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THE BELL JAR - LITERARY ANALYSIS
PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
Plath plots The Bell Jar based
on the moves that her protagonist makes. She first travels to New York, where
she enters a world which from home seemed glamourous and wonderful, but from New
York seems empty and exploitative. Next, she travels back home to her motherís
house, located in a suburb of Boston. There she is situated squarely in the middle
of normative American life in all its boredom and constrictions. Then, she travels
to Walton for her outpatient electric shock treatment. This experience sends her
on a series of wandering expeditions, one of which is to the seaside town where
her family had lived when her father was still alive. After she attempts suicide,
she travels first to the city hospital and then to the private psychiatric hospital
in the suburbs of New England. Even there, she travels. The hospital is organized
on an ascending scheme from illness to health, from Wymark to Caplan to Belsize
and then back to the world. Esther never goes to Wymark, but she always fears
having to. Last, she will travel to her college.
In organizing her novel
on a series of journeys, Plath is able to show her protagonistís society and how
she is placed in it.
THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS
primary theme of the novel is a feminist one, but it is closely related to the
theme of madness and sanity. The Bell Jar focuses on the crazy making society
of its protagonist. If a woman is ambitious and talented, she will find no place
in the society of the 1950s. The norm is tyrannical. The norm is represented by
Mrs. Willard, a woman who preaches the idea that a womanís place is in service
to a man. Since the narrator can find no man suitable to her in sentiment or goals,
she begins to feel as if she has no place in her society. She begins to question
her goal of being a poet and she has an emotional breakdown. Plath links the two
themes--womenís self-determination and sanity--in Estherís steady work on regaining
her emotional health.
There are many kinds of feminism. Plath is writing
at the beginning of whatís called the second wave of feminism, the first wave
being during the struggle for the vote in the early 1900s. Itís hard for people
today to realize what kinds of things were normal back in the 50s. For instance,
women were not allowed to get a loan at a bank without a father or husband co-signing.
Unmarried women were not allowed to get birth control. Many universities were
not open to them. If they went to college, it was expected that they were only
going to find a husband and that after college, they would become housewives.
Hence, when Esther takes her college education seriously and studies hard, her
colleagues in the dorm ostracize her and say she is wasting her "golden college
years." Hence, the women who live at the Amazon in New York are working as
secretaries only so long as it takes to find a husband. Estherís mother cannot
imagine a higher goal for her than secretary, able in both shorthand and English.
She completely discounts Estherís plans to become a poet.
Women were also
expected to be the guardians of chastity. Massive amounts of propaganda made them
believe that if they had sexual feelings--especially if they acted on them--they
were bad, and were called fallen women, and they would never experience marital
bliss. Men, on the other hand, enjoyed the double standard which gave them the
task of being experienced with sex. There was some talk of menís chastity, but
it was not the dominant voice. Esther feels ambivalently about this double standard.
She thinks Buddy should be a virgin if he acts innocent as if he were, and she
gets very angry when she finds out he is not. On the other hand, when she decides
to have sex with Erwin, she is glad that he is promiscuous since it makes him
experienced. She never re-examines this logic in light of her unsatisfying experience
with him. Plathís feminism, then, is one for middle-class European-American women.
Its goals are self-determination of body, mind, and financial state. It doesnít
take into account the special concerns of women of color or poor women. This would
come with the feminism of the 1980s.
The second theme of the novel concerns madness. Because of
the gender segregation of patients, all the images of madness in the novel are
of women. Moreover, they are all middle-class women, either bored, frustrated
housewives or college women. This has been the primary clientele of psychiatry
from its founding. Women placed in dysfunctional roles often go crazy. The role
of housewife for many is dysfunctional. It provides no societal status, it provides
no pay, it isolates women inside their houses, it makes for a huge divide between
women and their husbands as concerns education, goals, and interests, and little
support is available to women working in their homes. Esther has not yet been
placed in that dysfunctional role, but she is being pushed hard to enter it by
almost everyone in her society. Even in the private hospital, Esther doesnít fit
in with the other women. As an intellectual, she thinks differently from these
women. While they are still concerned with their cheating husbands and debutante
daughters, Esther is concerned with learning to practice birth control so she
can have sex without the burden of worry over pregnancy. Esther is lucky in getting
a feminist psychiatrist in Doctor Nolan. Doctor Nolan is the most positive character
in the novel aside from Esther. She nurtures Esther, gives her time away from
her mother, is honest and forthright with Esther, and helps her get birth control.
Thus, Plath skillfully connects the theme of feminism and mental health
in her novel The Bell Jar. Even the title can relate to both themes. Women
being placed in a constricted role in society live as if in a bell jar, able to
see the outside world of exciting work and self-determined men, but unable to
live it. People suffering from emotional illness are also living as if under a
bell jar. Isolated from others and unable to escape the distortions of their view
of the world.
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