Table of Contents
2 The 1950s in America
2.1 Life in the 1950s
2.2 Women in the 1950s
3 Sylvia Plath – Integration or Independence?
4 The Bell Jar – Fact or Fiction?
4.1 A Short Synopsis of The Bell Jar
4.2 Esther Greenwood versus Sylvia Plath
4.3 Bits of Inner and Outer Reality
5.1 Alienation from Society
5.2 Psychological Alienation
5.3 Relation to Men
6 Symbols of Alienation
6.1 The Fig-Tree
6.2 The Mirror – A Double?
* Picture taken from an online review [ http://askchris.essexcc.gov.uk ]
Sylvia Plath ended her Life by gassing herself in a stove on February 11th in 1963. This is not the most important fact about the poet and yet the best known detail of her life. Since her death, Plath’s work and her life have been irrevocably interblended. Thus, she is either interpreted as a courageous but suppressed female writer or as a dark and mentally disordered summoner of death. In either case she had been mystified as a kind of tragic hero and some critics continue with this kind of blind “Plathophilia” (Bachner 2008) until today. Although her artistic work is mainly composed of poems, her only novel will be the object for the following interpretation of the protagonist’s alienation in comparison to respective events in the author’s life.
Being so closely connected it is impossible to reflect on the novel without factoring her life into the described events of alienation in The Bell Jar. Thus, after introducing the influencing social circumstances of her time, the paper concentrates on Sylvia Plath’s degree of authenticity in her writing. On the basis of these findings, two different stages of the protagonist’s alienation are to be developed and afterwards her ambivalent relation towards the opposite sex is being discussed as a major consequence to her schizoid attitudes towards her desired social status. Finally, the analysis deals with Plath’s strong symbolism, in which the mirror serves as frequent metaphoric means to illustrate estrangement not only from the outside world, but also from her inner self. Another one, the fig-tree, stands for the inability to decide for a certain way of life. Both are crucial problems of the protagonist Esther Greenwood and it is to examine, in how far they reflect on Sylvia Plath’s personal experience. This paper discusses Plath’s alienating processes from a rather feminine perspective as the 1950s common American values exerted huge pressure on every member of society, but mostly on women. Sylvia Plath’s later husband, the British poet Ted Hughes, is only briefly mentioned, as he had no bearing on the time described.
2 The 1950s in America
Locating Sylvia Plath in her time will help to understand her motivation as well as her limitation in the process of writing. Her societal embedding strongly influenced her poetry and served as background for her novel, in which she denounced the misleading role models for ambitious women in America. Although after World War II American society improved most of its economic fields and faced an unprecedented prosperity, authorities and the media took a huge step backwards in promoting gender conception to maintain a rather archaic civil system. This paper therefore briefly touches on the respective American history and subsequently illuminates the supposed role of women in the 1950s.
2.1 Life in the 1950s
Even though it is not easy to determine the meaning of a whole decade on the basis of a few facts, some significant events and changes can be located in the America of the 1950s. It was the time of the baby boomers (in 1957 one baby was born every 7 seconds), when people moved to the city’s suburbs, and generally oriented themselves south- and westwards to the “Sunbelt” states. The American population was on the move. Not only in a physically way but also in terms of an industrial and social development was the country in an atmosphere of departure. Technical inventions, such as the first IBM mainframe computer, and the creation of the NASA, new cars and highways went along with an economic growth of the country due to war profits amounting to billions of dollars. The increased living standard led to a formidable consumerism which accelerated the emergence of a popular culture - a culture composed of TV shows, McDonald’s restaurants, Disneyland and a mass audience that celebrated traditional American values by zapping through the channels of their TV set or leaving through a lifestyle magazine. At a quick glance, the American society witnessed tremendous economic prosperity which also helped the average individual to overcome financial shortcomings in order to live “The American Dream” of wealth and happiness. Yet, on closer examination of the rising contentment within society, social conformity fueled intolerance against any deviant conception. In the midst of the increasing affluence and comfortable domesticity, social critics expressed a growing sense of unease with American culture in the 1950s and therewith laid the groundwork for the social and political turbulence of the 1960s. It was a decade defined by radical concepts, large-scale experiments with drugs and free love but also with political participation of the teenage generation. The 1960s can be evaluated as a decade of protest to the conservative parochial system of the preceding years – a conscious crack up in order to revolutionize the rigid moral conceptions of the Fifties. Or as Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner ironically described it in his famous quote: “If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren't really there” (Kantner 2008).
