Although some of us sitting here may wish we were born
in another era or another time, perhaps a time when according to “10 reasons I
should have been born in the 1950’s” chivalry was expected, not an attribute
and drive-in movies as well as sit-down family dinners were an integral parts
of American society. The reality of 1950s America was that they were experiencing marked economic growth due to
the post-World War II economic expansion and the Cold War tensions were high which
together helped create a politically conservative climate in the country. But
in regards to women’s position in 1950s American society, popular culture and
mass media reinforced messages about traditional gender roles and in many ways
the 1950s were a period of conformity but they were also a decade of change,
when discontent with the status quo began to emerge. With the civil rights

My name is Andrea and today, for my further oral
activity, I will be conducting a detailed analysis on a few excerpts from the first
chapter of the novel The Bell Jar
written by famous American writer and poet, Sylvia Plath and published in 1964.

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Set 1953 New York and then later
Boston, The Bell Jar sets out to highlight the problems with the
oppressive patriarchal society of 1950s America. Along with this, the novel
deals with other serious subjects such as mental health. But for my FOA I
will be focusing on the former. The novel itself
is semi-autobiographical and it follows the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, a young
woman who, having finished college for the academic year, has won a one-month
paid internship at Ladies Day magazine in New York City. The Bell Jar addresses
the question of socially acceptable identity and examines Esther’s “quest
to forge her own identity, to be herself rather than what others expect her to

Excerpt number one demonstrated this perfectly. In
this excerpt Esther expresses how her boyfriend’s mother had arranged for her
to work as a waitress at the tuberculosis sanatorium while he was being treated
there so that “Buddy wouldn’t be lonely.” Both fail to understand Esther’s
choice to instead pursue her artistic ambitions, and take the incredible
opportunity she had been given to go to New York and work. Through these two
characters we can directly see how much of society at that time viewed women
and what their roles and priorities should be.  

Buddy’s mother’s ideas can be seen in
the third excerpt where through her metaphors we can see how in her
conventional views, a woman must
support her husband by creating an attractive and orderly home and by nurturing
him and his ambitions thus putting her own needs second or last.

Through the next excerpt we see how even the
wealthiest, most privileged women of that time had restricted choices in
regards to their futures. “They were all going to posh secretarial schools like
Katy Gibbs, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were
secretaries to executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get
married to some career man or other.” Esther notes that they seemed “bored as
hell”. A simile, used to emphasize how empty and unfulfilling their lives were.
They are all expected to play a similar role in their live and the use of
syndetic listing works to emphasize how dull, repetitive and confined their
lives seem.

In the next excerpt we see that Esther herself is
aware of the limiting choices she has in her life even as a privileged, white
woman and so thus she compares her life to a fig tree and the choices to the “fat
purple figs” hanging on it. She can only pick one and sees herself ‘sitting in the crotch of
this fig-tree, starving to death’. Saying “I wanted each and every one of them
but choosing one meant losing all the rest”. Despite the brief liberation
during the war, Esther feels that women cannot have it all and embrace both marriage and career. Of
course, this excerpt can be interpreted in different ways, one could see this
as a young woman who is feeling overwhelmed by the amount of choices she has
yet the fact that she feels as though she has to choose only one allows the
readers to see how restrictive the environment of that time must have been for
a young woman with many ambitions.

The first sentence of the novel “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted
the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” works not only to make the audience
aware of the novels setting, New York, the summer they executed the
Rosenberg’s, two United States citizens who were in 1953 convicted of espionage
for the Soviet Union, but also helps set the mood for most of the novel.
“Queer” summer

Some synonyms for the other word used to describe the
summer when the events of this book took place are “stuffy, airless,
oppressive” all of which are words that could be used to describe how Esther as
well as many other women of that time felt, confined in the roles society
expected them to play. Seeing as the protagonist is a woman and the entire
novel itself deals with her experience as a mentally ill woman with progressive
views in 1950s America, it can be concluded that the intended audience of this
novel are predominantly women. At the time the novel was published, 1964, deep cultural changes were altering the roles of women
in American society.  More women than ever were entering the paid
workforce, and this increased the dissatisfaction amongst women regarding huge
gender disparities in pay and advancement as well as sexual harassment at the
workplace. Gradually, however, over a long
period of time, “Americans came to accept some of the basic goals of sixties
feminists: equal pay for equal work, an end to domestic violence, an end to
sexual harassment, and sharing of responsibility for housework and child
rearing.” The author’s purpose of the book was thus to
depict the conflicts brought upon young women living in the 1950s who did not
willingly decide to conform to the expectations of women in that era. The
name of the novel itself, although having many differently interpretable
symbolic meanings, could be, and often is, interpreted by critics as being a
symbol of society’s stifling constraints and befuddling mixed messages that
trap Sylvia Plath’s heroine, Esther Greenwood, within its glass dome.

So, in conclusion, though her novel and the character
of Esther Greenwood, Sylvia Plath succeeds in depicting the internal as well as
external conflicts brought upon young women who were not willing to conform to
expectations of that time.