Analysis of Women's Mental Health in 'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath
(Extract of dissertation submitted to Leeds Beckett University, 2019)
During this chapter, there will be an in-depth analysis of the portrayal of mental health in the novel, The Bell Jar, written in 1963 by Sylvia Plath, although set in the 1950s. The Bell Jar is a metaphorical text as the bell jar itself is repeatedly mentioned in the novel due to it symbolising Esther’s feelings whilst suffering a nervous breakdown. The text not only symbolises mental illness itself but is, in fact, semi-autobiographical as it's inspired by Plath’s personal experiences surrounding her previous struggles with mental health. There are evident concerns raised by Plath that are being expressed through the novel but one, in particular, is the issues that women faced through societal expectations. Plath projects these concerns through the character, Esther, as throughout the text she experiences struggles with a fragmented identity and not knowing her place in society, which is one of the main points that will be discussed throughout this chapter. Esther’s quest for identity becomes a failure as she becomes institutionalised and is forced to confront her mental state. Other points that will be explored in this chapter are the treatments patients received, such as electroshock therapy. It appears that medical practitioners used it as one of their main methods to cure mental insanity, however, there will be discussions questioning whether this type of therapy is helpful, curable and safe for those who suffered in this generation.
The Bell Jar raises several issues in regards to gender and women's place within society. Plath’s novel is critical of social politics in the 1950s and raises concerns for the female gender due to the negative impacts of a demanding society that pressured women. The Bell Jar draws inspiration from a magazine named Mademoiselle with persuasive headlines enticing women to be a part of the domestic sphere. This would entail being the perfect housewife and mother, as claimed by Smith in her article that focuses on Plath’s interactions with the magazines:“Plath's novel directly interacts with and is informed by, publications such as Mademoiselle. Plath herself was familiar with these publications.” (Smith, 2010). The Mademoiselle magazines had a clear effect on Plath as a woman living in a society with demanding rules that she is unable to follow. In the text, Plath projects these thoughts through Esther’s narration as she also fails to maintain the stereotypical female role that is expected from her: “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 as a numb slave in some private, totalitarian state” (Plath, 1963, p. 81). Esther doesn’t believe that this ideological role provides positive impacts on women, instead, she identifies it as females being victims of slave work as their routines are forced upon them. Plath familiarising marriage and motherhood to a totalitarian state is particularly striking as she projects how women’s expected subservience to society, strips them of their identity as she classes it as being ‘brainwashed’. Therefore, it is evident that Esther’s morals and values in life are in contrast to what society expects from her as a woman living in the 1950s, being the prime time where the majority of the female population undertook the role of a housewife as Beaumont states in her article: “with over two-thirds of women aged twenty to sixty-four identified as full-time housewives in 1951” (Beaumont, 2016). Although a high percentage of women pursued this specific life during the same period as the publication of The Bell Jar, Esther’s character has no desire to be a part of a dominated community that has high expectations of women but also disregard what women truly want for their futures.
However, the maternal role models in Esther’s family had no struggle maintaining the stereotypical housewife ideal: “My grandmother and my mother were such good cooks that I left everything to them” (Plath, 1963, p. 71). She then continues to portray her apathy towards these tasks: “the instructions slid through my head like water, and then I’d always spoil what I did so nobody would ask me to do it again” (Plath, 1963, p.71). These expectations imposed on women are what initiates Esther’s fragmented identity as she is distancing herself from these feminine ideals as she is aware that she is unable to conform to them. Esther is a young woman who can be considered a misfit in this particular era as the thought of being a housewife is of no interest to her; she describes it as a “dreary and wasted life for
a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s” (Plath, 1963, p. 80). Caitríona Beaumont discusses what women really wanted in the 1950s instead of becoming an iconic image to society. Beaumont identifies critics’ statements in regards to the majority of women deciding to comply with this desired ideology of the female role: “that women in the 1950s were compliant and complicit in attempting to live up to these stereotypical roles” (Beaumont, 2016). Arguably, Esther’s mother and grandmother are a part of this category as they show no intentions of arguing against this stereotypical role, reflecting their characters to be defenceless. They decide not to use their voices and instead prove to society of their contentment at being a housewife and mother. Whereas Esther, had no intention in sacrificing her career for a man.
It can be argued that the societal pressures, plus Esther’s inability to conform to feminine ideals are what triggers the
deterioration of her mental health. Esther has no firm sense of identity as she appears to feel misplaced in society. Her disinterest of marriage - a stereotypical convention of the 1950s - suggests her alienation from societal expectations:
“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots from” (p.79).
Instead, Esther wanted to explore her independence and pursue her desired career as a writer without a husband. However, Esther’s indifferent attitude in serving men is what causes her to feel alienated from society
: “the trouble was, I hated serving men in any way” (p. 72). Although Plath primarily focuses her intentions on women’s isolation from maintaining their femininity, there have been interpretations that Plath doesn’t ignore that men were equally oppressed whilst protecting their masculinity. The male character, Buddy, represents male oppression whilst experiencing an illness, preventing him from partaking in his usual activities that would have maintained his masculine identity. Esther finds difficulty in imagining Buddy being inactive as she recollects him doing workouts: “He ran back and forth or played ball or did a little series of rapid push-ups to use the time” (p.84). Tracy Brain argues that The Bell Jar doesn’t disregard males’ strive for masculinity and states that the text is: “sympathetic to the pressures upon men
and masculinity” (Brain, 2001, p.151). Buddy’s virility was massively affected by his illness as he gained weight and was seen as no longer attractive: “A pot belly swelled under the tight white nylon shirt and his cheeks were round and ruddy as marzipan fruit” (Plath, 1963, p.86). Arguably, Buddy was equally pressured when attempting to maintain a masculine figure in society but found difficulty whilst suffering with a sickness. Brain also argues that Buddy’s illness leaves him feeling feminised which can be viewed as a weakness: “Even Buddy’s body betrays and humiliates him, transgressing gender codes by plumping out like a pregnant woman’s” (Brain, 2001, p. 151-2). Brain highlights how individual men were just as oppressed when unable to fulfil the sex role expectations, even if they benefitted from patriarchy.
