Female Oppression in "The Bell Jar" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

Pre-University Paper, 2013

19 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents


Main Body



Looking at The Bell Jar and A 1000 Splendid Suns discuss the notion that the representation of female oppression in literature transcends cultural differences


“Women face restrictions which, on-balance, are harmful to them; they are imposed by social structures and expectations, and even within the law; women face them because of their status as women; and men both impose these barriers and benefit from them.”[1]

Virginia Woolf argued for female freedom, not only but particularly in literature. It has been assumed that the situation of women in literature nowadays is equal to that of their male counterparts and generally accepted that female oppression is more known in developing countries such as Afghanistan. However, when reading Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, it seems striking that in this representation of an American woman’s life in 1950s America, women like Esther still suffer from oppression.

I decided to discuss two novels of different socio-cultural and political background to show that the oppression of the female in literature is apparent in different societies; yet it may take on different forms.

In the course of this essay I intend to develop a greater sense of how these forms of oppression differ and how they are depicted.

Main Body

In Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the main female characters, Esther, Laila and Mariam are alienated from their society and are very different. Mariam is born a “Harami”, a bastard child in Afghanistan of the late 1950s whilst Esther grows up in the United States during the 1950s. Laila, like Mariam, grows up in Afghanistan and lives with her liberal parents in Kabul.

Cultural differences are often seen as a rationale for oppressive behaviour towards women. In The Bell Jar, Esther lives in the sexually liberal America of the 1950s. Although women in the West have freedom of expression, this may lead to expectations that may cause women to feel pressured to fit in. Esther experiences this pressure with her sexual life:

“When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue. Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants […] I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t.”[2]

To Hosseini sexuality is not a topic of public talk as this is not something permitted in the Afghan culture. Women have to take care not to become a subject of talk regarding their sexuality their virginity.

“The reputation of a girl, especially one as pretty as you is a delicate thing”[3]

The duty of a girl to keep her virginity and the threat of sanctions of society are a way of oppressing the female, as she cannot decide freely over her sexual life.

In that sense the female characters of the texts live under very different conditions regarding sexual freedom of women in their individual cultures. Laila and Mariam are subject to Islamic law in Afghanistan and throughout the story have to comply with the Taliban laws that begin to shape their lives whilst Esther is granted free movement and makes decisions herself. It is therefore interesting to see that many works of literature blame culture and society for the oppression of the female characters. Hosseini portrays the oppression of women as something that is part of Afghan daily life. As the oppression comes from society rather than the individual, Laila and Mariam’s sufferings are to be seen as a representation of the real world.

Whilst it may appear the women are maltreated in nations without equality laws, it still is something that is conducted behind closed doors in the more developed world. The oppression of women in the West is rarely talked about; it may be equal or worse to that happening in countries such as Afghanistan.

Despite the fact that women are able to move around freely in the West, oppression is still often practised in domestic environments.

Aristotle said a wife should be as “obedient as a slave”. Furthermore he views this inequality as a “natural defectiveness”[4] Although this assertion dates back to ancient Greece, it is in no means dated. Today women in the West are often expected to fulfil certain gender roles. The expectation of a woman being in the role of the mother and housewife is still very common in the Western world. Nonetheless, it is a way of society to stifle women and women find themselves not being able to fit a career and nursing a child at once.

In The Bell Jar, this is something Esther fears to fall into. It is this struggle for independence that eventually leads her into trying to end her life.

Esther’s struggle is a representation of the author’s genuine voice. Plath herself struggled for equality in her relationship with Ted Hughes. She would often take time to type up his works rather than to publish her own poetry.

In order to analyse the oppression of females in literature one has to distinguish between mental and physical oppression[5], which may take forms of abuse. Whereas in The Bell Jar physical abuse is not an issue as such, Esther is oppressed mentally. Unlike other girls of her age Esther does not want to be married off to a husband but rather become a writer. In that way she is different from the norm in society. This leads Esther to an inner struggle that eventually causes her to attempt suicide and she ends up in an asylum for women where she is being given shock treatments that completely stifle her creativity. These treatments were often prescribed to patients as a remedy for anxiety, hysteria and angst; the patient becoming docile. This is something Esther always feared. Therefore commonly accepted treatments are disallowing Esther to develop her own personality but make her a person suitable for society. This is an example of how Plath uses the Gothic genre to underline Esther’s struggle for freedom. The representation of female oppression through the use of the Gothic genre is present throughout the history of literature as is evidenced in Brontë’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847. Bertha is forced to live locked-up in an attic, as she is considered mad.. The eeriness around her oppression is conveyed through the use of emotive language that further settles the idea of Bertha being oppressed in the reader’s mind.

In A Doll’s House, Nora is not physically oppressed, but her husband deliberately dominates her by controlling her every move. Ibsen shows the oppression though the use of symbolism. Helmer calls Nora his ‘song bird’ and his ‘squirrel’[6], linguistically diminishing her and fails to treat her as a person with thoughts and ideas.


[1] http://em-journal.com/2012/03/fryes-oppression-an-inadequate-definition-1.html accessed Jan 3rd 2013

[2] The Bell Jar p77

[3] A Thousand Splendid Suns p160

[4] http://womeninworldhistory.com/WR-12.html accessed Nov 1 2012

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppression accessed 2013-01-06

[6] A Doll’s House Act 1 p24

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Female Oppression in "The Bell Jar" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns"
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Feminism, Literature, Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Afghanistan, Culture, Oppression, IB, Extended Essay, Gender Studies
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Florian Kollmeier (Author), 2013, Female Oppression in "The Bell Jar" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/215425


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