Sylvia Plath  The Bell Jar

copyright J V Ward. 12th August 2002

 Questions and answers in The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar like one of Mrs Guinea's novels is 'crammed from beginning to end with long, suspenseful questions'. It examines the character of feminism and, in so doing, begs the question of the relationship between men and women. It looks at the nature of insanity and enquires as to its causes and cure. It questions literature, novelists, suicide, medical practice, American society and so on and so forth. But are these questions ever answered?

'What I hate is being under a man's thumb'. This is a feminist statement if ever there were one, but is The Bell Jar a feminist novel? There are some feminist innuendoes. Jay Cee is a heroic feminist figure, named by her initials in the American business fashion and in her 'strict business suit' and 'luncheon ticket hat'. She has 'brains' to make up for her 'plug-ugly' looks in comparison with the archetypal male Buddy Willard who is 'stupid' although he can 'get good marks all right'.

And there is an implied resentment that men have certain privileges denied to women. Only a boy baby may have the privilege of peeing in a doctor's face. Teresa, Dr Quinn and Dr Nolan can be doctors and Joan can aspire to be a psychiatrist but only Dr Gordon can charge twenty-five dollars an hour. Esther could have taken a medical degree if she had not 'dodged chemistry' but her degree in English is of no value without a knowledge of shorthand to enable her to be an acolyte of a man.

Esther would have liked to have been a translator but her brother is the one allowed to go to Germany to learn the language. Only in the liberalised Soviet Union can we find a woman translator. An exceptional occasion where a woman is allowed into a male domain is where Buddy Willard, suffering from the aftermath of T B, is unable to perform the masculine task of shovelling snow and Esther is obliged to perform the task for him. The case for women being held back by men can be summarised in the spectator's exclamation after Esther's calamitous ski run: 'You were doing fine until that man stepped into your path'.

Perhaps the feminist facet of The Bell Jar is made more poignant by its concern with the unsatisfactory nature of the relationships between men and women. The ideal relationship between men and women is characterised by the Jewish man and the nun happily gathering figs. Each 'fat purple fig' represents some advantage such as a 'famous poet' or 'another scholarship', but the harvesting of figs comes to an abrupt halt when the bird's egg hatches just as Ether's relationship with Buddy Willard falters at 'the birth of a boy'. It is not children per se that is the problem as one of the 'fat purple figs' is 'a husband and a happy home and children' and the narrator tells us that after leaving the asylum she has a baby who plays with the plastic starfish from the purse she received at the convention. The problem with a male female relationship is not children but sex.

Sex is 'as boring as going to the toilet'. Male nudity is 'turkey neck and turkey giblets' and the most obvious of all phallic symbols, 'the hot dog', has to be buried in the sand. The world is divided into the 'pure and the unpure' where the pure have a champion in The Defence of Chastity League. Sex is unthinkable: the narrator cannot imagine her heroine, Jay Cee, in bed with her 'fat ugly husband'. When Esther eventually does have sex, the result is a fiasco caused by a device which purports to make sex more accessible to women.

The electric shock treatment has some of the attributes of rape:-- 'Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world.' Sex is equated to rape, rape is an electric shock treatment and electric shock is a form of execution meeted out to criminals like the Rosenbergs.

The reader gains the notion that Esther will recover completely when she gets the 'proper sort of man' but we are not told what is the proper sort. The proper sort of woman for Buddy Willard is 'white, free and twenty one' but there is no such definition of Esther's ideal man. Constantin, although he has intuition, will not do. Marrying him would be 'boring like the marriage of Mr and Mrs Willard. Dr Gordon and his like are inaccessible with the photograph of the family, which tells Esther that she had 'better not get any funny ideas'. Her father betrays her by dying when she was nine years old, subjecting her to 'years of neglect'. Irwin is remiss in paying the medical bill for twenty dollars.

Buddy Willard is, of course, entirely the wrong sort. He betrays her by his dalliance with a waitress. He always outmanoeuvres her in conversation; only in her imaginary discussions, can she get the suitable riposte. His admiration of her kiss is hypocritical given the knowledge that he has already slept thirty times with the waitress. His poetry is absurd, his manner overbearing in 'always trying to teach me things' and, like her father, he abandons her by absconding to the sanatorium. We are never told what is the cause of the bell jar descending over Esther, but the reader can surmise that it is the attitude of Buddy Willard and his like. His demeanour may be summarised in the question 'do you think I drive women crazy?'. The double meaning echoes the arrogance of men like Lennie Shepherd and Frankie who believe that they excite women's sexuality and begs the question of whether male attitudes are the cause of Esther's malaise!

Does Buddy Willard or does anything else drive Esther crazy? This is the major question which is never answered but there is, however, plenty of material provided for the discussion.

Links to other essays
 American Beauty   the movie.
John Milton Lycidas
Brian Friel Translations
Shakespeare Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V
Shakespeare Henry VI and Richard III
DrydenAbsolem and Achitophel and other works
Virginia WoolfThe Use of Symbolism
Sir Walter Scott Heart of Midlothian and Waverly
Keats and Shelly Adonais and other works
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice and Emma
Shakespeare Notes on Twelfth Night