Women’s Struggle for Self-Identity and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar - By Siobhan Mountain
Updated: Jul 26, 2019
Throughout American history, women have endured immense hardship in their efforts to gain equal footing alongside their male counterparts. Beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century, American women faced extreme ridicule when their pursuit of the right to vote was taken as an act of rebellion against their assumed God-given roles as wives, mothers, and daughters. Toward the middle of the twentieth century following World War II, the scrutiny continued when women, dissatisfied with the social expectations that kept them confined to their homes and monotonous routines, challenged the status quo to seek higher education and career opportunities that would lend them a new identity outside of the antiquated gender roles that the patriarchy of American society had pigeonholed for them. What bridges the gap between both of these different movements in women’s history are the threads common to the tapestry of their experience – ideas that 20th-century American author Sylvia Plath explores in her pseudo-memoir, The Bell Jar (1963). Feelings of stagnation, confusion, fear, and listlessness continue to underscore the identity crisis that American women are still coming to grips with in today’s modern world, nearly sixty years after the first publication of Plath’s work.
When readers first meet The Bell Jar’s heroine Esther Greenwood, she is immersed completely in life as a college student, navigating an internship at a fashion magazine that has brought her to New York with a variety of perks to boot. On the surface she is like any other college girl. What makes her so intriguing is not her intelligence, her wit, or her potential, all of which she has in abundance and that she shares with her contemporaries; rather, it is the fact that she remains disinterested in her peers by choice. Esther is completely aloof and distant from the stereotypical exciting, bubbly world of other young women, stating almost immediately that she “[feels] very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo” (Plath 3). Despite the fact that society would consider the successes earned by her impressive aptitude as normal, if not completely on par with the expectations of other young women, Esther offers few impassioned remarks about the trajectory of her life and shows even less enthusiasm about society’s adaptation of Motherhood as the ideal destination for even the most educated of women, claiming that babies, in general, offer her little to no feelings of joy or purpose. Evidenced by her brooding, often intrusive thoughts and her disenchantment with society’s expectations of her, Esther relates her experience as being synonymous with life under a bell jar, “blank and stopped as a dead baby” in which “the world itself is a bad dream” (237). Unable to accept the constraints of traditional life, a life in which a woman’s only reason for attending college is to find a husband to start a family with, Esther spirals downward into a deep period of isolation that causes her to question her identity, and to challenge the antiquated expectations of women that left her “[hating…] the thought of being under a man’s thumb” (221). Chalking depression up to a concern that is otherwise left unnamed for Esther following a suicide attempt, she submits to a variety of psychiatric treatments intended to shake her from this unusual melancholy and to put her on the road to normalcy.
Published in 1963, Plath’s story of Esther Greenwood and her struggle to succumb to society’s image of her as a wife and mother is not exclusive to the literary world. According to Betty Friedan, whose classic text The Feminine Mystique explores the unsettling detachment that Plath’s heroine experiences more in depth as it relates to the collective experience of women in postwar America during the 1950s and 1960s, Esther’s diagnosis of depression following her suicide attempt was not at all uncommon at that time. It was, however, an issue that was grossly ignored for American women who sought relief from their unexplained dissatisfaction, lethargy, and self-proclaimed emptiness following the cessation of World War II. Friedan notes, “Of the…thousands of women [who received] psychiatric help…the unmarried ones [reported] suffering from anxiety, and finally, depression” (14). Thus, the unusual dilemma, the “problem that has no name burst like a boil through the image of the happy American housewife” and left women struggling to accept monotony (10). This idea is further paralleled in Chapter 7 of The Bell Jar as Esther highlights her main reservations about the prospect of married life, reservations that ultimately lead to the obsessive thoughts of morbidity that land her in a psychiatric ward: “I began to think maybe it was true that when you are married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state” (85). Outside of Greenwood’s fictional world, married women during the 1950s and 1960s faced a similar crisis in finding their own identity amid the mundane routines of life as the homemaker, while unmarried women experienced an intense fear of growing up without any clear indication of whom they wished to be. Women who dared to challenge the rigidity of traditional gender roles were the rebels, synonymous with the earliest feminists from the Women’s Rights Movement at the turn of the twentieth century, who dared to go against what Friedan coins the feminine mystique: “the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity” (35). Theirs was a struggle for self-identity in a world that was otherwise exclusive to men, and despite the strides that they made, it remains an identity crisis that lingers in women’s struggle for recognition and equality today.
