literary concept bildungsroman and Kingston’s transnationality blur the lines between fact and fiction, thus rendering the two works as being clear cut postmodern autobiographies.
- Schalm, Helga, ‘Autobiography’, in The Living handbook of Narratology . [Accessed 15th January 2016]
- Huang, Guiyou, The Columbia Guide to Asian American Literature since 1945 (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 16. [Accessed 15th January 2016]
- Shu, Yuan, ‘Cultural Politics and Chinese-American Female Subjectivity: Rethinking Kingston’s The Woman Warrior’. MELUS 26 (2001). pp. 199-223. [Accessed 15th January 2016]
- Bildungsroman, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. [Accessed 15th January 2016]
- Plath, Sylvia, The Bell Jar (Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971). [Accessed 15th January 2016]
- Smith, Rosi, ‘seeing through the Bell Jar: Distorted Female Identity in Cold War America’ . [Accessed 15th January 2016]
- Baig, Maruhkh, ‘in Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar as A Psychological Space: US Open English & Literature Journal’, 1 (2013), (p. 3). [Accessed 15th January 2016]
- Riiss, Jacob, ‘How the other half Lives (New York: Createspace, 2009). [Accessed 15th January 2016]
- Kingston, Maxine Hong, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (Vintage International Edition, 1989), p. 31. [Accessed 15th January 2016]