Investigation Into The Theme of Entrapment in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1932 to Austrian parents. She studied at the prestigious Smith College with a scholarship and in 1955 she went to Cambridge University where she met and later married Ted Hughes. Plaths life was one of success, and intense ambition and perfectionism. In an early journal entry, aged 16, she described herself as ‘The girl who would be God’. Her desire to be a perfect writer and a perfect woman is set however in her understanding of the constraints placed on women in the 50’s.
The early death of her father when she was just 8, and the combination of fear and adoration she felt towards him had an immense and lasting effect on her life, and subsequently he appears as a major theme in both her poetry and prose works. The Bell Jar was first released in England in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.
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It received lukewarm reviews with most critics highlighting the personal yet detached voice of novel.
An anonymous review stated ‘it read so much like the truth that it is hard to disassociate her from Esther Greenwood, the ‘I’ of the story, but she had the gift of being able to feel and yet to watch herself: she can feel the desolation and yet relate this to the landscape of everyday life’. This shows how the novel was seen to be autobiographical even before it was known who the author was, and before comparisons of plot construct and the life of the author could be made. This shows how the tone, which some may say is confessional, leads readers to analyse the work from a psycho-biographical standpoint.
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Laurence Lerner equates the detachment, which the anonymous reviewer highlights, with Esthers neurosis deriving from her role as satirist of the world around her, and he sees her ‘Bell Jar’ as one of a detached observer. Critics also compared it to JD Salingers ‘The Catcher In The Rye’, because of the interpretation of it as a critique of college life and establishing identity, and also the existential undertones of the dominant voice are similar in both texts. Robert Taubman wrote in The Statesman that The Bell Jar was a ‘clever first novel… he first feminist novel… in the Salinger mood. ‘ Linda Wagner saw The Bell Jar as ‘in structure and intent a highly conventional bildungsroman ‘, or a rites of passage novel, with the construct focusing entirely on the: ‘education and maturation of Esther Greenwood, Plath’s novel uses a chronological and necessarily episodic structure to keep Esther at the centre of all action. Other characters are fragmentary, subordinate to Esther and her developing consciousness, and are shown only through their effects on her as central character.
No incident is included which does not influence her maturation’. Modern criticism also focuses on political and feminist criticisms of the novel. Alan Sinfield explores ideological intersections between society and the arts, and recognises Plath as critiquing the construction of gender role arguments, taken up by many contemporary feminist critics. Plath is seen as articulating many of the thoughts and feelings many women have about the constraints, opportunities and contradictions of women’s role in society. Many have interpreted The Bell Jar as semi-autobiographical.
It is impossible to ignore the similarities between the life of Plath and that of Esther, the main protagonist of the novel. The novel parallels her twentieth year almost perfectly. Plath was awarded a spot as a “guest editor” at Mademoiselle magazine during her junior year at Smith, as Esther won a fashion magazine competition to work on it in New York for a month. Both had been, on the surface, a model daughter, popular in school, earning straight A’s and winning the best prizes. She even went to Smith on scholarship; endowed by Olive Higgins Prouty, perhaps the model for Esther’s patron, Philomena Guinea.
That summer, however, she nearly succeeded in killing herself by swallowing sleeping pills, paralleling the suicide attempt in the novel. After a period of recovery involving electroshock and psychotherapy Plath seemed to become “herself” again, graduating from Smith with honours and winning a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge, England. However, her troubles returned to haunt her throughout her life, and she committed suicide in 1963. Plath recognised her own inability to write about anything other than her own experiences.
In her journals she referred to this as the ‘curse of my vanity’. She talked of, ‘my inability to lose myself in a character, a situation. Always myself, myself, myself. ‘ This makes any reading into The Bell Jar all the more poignant, because Plath’s few prose works are more directly related to real life than most fiction. The theme of entrapment forms the central image of The Bell Jar. Plath constructs the analogy in Chapter 15 where Esther, the central character, concludes that ‘I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air’.
Plath’s use of the sibilant words ‘stewing’ and ‘sour’ evoke strong sensual reactions in the reader as if they were hit by a pungent sickly smell. The Bell Jar represents the entrapment Esther feels at the hands of society and its expectations of women, and also entrapment by men and the possibility of entrapment by children. The first of these could be understood as representing Esther’s suffocation at the hands of societal pressure and the general oppressive atmosphere of the 50’s, especially for women. It must be noted that at the end of the fifties the average age of marriage had actually fallen to 20, and was still dropping.
It was not uncommon for girls to drop out of college or high school to marry, in fact education was sometimes seen as a bar to marriage. During all of the forties and fifties housewifery tasks were glorified as ‘proof’ of a ‘complete’ woman in the media. In America at the end of the fifties the birth rate was overtaking India’s. Increased affluence allowed people to have four, five, six children, shown in the novel by the inclusion of Dodo Conway, a catholic neighbour who has 6 children; she fascinated Esther because of her ever increasing family and stoic acceptance of her situation.
