Throughout the entirety of both novels, characters are faced with physical and psychological manifestations of entrapment, from which the everlasting effects transcend beyond the point of their liberation. Whether it’s from Ma’s heart-breaking journey to escape her physical imprisonment in ‘Room’ or Esther Greenwood’s painful course to reclaim her independence after mentally trapping herself in ‘The Bell Jar’, both share feelings of isolation and captivity. Donoghue and Plath equally manage to depict how a trauma can profoundly impact one’s emotional state and perception of the external world.
The Bell Jar follows the fictionalised autobiography of Sylvia Plath, which within the Bildungsroman novel is represented by Esther Greenwood. Set in 1953, the story follows Esther, an intelligent aspiring writer, who begins working for a popular magazine company in New York called “Lady’s Day”. At first Esther is excited by the promise of this new opportunity to improve her writing skills, but as she is surrounded by the other interns and a demanding boss, she begins to feel isolated from society and falls anxious about her future. Almost at every interaction she is reprimanded and looked down upon for her guilty feelings which leads her to dwell into a deep hole of depression and suicidal attempts. She soon begins to conceptualize her depression and realises that she’s been trapped under a Bell Jar, unable to control herself but able to witness her own decent into mental instability.
“What I’ve done is throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add colour. I think it will show how isolated a person feels when they are suffering a breakdown. I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar.”
Esther’s journey is symptomatic to Plath’s as she was variously diagnosed with depression, bipolar and schizoaffective psychotic disorder. Through her personal experiences she sheds light on how these mental issues affect people while criticising psychiatric practice of the time. The character of Esther becomes more harrowing as we learn Plath commits suicide one month after publication of ‘The Bell Jar’.
In Room, we follow the journey of Jack and his Ma whose livelihoods are confined into one small room. For Jack, the Room represents the entirety of his childhood, knowledge and home, he understands nothing of the outside world and has no interaction with it. However, for Ma, the Room represents her cruel imprisonment – once abducted and now forced to take care of her child in harsh conditions, her kidnapper makes her recollection of her life outside the room merely a dream. The path they take becomes revelatory as Jack discovers the horrors of reality while Ma endures a phycological breakdown.
From the beginning of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath creates a world in which her protagonist, Esther, descends into alienation and begins to isolate herself from the offset. She recalls “It was a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenberg’s, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” This implicitly shows by Esther identifying with the Rosenberg’s, a couple executed as Soviet Spies, she situates herself outside of her retrospective American society. This inclusion also represents Esther’s preoccupation with death and foreshadows her attempts on committing suicide, a central event in the novel. Her fears of becoming electrocuted later become a reality and is the core reason to why she spirals out of control. Plath establishes Esther as a quintessential overachiever, from a modest family unlike her other female interns. We see her articulate this when she says “I was supposed to be having the time my life. I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls” The anaphora used of the conditional tense reiterates how everything was not as it seemed. Esther is almost caught off-guard by her feelings and is mourning the loss of a life she could of lead unlike the one she lived that caused her pain. The internship she wins elucidates a key theme of the novel: the disparity between what Esther thinks should be and what in actuality occurs. She notes “I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were” and believes she should be “steering New York like her own private car”, to consequently find out “[she] wasn’t steering anything, not even [herself]” . The implication made here is that she feels disconnected, that even to her own puzzlement, New York is just depressing and dizzying. She begins to question her own abilities and feels as if the world she inhibits is superficial and disorienting. The simile used, exemplifies how Esther also feels helpless, almost as if she’s on a phycological ride that will soon crash. The feelings Esther embodies are not ones that were uncommon in the 1950’s – during the period after the war, many women who were once mobilised for work, were forced into earlier established gender roles, a move many women found confining.
“Plath’s novel The Bell Jar dramatizes the collusion between the notion of a separate and separative self (or bounded, autonomous subject) and the cultural forces that have oppressed women.”
