Although some of us sitting here may wish we were bornin another era or another time, perhaps a time when according to “10 reasons Ishould have been born in the 1950’s” chivalry was expected, not an attributeand drive-in movies as well as sit-down family dinners were an integral partsof American society. The reality of 1950s America was that they were experiencing marked economic growth due tothe post-World War II economic expansion and the Cold War tensions were high whichtogether helped create a politically conservative climate in the country. Butin regards to women’s position in 1950s American society, popular culture andmass media reinforced messages about traditional gender roles and in many waysthe 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 rightsmovement My name is Andrea and today, for my further oralactivity, I will be conducting a detailed analysis on a few excerpts from the firstchapter of the novel The Bell Jarwritten by famous American writer and poet, Sylvia Plath and published in 1964.Set 1953 New York and then laterBoston, The Bell Jar sets out to highlight the problems with theoppressive patriarchal society of 1950s America.
Along with this, the noveldeals with other serious subjects such as mental health. But for my FOA Iwill be focusing on the former. The novel itselfis semi-autobiographical and it follows the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, a youngwoman who, having finished college for the academic year, has won a one-monthpaid internship at Ladies Day magazine in New York City. The Bell Jar addressesthe question of socially acceptable identity and examines Esther’s “questto forge her own identity, to be herself rather than what others expect her tobe.
“Excerpt number one demonstrated this perfectly. Inthis excerpt Esther expresses how her boyfriend’s mother had arranged for herto work as a waitress at the tuberculosis sanatorium while he was being treatedthere so that “Buddy wouldn’t be lonely.” Both fail to understand Esther’schoice to instead pursue her artistic ambitions, and take the incredibleopportunity she had been given to go to New York and work. Through these twocharacters we can directly see how much of society at that time viewed womenand what their roles and priorities should be. Buddy’s mother’s ideas can be seen inthe third excerpt where through her metaphors we can see how in herconventional views, a woman mustsupport her husband by creating an attractive and orderly home and by nurturinghim and his ambitions thus putting her own needs second or last.
Through the next excerpt we see how even thewealthiest, most privileged women of that time had restricted choices inregards to their futures. “They were all going to posh secretarial schools likeKaty Gibbs, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and weresecretaries to executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to getmarried to some career man or other.” Esther notes that they seemed “bored ashell”. 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 ofsyndetic listing works to emphasize how dull, repetitive and confined theirlives seem. In the next excerpt we see that Esther herself isaware of the limiting choices she has in her life even as a privileged, whitewoman and so thus she compares her life to a fig tree and the choices to the “fatpurple figs” hanging on it. She can only pick one and sees herself ‘sitting in the crotch ofthis fig-tree, starving to death’.
Saying “I wanted each and every one of thembut choosing one meant losing all the rest”. Despite the brief liberationduring the war, Esther feels that women cannot have it all and embrace both marriage and career. Ofcourse, this excerpt can be interpreted in different ways, one could see thisas a young woman who is feeling overwhelmed by the amount of choices she hasyet the fact that she feels as though she has to choose only one allows thereaders to see how restrictive the environment of that time must have been fora young woman with many ambitions. The first sentence of the novel “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocutedthe Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” works not only to make the audienceaware of the novels setting, New York, the summer they executed theRosenberg’s, two United States citizens who were in 1953 convicted of espionagefor 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 thesummer 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 aswell as many other women of that time felt, confined in the roles societyexpected them to play. Seeing as the protagonist is a woman and the entirenovel itself deals with her experience as a mentally ill woman with progressiveviews in 1950s America, it can be concluded that the intended audience of thisnovel are predominantly women. At the time the novel was published, 1964, deep cultural changes were altering the roles of womenin American society. More women than ever were entering the paidworkforce, and this increased the dissatisfaction amongst women regarding hugegender disparities in pay and advancement as well as sexual harassment at theworkplace. Gradually, however, over a longperiod of time, “Americans came to accept some of the basic goals of sixtiesfeminists: equal pay for equal work, an end to domestic violence, an end tosexual harassment, and sharing of responsibility for housework and childrearing.
” The author’s purpose of the book was thus todepict the conflicts brought upon young women living in the 1950s who did notwillingly decide to conform to the expectations of women in that era. Thename of the novel itself, although having many differently interpretablesymbolic meanings, could be, and often is, interpreted by critics as being asymbol of society’s stifling constraints and befuddling mixed messages thattrap Sylvia Plath’s heroine, Esther Greenwood, within its glass dome. So, in conclusion, though her novel and the characterof Esther Greenwood, Sylvia Plath succeeds in depicting the internal as well asexternal conflicts brought upon young women who were not willing to conform toexpectations of that time.