Although Esther faces these issues with societal expectations and feeling alienated by them, she is, in fact, a successful individual with scholarships and magazine opportunities. However, she had never acknowledged these achievements as positive or worthy of being happy about. “And what did I do but balk and balk like a dull cart horse?” (Plath, 1963, p. 29). Instead of reacting with excitement, Esther feels dull and displeased. However, it is clear that Esther is openly aware that something isn’t right as near the beginning of
the novel, she identifies how her actions and feelings are in complete contrast to the other girls that also got offered an opportunity that will benefit their careers. “I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react.” (Plath, 1963, p.2). Esther realises that her reactions aren’t familiar as she understands that she should be excited about her upcoming venture but instead feels numb and empty. Esther’s inability to express emotion suggests feelings of isolation as she experiences a sense of dissatisfaction as opposed to expressing enthusiasm. Smith compares the character of Esther to an article writer for Mademoiselle magazine named Helen Eustis who informs her readers of her incapabilities to get everything that she wants and desires. Smith then draws similarities between these two women and argues that Esther is just like Eustis. “She, like Esther, is still hungry, if you will, for a desired life that she ultimately cannot achieve.” (Smith, 2010). Smith identifies how Esther is unfulfilled by her achievements whilst repressing her desires due to issues in self-belief. It is clear that Esther is losing motivation towards her career and her issues with self-esteem is what initiates this.
Women in the 1960s were continually pressured into conforming to patriarchal norms and maintaining an idealistic figure in society. Girl Interrupted and The Bell Jar both contain a female narrator that struggles to participate in acts that are viewed as patriarchal norms. Both female narrators were institutionalised and maintained contrasting values in regards to women’s placement within society. Ironically, both characters are diagnosed with mental disorders and are admitted to asylums. It can be argued that both texts represent women's voices in the 1950s and 1960s, projecting ideas that the demands from society cause mental insanity. Showalter discusses the uprising of female literature as women discover their voice, therefore, enabling them to share their experiences in a patriarchal society:
By the early 1960s, then, a very powerful female literature had grown up outside the medical journals and the psychiatric institutes, which presented schizophrenia and institutionalisation as extremes of typical female experiences of passivity and confinement (Showalter, 1987, p. 219).
Kaysen and Plath, both powerful women writers, challenged the social conventions, expressing how women felt alienated from society due to patriarchy. Both authors have crafted feminist narratives as the female protagonists rebelled against societal expectations. This raises questions as to whether women were being institutionalised because of their contrasting views and that their behaviours are a form of protest. However, it could also be suggested that the demands from society are causing issues with women’s mental state and is the reasoning behind their admissions.
The Bell Jar appears to be critical of psychiatric profession in the 1950s as Plath discusses the use of shock therapy and how this was practically forced on female patients. Through unsettling imagery, Esther highlights the intensity behind electroshock therapy: “Whe-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant” (p. 138). This method of treatment, given by a male doctor, seems tortuous and raises questions as to whether inflicting physical pain on an individual with mental health concerns, will improve their insanity. Esther was so shocked by this excruciating pain that she instantly thought she had done something wrong: “I wondered what terrible thing it was I had done” (p.138). Esther’s descriptions of her therapy session is almost like she’s getting punished. Therefore, it could be argued that this form of treatment was used to somewhat discipline and punish Esther for being unable to conform to a domestic, feminine and idealistic role in society. Arguably, male medical practitioners in the 1950s had no intention of bettering women’s mental health. Susan Coyle’s article also disagrees with Esther’s treatment, arguing that it wouldn’t improve her mentality: “Dr. Gordon does not help her; his shock treatments only exacerbate the problem” (Coyle, 1984). As argued by Coyle, Dr. Gordon wrongly performs electroshock therapy, endangering Esther and increasing her madness. Coyle furthers her argument stating: “She is separated from herself, and the shock treatment is the culmination of the abuse of the world” (Coyle, 1984). Coyle identifies how Esther becomes fragmented as she is separated from herself as a result from the treatment. Along with this, Coyle rightfully argues that shock treatment is extreme and abusive as it is significantly impacting Esther and her mental state. Through Esther’s depiction of the shock treatment, it's noticeable to see its cruel nature and dehumanising effects it has on female patients. Therefore, this method of treatment is damaging and has no potential in bettering women and mental health. Instead, it heightens insanity as it left Esther feeling alienated from herself and society.
However, electroshock therapy continued to negatively impact powerless, female patients as they received this harsh treatment by ‘professional’ medical practitioners in asylums. Girl Interrupted also consists of unsettling environments for women as they are forced to become dependent on institutions and their doctors. Due to Girl Interrupted mainly set in an asylum, it enables the reader to gain an insight of what it was really like for women in mental institutions in the twentieth century. Girl Interrupted, set shortly after The Bell Jar, highlights the vulnerable position of women as they are manipulated and treated harshly by individuals who are supposedly educated and caring for their patients.