The feeling of numbness that Esther feels is the kernel of the madness that will soon overtake her. Eventually, the gap between societal expectations and her own feelings and experiences becomes so large that she feels she can no longer survive.
Unlike Esther’s narrative, where she slowly loses grasp of reality and withdraws herself from society, Emma Donoghue chooses to craft a world in which Ma is physically disconnected from. She is bred into a world of entrapment and embarks on a journey to escape her kidnapper. You can sense Ma’s trauma when she talks to Jack of her aching tooth exclaiming “It’s called mind over matter. If we don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” At first this seems like a simple lesson Jack should live by, but in the context of the entire novel, this quote has sinister undertones. It describes Ma’s approach and mindset towards Old Nick when he physically and mentally abuses her every time he visits. This also alludes to how she is forced into a constant state of fear – Her and Jacks survival is dependent on the mercy Old Nicks shows. We further understand she applies this philosophy in order to endure the endless and torturous abuse she receives. Jack’s position as the lead character means that the narrative is tied to his perspective and we understand things from his point of view. Hence it becomes quite horrific when he describes Old Nick raping Ma. He states “Lamp goes off click and Old Nick creaks bed […] I count 378” . This imagery reinforces the horror Ma has to suffer in order for her survival. Jack is completely oblivious to the rape and doesn’t understand it, his only sense of what’s going on is the “creaks” produced by the bed, making the overall situation more haunting and unbearable to comprehend as a reader. Jack understands “Nothing makes Ma scared. Except Old Nick” and that he is a reason to fear. Despite not having much to say, his presence is overwhelming as he shadows over Ma, making her entrapment more hellish.
“Donoghue’s narrative can be read as a superb exploration of the phenomenon of resilience, a psychological construct that explains how, under traumatic circumstances of distress, human beings might develop an unexpected capacity to cope with pain and suffering.”
Donoghue proves Ma’s journey of suffering forces her to rebuild her state of mind and Identity. She feels physically imprinted on by ‘Old Nick’ but develops a coping mechanism to push through the pain and trauma.
Moreover, Esther’s encounters with men throughout The Bell Jar show how society oppresses and almost rejects the notion of exploration of female sexuality yet favours and supports men who engage in multiple fornications. Although Plath makes it evitable Esther’s troubles originate in her mind, she also highlights how they are exacerbated by the circumstances surrounding her. Esther is left scarred after her interaction with Marco as he attempts to rape her. She states he calls her a “slut” repeatedly and that “the word hissed by [her] ear” . This implies the attitude of Marco and many men at the time, seeing woman in one of two ways – Beautiful loving beings capable of marriage or promiscuous girls objectified for men’s sexual pleasure. The repetition of the derogatory word “slut” illustrates how Marco is able to control and manipulate Esther into thinking the act of rape is her fault in the situation. He believes she is inferior to him and commits the rape in order to overpower her. The entire confrontation reinforces how Esther is losing control of herself, this highlighting the inextricable link between the mind and body, as her mental frailty has left her physically vulnerable. She is slowly accepting her decent into depression and feels hopeless, unable to escape. This is clearly seen when she says “It’s happening’, I Thought. ‘It’s happening. If I just lie here and do nothing it will happen” which indicates she’s desperate to explore herself sexually but not at the cost of it being un-consensual. She feels trapped and must bear her pain and shock alone, intensifying her feelings of isolation. The feelings Esther embody are common to many females in 1950s as white middle-class females were highlighted in media with the introduction of the pill. Meaning females could commit sexual acts without getting pregnant. Esther sees her own naked skin “like a pale veil separating two blood-minded adversaries.” Implying she sees her own flesh as a screen between her and Marco’s opposing wills. Both Esther and Ma are left physically imprinted on by men who overpower them with force. Esther wears Marco’s blood on her face, after he rapes her, as a sign of survival but ultimately shows her decent into insanity. Similarly, Ma has to endure relentless assaults from Old Nick in order to survive. She develops a coping mechanism to push through and doesn’t lose her state of mind in order to look after Jack.