escaping the confines

Weronika Kaplon Ms.Anger AP Lang. and Comp.  1/16/2017 Escaping the Confines The 1950’s was a time plagued by war and tensions with the Soviet Union after the Cold War. As a result, people began to worry about the potential threats of the true power of Russian communists and if they had enough of it to destroy American Society. Thence, due to these events, out of fear residing in people, came conformity and the need to remain quiet. After the second World War, Western leaders began to grow distressed that the USSR had the power of not only destroying American life but that it would also menace democracy and the United States capitalism. Between the 1940s and 1950s, Congress oversaw 84 hearings in order to aid in destroying “un-American activities” within branches of the government, workplaces and even schools. As a result of the constant brawls and rising tensions, large masses of Americans began to be laid off from their paid work, meaning less income to sustain oneself and their loved ones. However, one of the most prevalent marks it bestowed upon society at this time was the reinstallment of conventional gender roles. Men were the providers and workers of the household, while the women were supposed to look after the house, cook, clean and take care of their children. Through this, the married female population now had to take orders from their husbands and complying with their rules, marking one of the most repressive times to be a female. Thus, copious amounts of women like award-winning author Sylvia Plath, had to endure the painful consequences of such oppression often times, alone, and ashamed of their feelings after succumbing to male dominance; having to abide by gender roles and suffocation due to internal conflicts. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath intricately details a woman’s struggle in the 1950’s era and her quick spiral into a depressed state as a direct result of the unrealistic expectations put forth by society. Sylvia Plath was one of the most successful and acknowledged writers that the 21st century ever come to see. Born in Boston, Massachusetts on October 27, 1932, she became fixated on the subject of death and human emotions. In 1940, her exposure to these dark subjects only amplified. At the tender age of eight years old, her father, who believed in a strictly authoritarian way of parenting, suddenly died due to diabetes. This sudden event soon inspired her to write a poem simply called, ‘Daddy’, in which she candidly spoke about the relationship she possessed with him. Even after the immense achievement of gaining a scholarship through her writing, her mind was ravaged by severe anxiety which she could tain. Shortly after her first ‘big break’ writing for Mademoiselle magazine, these dark subjects which she once wrote about, became familiar ones of her own life as she attempted to kill herself with a large dose of sleeping pills. She survived the attempt but landed in a mental institution which helped her regain her mental stability allowing her to return to Smith College. She would eventually enroll at Cambridge University under a Fulbright fellowship, meeting her husband, Ted Hughes while further pursuing her education. The Bell Jar, was written with Sylvia’s life as the main inspiration taking on a dark, comedic streak, discussing events like eating an entire bowl of caviar by herself while depicting lucid and extreme graphic events in which she found herself in. The main character, Esther Greenwood however, is somewhat of a mirror replica of Plath, whose life events were ever so complex, perhaps in relation to the two characters being suffocated by the isolation created by the Jar. The bizarre events were only amplified due to the time period of the 1950’s when women were seen less than a man and whose rights had been demolished.The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath intricately details a woman’s struggle in the 1950’s era and her quick spiral into a depressed state as a direct result of the unrealistic expectations put forth by society. One of the first things which introduced young Esther Greenwood to such a depressive and intoxicating environment was her journey to New York City, a glamorous city seeping with grandeur, copious amounts of caviar and most importantly, male dominance. Dominance which Esther had never been exposed to prior to the trip. However, despite being ‘thrown’ into this foreign lifestyle with so much materialistic bliss which many would commit heinous crimes for, Greenwood was not happy. She instead, yearns for bliss which she believes, she can only achieve whilst being with a loving man, attempting to lose her virginity with a United Nations worker, despite not being in love with him. Shortly after, Greenwood experiences a ground shaking moment when a man named Marco attempts to rape her. Due to the internal conflict created by this incident, Greenwood questions the purpose of a ‘sexual relationship’ after society has come to accept it purely for means of reproduction. In the book, Plath uses sex as another way to symbolically represent the way in which men have grown accustomed to assert their dominance over women. The topic therefore, represents not one, not two or even a couple components of relationships at this time but rather, all of them. A man’s dominating force swings above women like a swinging pendulum, constantly reminding women of the fact they will always be second to them. By virtue of their inborn advantage, they have the upper hand in the relationship and are therefore, possess rights which women will never have and are allowed to overstep their boundaries all while women should succumb to them.  