The novel the Bell Jar was published before Sylvia Plath committed her forth suicide, which was successful eventually. As the only full-length novel she left on the world, some of its features such as the nature of autobiography, extreme theme and feminist philosophy have continuously attracted the attention of its readers and scholars all around the world. As a female writer with tragedy color, the intention of this novel of Sylvia Plath was to ‘liberate herself from her past’. With the narration of the unforeseen events she has been through in 1953, she has demonstrated us the fact that the society was marked with post-war traumas. The social order needed to be restored urgently, the constraining power of social ideology on people, especially on women, had been strengthened. Social convention has legalized and naturalized the ideology of women being inferior to men through major social institutions like church, schools, hospitals, prisons, social media, traditions and even scientific theorists, like Freud. All the so-call social restored had became a huge spiritual cage, a bell jar, which was supposed to be used for observation in scientific field, for women, especially for well-educated, intellectual women. The title is her vivid criticism of the idea that women have been merchandised and treated as the sample from laboratory for science use. Plath narrates her experience through Esther, a young,intelligence, talented women she created, to narrate her misfortunes and struggles, to share her painful past with the world. We could easily notice that Esther is a thoughts-active young lady who keeps thinking, asking questions, and making assumptions all the time. Her internship experience in a periodical office in New York makes her question her self-value, her romantic relationship with Buddy Willard makes her wonder her self-identification. Who am I? To whom I want to be? What does my existence mean to the society, to the world? Features of historical background are beyond evident to us as readers, which are discussed and criticized in base of two main foot-stones: the journey of self-identification of young ladies and their rebellious spirits against the patriarchal society of the time. Also, the novel is filled with the dissatisfaction to the reality and critical thinking on marriage. What kind of role does a woman play in marriage? Should woman lose herself in order to devote herself completely to her marriage? Are the answer to these question could only lead to the binary opposition, which is women could only be the angel in the house, otherwise they are madwomen in the attic? On other aspect, how deep does the psychological theories have the effect on the process of Plath shaping her characters? Comparing to the Freud theories at that time, the experience of Esther could be analyzed in terms of his theory of personalities as well. Unfortunately, Sylvia Plath herself failed to escape from her destiny of death, the rebirth of Esther Greenwood in the novel was actually the liberation from reality for Plath.
In this essay, I would like to make some comments on some ideologies Plath has expressed and share some of my self-reflections and personal comprehension in terms of these following aspects: the title of the novel-why she chose the bell jar as the title, what does the bell jar stand for; the idea behind the bell jar, which is being observed and observing; women’s self-doubts, confusion and self-identification; women’s role in marriage and their rebellious spirits against the patriarchal convention, angel in the house or madwomen in the attic; last but not least, the reflections of Freud’s theories of personalities in the growth of Esther.
The bell jar
I would like to believe that the naming of the novel was inspired by the ‘big glass bottles full of babies'(Plath 66) Esther sees with her boyfriend Buddy in his medical school. The glass bottles are filled with babies specimens who are dead before being born, which are being exhibited for the purpose of observation, analyzation and experiment for medical students and professors. The novel has repeatedly emphasized that Esther always has the feeling of being followed and suffocated by ‘the air of the bell jar’ and she could not breathe.’The air of the bell jar wadded round me and I couldn’t stir'(Plath 195). The impossibility of the existence of the bell jar in reality is beyond evident. However,what exactly is this invisible, intouchable and inescapable bell jar is? To analyze this metaphor, we have to draw a clear picture of the difficulties Esther is facing and how does she react on them.
The predicaments she is in are being described separately in different chapters. In chapter six, her disappointment in love, which is to find out that her boyfriend is not pure and innocent as she thinks he would be, and he has been lying to her the whole time. ‘Now I saw he had only been pretending all this time to be so innocent'(Plath 73) This emotional shock is powerful and devastated’After that something in me just froze up'(Plath 74) the worst part is that the limitless closeness between Buddy and his mother and the philosophies Mrs. Willard has been sharing like ‘What a man is is an narrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the narrow shoots off from'(Plath 75), has made Esther feel like being a trap they have set up. Buddy Willard has been a hypocrite, and the center of the interest of Mrs.Willard is to find an innocent, virtuous woman for her son as his wife. In chapter seven, we could find out that the attitude of her mother, Mrs.Greenwood, toward sex and virginity also follows the patriarchal pattern,like the article ‘In Defense of Chastity’, which’gives a reason why a girl shouldn’t sleep with anybody but her husband and then only after they were married'(Plath 85). The inequality between men and women in conventional love relationship, in conventional concept of marriage and family that Esther has noticed has exhausted her. Not to mention the rude and unmerciful treatment she has received from Dr.Gordon, the bias she has suffered from the patriarchal society. All the unfortunate experience have weakened her faith as a independent and confident young lady who should have had vivid hope toward the limitless future. Yet all she feels are endless sense of miserable and none stopping suicidal attempts. It is miserable for her to realize that no one cares about how does she feel and what does she desire. On their path toward the society, intellectual women have always been confused and hesitated, who have been oscillated between their true-self and the social acceptance.
The most direct comprehension of the metaphor of the bell jar are the patriarchy represented by her boyfriend Buddy Willard and Dr.Gordon, the family tradition and social convention represented by Mrs.Willard and Mrs.Greenwood and the physical and mental prisons which represented by some social institutions like schools, church and mental hospitals. All the forces mentioned above consist of the irresistible pressure on women, which imply that fact that only through depriving women’s rights on being in charge of their own could men establish their position of ruling. Instead of facing the society, to be their own, women are forced to face their family, from public space to private room.
Even in their private room, their connections with the outside world have been cut out. Their rights of being an individual have been violated. They have to act on their best side, put on a mask to be the angel in the house, with no soul, with no personal feelings. Every sides of them have to be the perfection. With no one to talk to, with no one to make connection with, they have been barren spiritually, living like the walking dead. They would eventually give themselves away and being exhibited like the dead babies in the glass bottles. Their private room, is the second comprehension of the bell jar.
The third comprehension of the bell jar is that the female’s body being a prison to their liberated soul. The patriarchy have brain washed women into believing that their physical difference with men is what makes them being inferior to men, which also has lulled them into false sense of being able to escape from their human body. Esther has been wanted to commit suicide, but her true goal is to liberate her soul and her spiritual world.
The choosing of the bell jar as the title of the novel has indicated that the experience of Esther, or Sylvia Plath herself of their teenager period are not pleasing, the whole tone of the story is suffocating and depressive. It is the ultimate shout out of pain and struggles to the world of Esther and Plath. When readers finish reading the novel and pondering on the title, they would be enlightened and impressed by Plath on how she planted the story from the beginning. The title is one of my favorite parts about the novel, and it is the main reason why I choose this novel to write an essay about.