By the 1960s, the employment of women was rather the norm than the exception, but they were holding mostly part-time jobs, to help put their husbands through college, or widows supporting families. For such an ambitious and talented woman like the protagonist of the novel this would inevitably cause a clash of ideals between those of wider society and her own. Society assumes a woman will marry. The heroine of the novel is besieged by the influences that propagate the myth that the purpose of a woman’s existence is a husband, a house and having children.
After Esther’s release from the mental hospital, Buddy’s final words to her are: “I wonder who you’ll marry now . . . you’ve been here. ” This is similar to the feelings of Esthers mother, for being in a mental institute has a certain social stigma attached to it. The opinion that no man will want a woman with baggage or problems is similar to the view presented by Mrs Willard that no man would want a woman with sexual experience. This adds up to the opinion that all women should be clean, pure, innocent and nai??ve for their men.
Also, if Esther were to choose not to marry and not follow the guidelines society attempts to entrap her in, is to go against society’s expectations and to commit a kind of sin. Writing to her mother from Smith, Plath agonised over ‘which to choose? ‘-meaning: a career or a family? The central metaphor of The Bell Jar, the ‘fig tree’, is Plath’s literary portrayal of this dilemma. Each fig represents an option, a future: to be a famous poet, an editor, or to be a wife and mother. Each is mutually exclusive and only one can be picked.
As Esther (very much an extension of her creator here) hesitates, debating with herself, “the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at her feet. ” Rejection of any option was difficult because she wanted it all. The conclusion that the figs rot and die aligns the image tonally with the rest of the novel. Esther shows her desire to have it all and her refusal to limit herself when she says to Buddy, ‘I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days. In her own life, Plath attempted to achieve both career and family. There were times, her letters and the remembrances of her family and friends reveal, that domestic life alone seemed to fulfil her. She was a perfectionist at housekeeping as she had always been at her college work and at writing, but at other times the routine infuriated her and the ‘viciousness in the kitchen’ that she describes in Lesbos sets in. At times she revelled in being “cowlike” and maternal, but resentment against their demands on her time and her creativity is evident too.
Esther concludes that the societal pressure that she feels at her prestigious College, where the girls pocketbook covers must match the material of their dresses and all the girls wait with excitement for their invitations to the proms, is not so different to the pressure she feels in the asylum. ‘What was there about us’ she wonders ‘so different from the girls playing bridge and studying in the college . . . Those girls too sat under a bell jar of a sort’. Plath explicitly shows the reader that the Bell Jar is not simply one of depression, but also one of conformity. The entrapment that Esther feels is also sexual.
This is partly caused by Buddys sexuality and power, for Esther and Joan react to him and eventually rebel against him by exploring alternative sexual methods. Joan becomes a lesbian (though whether this is a direct result of her and Buddys relationship is debatable), and Esther asserts her sexual freedom through getting birth control. For her this symbolises female empowerment. In contrast to her previous attempt to free her sexuality by allowing Constantin to seduce her, she will be her own active agent of change in freeing herself from the strict social codes for women.
Esther begins to feel a disillusionment with men, after her realisation that Buddy Willard is a ‘hypocrite’, she concludes ‘I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs Willards kitchen mat’. This kitchen mat which is a utilitarian object, easily repaired or replaced, is used as a metaphor for a woman.
This introduces a central theme of the novel, that of women being dominated by men. The image of being ‘flattened’ is used many times in the novel to show the effect of men on women. It is used again in Chapter 5 when Esther describes how she felt ‘dull and flat and full of shattered visions’ after a disappointing date with Buddy. The ‘kitchen mat’ that Esther describes is a beautiful hand made rug that Buddys mother made. She spent lots of time making this mat, but when she is finished she just puts it on the kitchen floor for people to wipe their feet on.
Esther sees this as a symbol of male oppression and the subsequent feeling that nothing a woman makes or does is of any merit. It is when around Buddy that Ether seems most repressed. This adds to the overall sense of confinement that Esther feels, but this aspect is wholly self-inflicted. One obstacle that Esther must overcome is her idealised and fairy-tale view of romantic relationships, in which she defines her and Buddys relationship in terms of a single kiss. The word ‘flattened’ evokes connotations like beaten, weak and subjugated. Esther is, as most women during the fifties, expected to marry.
Esther Greenwood sees herself as something other than primarily a housewife, and she uses a lot of her energy to try to avoid marrying the one she is expected – Buddy Willard. The word ‘bell’ written ‘belle’ was used during the nineteenth century for the ‘belle’ of the ball. It was meant to be a positive term in American culture, and was used to describe a ladylike southern woman with many suitors. This was a woman who knew her role and was happy to be the desired object of her lover and to put all her energies into looking after her man and her family.