Being aware of the massive changes that were to come only a few years later, the model of authoritarian obedience in the 1950s appears to be rather imposed on the people than a sign of their unsolicited compliance. However, the mass media regularly published information about adequate behavior for men, women, and even the young. According to public announcement, a decent teenager had to follow certain rules: “Obey Authority. Control Your Emotions. Don’t Make Waves. Fit in with the Group. Don’t Even Think About Sex!!!”. Revolting adolescents, listening to Rock’ n ’Roll music or watching rebellious movies and dresseing accordingly, had not only been tolerated by the officials, but their desire for individuality had eventually been trivialized as a harmless juvenile search for excitement. The fact that by the late Fifties initially revolutionary ideas had been viewed under mere economic aspects underlines the dominance of the concept of marketability and simultaneously reveals the difficulties an aberrant adolescent had to struggle with at that time. Regarding men and women to be grown-up and therewith fully responsible, the social pressure on them was even bigger. Magazines and newspapers proclaimed how a perfect woman had to be. “The ideal modern woman married [sic], cooked and cared for her family[…] She entertained guests in her family’s suburban house and worked out on the trampoline to keep her size 12 figure.” Just as well, men’s behavior was predetermined by official mass media announcements. “The ideal 1950s man was the provider, protector, and the boss of the house. A middle-class, white suburban male is the ideal. Furthermore, TV stations broadcasted shows like “The Donna Reed Show”, “Leave it to the Beaver”, or “Father knows best”, all fitting into the rigid gender conception of a caring and dependent wife and a protecting husband.
It was a time of increasing mass consumption, social spiritlessness, and of patriarchal hierarchy that the poet Sylvia Plath was born into, which should affect not only her literary work but her lifelong quest for self-assertion.
2.2 Women in the 1950s
As mentioned before, America’s society was exposed to a repressive and male dominated system during the 1950s. Proving this evaluation the following lines have often been echoed in critical essays on the topic of gender equality. With its detailed instructions, the excerpt from “How to be a good wife” exemplifies the socially expected female submissiveness.
Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal, on time. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal are [sic] part of the warm welcome needed.
Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so that you'll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people. Be a little gay and a little more interesting. His boring day may need a lift.
Minimize all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer, dishwasher, or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet. Be happy to see him. Greet him with a warm smile and be glad he is home.
The Goal: Try to make your home a place of peace and order where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.
This shortened passage is taken from a home economics high school text book, published in 1954, and pictures vividly the dominant social paradigm of the 1950s gender concept in America. Hence, the husband had to provide for financial security of the family, while his wife had to support him, keep the house clean, and raise the children. However wishful for authorities such strict conventions might have been during that decade, they were not overly accepted and rather forced upon many women. What made it particularly difficult for them to fit into this model was the immediate history of the country. World War II had ended just a few years ago, which brought soldiers back to their families. According to Halberstam, the social desire for normality lead to a highly conservative concept of life: “For the young, eager veteran [...] security meant finding a good white-collar job with a large, benevolent company, getting married, having children, and buying a house in the suburbs” (Halberstam 46). However, the return of men into society was a mixed blessing for their wives. When claiming back their jobs, men threw their formerly working wives back into the Victorian Era of the 19th century. A time, when books named Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management were most popular and the wife was proudly called “The Household General” (Hellerstein et al. 35). While, during the war, women were suddenly recognized as precious labor force and had an impact on economic progress, their significance shrank immediately after the war had been ended. Not only not being accredited the double burden of homework and job, women now even faced a vilification of their duties at home, after being forced to go back to the kitchen stove. Being degraded in such a blunt way, many of them rebelled against the repressing system. A system that declared them inferior to men, hence being a women meant to be the “second sex”, as Simone de Beauvoir described it, while Betty Friedan called the conventional home “a comfortable concentration camp” (Birkle 2). It was mainly for this step backwards in female emancipation, that women started to reappraise their role in society, which treated them as decoration and supportive wives, rather than self-determined individuals.
However, some critics argue that a social revolt against this stereotypical view on gender politics took place as early as in the 1950s. Neuhaus supported that notion and stated that there had always been “women who were able to enact resistance strategies in the face of powerful gender ideology” (Neuhaus1999). According to her, these were mainly “white middle-class women working in political or religious organizations and community groups” (ibid). Furthermore, she believed in the revealing power of popular culture with its gender perception so different from the demanded women’s role in society (ibid). Another follower of this theory, William H. Chafe, doubted the efficiency of the public indoctrination through publications in female magazines:
Yet the shrillness of the campaign went too far, suggesting the schizophrenia of American culture and society as much as any uniformity of purpose. While countless suburban housewives (and husbands) carried out their roles as written, there were just as many others who sought new options and wanted to go on changing the world. (Chafe 188)
Chafe states that many women in the 1950s resisted the governmental request of withdrawing to the private sphere, and instead kept on working and therewith built up a “new framework of experience” (Chafe 1991: 234), which helped to redefine their social position. In his later work he discussed the consequences of the female movement and summed up that “any change in the nature of male and female roles thus automatically affects the home, the economy, the school, and perhaps above all, the definition of who we are as human beings” (Chafe 2007: 224). For the 1950s generation of women, female liberation was still years to come. Yet, the increasing contradiction between the socially intended and the desired roles of women encouraged these processes and made the postwar era a trigger time for their self-assertion. It likewise fostered the awareness of being constantly discriminated, a feeling which not only haunted Sylvia Plath and gradually alienated her from society but which also was an integral part of life for every individualist.
 Excerpt from Teenage Magazine, published in 1954
 According to statistical data, published in 1965 in The Economist, 13 million teens have seven billion dollars to spend a year.
 Excerpt from Life magazine, published in 1956.
 Excerpt from Life magazine, published in 1955.