One of the first ways in which Plath solidifies her first point is discussing a women’s role in a fixed 1950’s society, where men were seen as superior power-houses, with society accepting this widely believed stereotype. Greenwood begins to really come of age and understanding the ways in which the society has come to accept gender roles, “The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket” (Plath, 65).Plath speaks vicariously through Greenwood making a declaration that she rejects the commonly accepted gender based idea put forth and accepted by conformists for centuries. She, voicing her non-conformist ideas, argues and offers up a new perspective, stating that women should not sacrifice their own happiness in marriage and domesticity while their respective male counterpart is free to do as he pleases. This further proves that one of Greenwood’s main struggles is having to fend for herself in a world that is dominated by man’s power. By questioning these widely accepted ideas, Greenwood is symbolically trying to break away from the notion that women are in any way less capable or inferior to their male counterparts, and that being born a certain gender doesn’t dictate what future roles the person will take on. The society in which The Bell Jar was lodged in was one where one’s image, purpose and identity are three words whose meanings are intertwined systematically. Society at this point has been trained to counteract social deviance and unconventionalism like mental illness with brutality thus, ending personal individualism. This was best shown in the novel when Greenwood was initially taken into a mental institution, succumbing to the help of to a well-off psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon. Ironically, despite being treated in a what is supposed to be a safe place for the mentally handicapped, Greenwood is still unsure of those the caring for her and believes a duality in their character exists. In her eyes, they are not genuinely trying to help her and rather, shrugging her off. After being sent off to a  mental asylum, where electroshock therapy has become the popular way to cure ranging mental and physical ailments, it ended up working backwards and the electric waves radiated through her body. Although successful the next time, the bell jar disappears and now, that it hangs a few feet above her head. This moment is important to note within the novel as it has the capability to totally render her powerless, stripping her of all her joyous moments. It makes her feel trapped, and without the urge to write, something which had previously been recognized for and a hobby which had let her express herself when her own words betrayed her. Hoping her own mind would finally comfort her she says, “How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again” (Plath, 241). Through this, Greenwood begins to internally comfort herself by pretending that her life was always a utopian-esque dream and that the perfect and content little girl within her had always known everything would work out and eventually be able to escape the confines. One of the most profound experiences that Greenwood goes through that helps to demonstrates her mental suffering as a result of unrealistic societal expectations is the exact moment in which she realizes that the glory, awards and all things glamorous portrayed by society will all come to an end. When they will, she will need to face the internal demons she is facing on the inside, face-to-face. Greenwood says, “I saw my life branching out before me, like the green fig in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind on which of the figs I would choose (Plath 77). The fig tree symbolically represents that Greenwood is pressured by external forces in her life, and although she is offered so much, she is trapped by the confines of the Bell Jar. The branches of the fig tree are a symbolic representation of the paths that she could take but due to her frail mental situation. She is fixed in place with nowhere to turn, growing sick of her accomplishments. By using the fig tree, Plath is sending a powerful message that no matter the opportunities ahead of a person, one cannot move forward while being suffocated under the dangerous confines of their own mind. One must be able to escape the state which is depriving them and see the world from a realistic point of view or else the figs on the tree will begin to wither away. To support the argument of the dangers of mental confines portrayed specifically in the book, Shelly Orgel says, “With shattering effect, this novel converys the pain of narcissism and dammed up, self-directed aggression in an outer world that allows no resonance, no echoing balance which permits investment and outflow to “collective alternates” (Orgel 400-403).  