In this interpretation, the ‘Belle’ Jar could represent societal pressure to conform to this ideal and the trapped feelings these women my encounter. Buddy is the main representation of dominant oppressive male sexuality. He stifles her intellectually, telling her a poem is just ‘a piece of dust’, and plays a dominant sexual role by exposing himself to her. Marco is a much more violent depiction of male sexuality, a ‘woman-hater’ who attempts to rape Esther. He holds power over her, he is ‘invulnerable’ because of his financial power and threatening sexuality, and brands her a slut.
Critics have interpreted him as simply a more violent extension of Buddy Willlard, aggressive in his contempt for Esther and her sexuality, whereas Buddy is more subtle and passive. Plath parallels the earlier proposal by Buddy. Whereas Buddy asks for Esthers hand in marriage in exchange for her identity and freedom, Marco offers her a diamond, a symbol of marriage, in exchange for her sexual independence. This feeling or entrapment by men is related to a form of domestic entrapment. One way this is shown is in Esther’s outlook towards having children. Plath presents having children as another form of entrapment.
When describing child birth language from the semantic fields of confinement and unnaturalness are used. Esther describes childbirth itself as ‘a long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain . . . waiting to open up and shut her in again’. This shows how she sees children as diminishing perception and confining their mothers in a trap they cannot even see out of because it is so all encompassing. The mother is described in inhuman terms with her ‘spider-fat stomach and two little ugly spindly legs’ while making an ‘unhuman whooing noise’. This makes the reader feel sympathy towards this grotesque but pitiful monster.
Robert Scholes interprets the language Plath uses in the childbirth as that of defamiliarisation. In this scene, for example, the narrator describes the delivery as if it were happening for the first time in history. From the point of view of the uninitiated observer, childbirth seems to be a frightening ritual in which a “dark fuzzy thing” finally emerges from “the split shaven place” between the woman’s legs. It could be construed that Plath is trying to show the reader that having children is a form of martyrdom, sacrificing your self-identity for your children.
A woman dies as a particular kind of woman when she bears a child, and she continues to die as the child feeds literally and metaphorically on her. Indeed, many of her poems depict childlessness as a kind of perfection. In Edge (Ariel), ‘The woman is perfected . . . Each dead child coiled . . . She has folded them back into her body’. This childless ‘perfection’ also often signals death in her poetry, showing the view that a woman has no choice but to procreate, because if she does not, or if she changes her mind ‘folding them back into her body’, she must die.
Plath’s fear of procreativity was, in large part, a fear of a resultant loss of creativity. Esther voices Plath’s fear, “I . . . remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state. ” The inclusion of totalitarianism evokes even stronger feelings of entrapment and being controlled by extraneous forces.
Children are also shown to represent entrapment in the inclusion of the miscarried babies in bottles that Buddy takes her to see. These images represent women’s traditional choices in life and the subsequent entrapment. Esther describes these in her usual detached voice, ‘the baby in the first bottle had a large white head bent over a tiny curled up body the size of a frog’. These ‘bottles’ are similar to the central image of the ‘Bell Jar’, and further highlight the reading that children lead to entrapment. This is also shown in Stopped Dead (Winter Trees), ‘A squeal of brakes.
Or is it a birth cry? ‘. It seems Plath has the opinion that the minute a baby is born the mother’s life ends in a squeal of brakes. Domestic entrapment can also be a trap of routine and chores. In Chapter 7 Esther notes how she cannot cook, or dance, or sing or know short hand, all the things that she would need to live her life by her mother’s standards. Plath’s letters to her mother and her novel both make it explicitly clear that Plath was confused and frustrated by the necessity of defining herself as a woman. In 1949, at age seventeen, she wrote, ‘I am afraid of getting married.
Spare me from cooking three meals a day–spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote. I want to be free. ‘ Plath herself wrote in her journal that it was “as if domesticity had choked me”. It could be said that her decision to finally end her life by sticking her head in a gas oven is a perfect symbolisation of that aspect of her experience. Plath’s two-dimensional characterisation of Mrs Greenwood as a hard working and well intentioned woman, but one very much controlled by the guidelines society gave her regarding her role as a woman.
She feels that Esther’s English Major will not help her get a job, and that the only way that she will get a career is by learning shorthand. Esther would then be ‘in demand among all the up and coming young men’, but she instinctively rebels against this view, ‘I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters’. She is aware of the injustice in the occupational sphere, and refuses to abide by this unfair apportioning of status in society. The Bell Jar could also be construed as the ‘bell jar’ of the character’s depression.