Following Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking exploration of the collective identity crisis of women and how it stems from the limitations of patriarchal standards, women in the 21st century are generally more free to explore personal and career-related opportunities that push the boundaries of the antiquated roles of the twentieth century. No longer are women expected to drop out of college or to forego higher education altogether to become stay-at-home wives and mothers; in fact, more and more women each year are graduating with college degrees, and even more are putting off marriage and family life until their education and career goals have been achieved. Yet, despite this assumed shift in women’s experience, Stephanie Coontz, whose article “Why Gender Equality Stalled” appeared in The New York Times in 2013, notes that there remains an issue that continues to undermine much of women’s progress over the last century. According to Coontz, much of women’s struggle to find an identity outside of traditional gender roles today has less to do with “people’s personal attitudes” that previously prevented women from breaking through the invisible barrier that kept them confined to their role as the homemaker, and increasingly more to do with existing “structural impediments [that] prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their values.” Coontz goes on to explain that, even when women are steadfast and follow their capacities to the top of their respective career ladders, “women are still paid less than men at every educational level and in every job category” and, as such, “when family and work obligations collide, mothers remain much more likely than fathers to cut back or drop out of work.” Thus, regardless of whether a woman is married or unmarried, and regardless of how progressive her ideals may be at face value, women today still find themselves stuck under man’s thumb, echoing Esther Greenwood’s primary concern in The Bell Jar.
Angie Henderson, et. al., take the phenomenon that Coontz touches on even further in their article “The Price Mothers Pay, Even When They are Not Buying it: Mental Health Consequences of Idealized Motherhood.” According to Henderson, the feminist ideals that Plath’s protagonist exemplifies and struggles to come to terms with are mirrored in the current crisis as it relates to women’s equality. Today, part of the issue comes down to the “socio-historical context that has historically placed the responsibility for [children-related issues] squarely on the shoulders of mothers” (513). In other words, no longer is the identity crisis of women about whether a woman should dare to exercise her individuality outside of the traditional sphere of wife and mother (and about the fear of becoming an outcast as a result), but instead, it has evolved in such a way that women are taking on even more responsibility to be perfect in all of their endeavors—personally and professionally. American women are still held under the standards of a patriarchal society, but despite the progress they’ve gained in the working world since the 1960s, they are still judged firstly and, in many cases, solely by their status as wives and mothers. If they dare to push the boundaries of their biological destiny by entering the workforce at any point before or after motherhood, then society standards mandate that they be prepared to excel in every way possible, lest they be judged for attempting to rise above in the first place.
All of the elevated pressure that women experience today is due in part to the shift in the perspective of women that has occurred since the 1960s.
According to Sondra Medina and Sandy Magnuson, whose article “Motherhood in the 21st Century” addresses the ongoing struggle for women in their quest for recognition in a man’s world, one of the most significant issues that 21stcentury American women are faced with is the intensive motherhood ideology, a term that originally emerged during the 1980s and holds “mothers as the ideal, preferred caretakers of children” (91). Under this ideal, children are considered to be the hallmark of everyday life – the priceless be-all, end-all commodity that any woman who is capable of bearing children should strive to experience. Yet despite the fact that many American women are becoming mothers later in life (for some, after their educational goals have been met), Medina and Magnuson explain that they are not at all immune to the motherhood ideology: “Although the idealized stay-at-home motherhood eludes most American mothers, intensive mothering ideology informs the ideal parameters of their role, thereby rendering them as failures when they enter the workforce” (92). Thus, even when they do not actively buy into the ideal image of motherhood, they are nevertheless held under as much pressure to conform to traditional ideals as women were during the publication of The Bell Jar. The quest for gender equality has not decreased over time, then; it has merely evolved in such a way that an even greater shadow has been cast on American women struggling to find themselves in the modern world.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable contributions that Sylvia Plath’s protagonist can lend to women in the 21st century is the courage to keep going in the face of extreme self-doubt and confusion.
For feminists vying to break through the glass ceiling, the call to address existing policies in the working world that have aided in the perpetuation of the feminine ideal of women as the primary caretakers of children is imminent, with the overall goal of changing the tapestry of woman’s experience in a previously male-dominated world “[geared toward developing] life-work policies that enable people to put their gender values into practice” (Coontz).
To do this, women today must recognize that the shackles from which women fought to break free during the time when Sylvia Plath penned The Bell Jar still exist in the modern world; to change the trajectory of the collective experience of women in the future, women must continue to rise up and band together to push for the equality that they wish to see in the world. It is only by examining how far we have come that we can truly recognize how far we have yet to go. For women to claim their place as equals among men, a collective effort must be made to connect to the “old brag” that bridges the gap between the Esther Greenwoods of yesterday and those of tomorrow, and that lies at the heart of women’s experiences throughout history: I am, I am, I am (Plath 243).
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