This criticism is extremely paramount as it not only backs up Sylvia’s state and emotions, but it also confirms and reinstates the type of society which Sylvia was suffocated in. A world which at the time, had no mercy and ‘allowed no resistance’, all while hounding over the ones who were feeble enough to give in, revealing their imperfections. This pain was created by the people looking down at her was bleeding through the character which was almost a mirror replica of her. While the pain which both Sylvia and Esther endured was unfortunate, it opened up doors for the rest of society to come to terms with mental illnesses and marked a change in the way in which people addressed these topics and made it okay to talk about them. Through a witty and comedic streak or the saddest moments in the book, Sylvia made her lasting mark. While words used by Plath like ‘alone’ and ‘ashamed’  may be shrugged off as, ‘surface level’ and ‘unimportant’, they carry the entire theme of the book. Plath message is resounding and clear, bleeding through the pages of the novel. One’s mind and body has the power to change any social dynamic. However, while the mind has the power to step beyond borders and challenge the normal ways of thinking, it also has the power to ruin and seize everything as it sees fit. Sometimes, it is not able to escape the confines of the Bell Jar and will ruin a person. In addition to this, Plath’s novel interweaves subtle aspects of 1950’s American prosperity and ideas brought on by factors such as global supremacy and rise of capitalism, which ultimately, bestowed a feeling of superiority over its people. This helps to explain where this intoxicating environment in the United States stemmed from and why it differs so much from today’s society which is attempting to shatter stigmas which were highly shameful during Plath’s time. Non-conformist characters like Greenwood who drove the novel are often deemed as outcasts who only work to further the gap between the healthy and ‘mentally-ill’, showing the backfiring of a society’s rules of conformity on its own people who too, are suffering unlike Greenwood, in silence and with shame. Plath’s way of narration seems to emulate her own painful life, directly reflecting off of her feelings which she experienced in the past and could never get rid off. Plath was attempting to change the dynamic with her own somber life and address what she saw as the faults in American society during this period which was plagued by sexism, materialism and ultimately, one’s demise under such conditions. Despite some branding the novel as a pure stroke of nothing short of a genius, Plath’s will always have the criticisms that the novel is geared towards attracting young teenage girls whose goals are centered around beauty, health and getting themselves to the gym on time. Marjorie Perloff, a teacher of twentieth and now twenty-first century poetry have slammed the book and saying that the book’s popularity is unjustified and does not lot live up the the gross mass market appeal. “The novel’s most enthusiastic admirers, after all, have been the young, who tend to take health, whether physical or mental, enormously for granted, and those preoccupations, a decade after The Bell Jar was written and two decades after the period which it deals, are far removed from the fashion world of the Mademoiselle College Board, the Barbizon Hotel for Women, the Yale junior Prom, or even the particular conditions under which shock therapy is likely to shock the schizophrenic” (Perioff 395). Perioff believes this novel was geared towards a certain age and consumer group, aiming at those who have no yet had to deal with the important things in life, but instead have focused their attention on things which are taken in vein. With this, some will say that the book’s way of talking about suicide was taken far too lightly and rather, comedically. However, no matter how Plath ultimately chose to portray depression and suicide, albeit in a unconvenialistic and explicit manor through depticing moments like when she wanted to slash her wrists in the tub, imagining the water “gaudy as poppies”. However, no matter how atypical her ways may have been, Plath made her message loud and clear. Depression and suicide which Esther Greenwood suffered was a cause for great concern which should not have fallen on deaf ears and rather, should have been treated with the support of others. But without breaking the stigma, how can the Bell Jar ever be shattered?  Literary critics such Linda W. Wagner, a Hanes Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have pondered this exact question and forenamed that, “[The novel must be read as] a testimony to the repressive cultural mold that trapped many mid-century women, forcing them outside what should have been their rightful, productive lives” (Wagner 425-426). The Bell Jar in her eyes, was written to take the reader on a journey to aim the moral and psychological growth of the main character. Esther Greenwood, a secretly inspired character by none other than Sylvia herself, took the readers through her own struggle on a quest to find herself  who she was, while attempting to be motivated and become a writer as she has always dreamed. The Bell Jar successfully addressed societal issues when it came to mental illness and along the way, shattered widely accepted stereotypes.

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