Depression and mental illness are almost universally described by the imagery of entrapment, from Bertha Mason, the mad alter ego of Jane trapped in the attic in Jane Eyre to the imagery of depression as a suffocating ‘black cloud’ by Elizabeth Wurtzell in her 1996 portrait of depression. Esther’s depression begins to fully emerge in Chapter 2, where she describes how she begins to feel while watching Doreen, her sexually voracious friend and Lenny ‘get more and more crazy about each-other’. She compares herself to ‘a black dot’ signifying a feeling of insignificance, shame and dirtiness.
Plath uses the analogy of travelling away from Paris on an ‘express caboose’ to describe Esther’s increasing feeling of detachment and unimportance: ‘every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it’s really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and that excitement at about a million miles an hour. ‘. This gives the reader the feeling of Esther helplessly falling into a deep depression, where the ‘excitement’ of everyday life does not affect her.
On Esther’s way to Buddy at the sanatorium she describes the bleak land-scape and its effect on her mood. ‘ . . . the countryside, already deep under old falls of snow, turned us a bleaker shoulder, and as the fir trees crowded down from the grey hills to the road edge, so darkly green they looked black, I grew gloomier and gloomier’. Snow is often used to symbolise death, it could have been used in this instance for many reasons. Firstly, it could be because she is travelling to a TB sanatorium where many must have died.
This illness and death that she is travelling toward is inextricably linked with sin in The Bell Jar, with Buddy being punished for his affair with a waitress by his TB and Esther punished for losing her virginity by haemorrhaging, so this blanket of death is particularly profound. Secondly, the snow could also foreshadow Esther’s later suicide attempt from an overdose or sleeping pills in Chapter 13. The ‘crowding’ ‘fir trees’ could have been used to depict a feeling of entrapment.
Esther’s depression is later shown by her lack of motivation to do anything, even change her clothes or wash her hair. This melancholic inertia is shown in the paragraph: ‘I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head. But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up. ‘ Esther feels trapped by her depression, it sedates her so fully that she does not even see any way out of it.
Recurrent mirror and light images measure Esther’s descent into the stale air beneath the bell jar. In the first chapter, when Esther returns from Lenny’s apartment and enters the mirrored elevator of the Amazon Hotel, she notices “a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used up I looked. ” As she becomes increasingly trapped by her own mental state, her relationship with her own identity becomes increasingly disembodied, and the reflection in the mirror gradually becomes a stranger.
Esther’s depression and subsequent breakdown could be interpreted as a gradual abandonment of societal norms. It entails a series of rejections or separations from women who are associated with a stereotypical aspects of womanhood that Esther finds unacceptable. The novels heroine projects components of herself that represent patriarchally defined expectations of women onto other characters: her mother, Dodo Conway, Mrs Willard, then through her rejection of these characters she discards the aspects of herself that they personify.
Every character can be seen as created to represent aspects of the world which confines Esther; with Buddy representing dominant male sexuality and broader forces of society, Dodo representing pressure to have children, Jay Cee being the pressure to have a successful career. The end of the novel sheds all of these forms of entrapment, societal, domestic, sexual and intellectual, virtually entirely. The ultimate chapter chiefly uses imagery of cleanliness and freedom. A ‘pure, blank sheet’ of snow is described, but the reader now interprets the snow as representing a fresh start.
She compares forgetfulness, that may help her ‘numb and cover’ her memories, to ‘a kind snow’, allowing her freedom from her worries. When Esther readies herself to meet the board of doctors who will certify her release from the hospital, she behaves as if she is preparing for a bridegroom or a date; she checks her stocking seams, muttering to herself “Something old, something new. . . . But,” she goes on, “I wasn’t getting married. There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice – patched, retreaded, and approved for the road, I was trying to think of an appropriate one. . .” Critics who have been willing to see a reborn Esther have generally done so without ever questioning the appropriateness of the reference to a “retread” job. Susan Coyle writes that the tire image “seems to be accurate, since the reader does not have a sense of Esther as a brand-new, unblemished ‘tire’ but of one that has been painstakingly reworked, remade”.
Linda Wagner, for example, ignores this passage and concentrates on subsequent paragraphs, where the image of an “open door and Esther’s ability to breathe are,” Wagner writes, “surely positive images. The ability the breathe serves as a contrast to the ‘sour air’ under the Bell Jar. There is no doubt that the novel has a fairly high level of closure with most possibilities eliminated. The reader also knows that she had children, we become aware of this very early on in the construct of the story, so Esther obviously settles down into some sort of domesticity. Plath does not concede that Esther is fully cured, Esther even finally wonders whether she may be trapped by the bell jar again, but the novel concludes on a very optimistic note; that Esther is feel from the constraints that she previously felt.