Oppression of the Female in "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath

Bachelor Thesis, 2019

30 Pages, Grade: 2,3



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Feminist Theories
2.1 Comparison Marriage
2.2 Comparison Education/ Career
2.3 Comparison Domesticity/ Motherhood

3. The Bell Jar
3.1 Role models
3.2 Fake Identities
3.3 Relation to Men and Sexuality
3.4 Motherhood

4. The Symbol of the Fig-Tree
4.1 Apparent opportunities for women in the 1950´s

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Feminism is an important aspect in literature – especially for female authors as they have felt the need to produce writing in order to “survive” in their social context. Writing gave those women the power to express their thoughts and feelings and therewith to challenge the established ideals of femininity. Feminist texts have questioned a patriarchal system that oppressed women and drew attention to the limitations women had to face in society.

The purpose of this thesis is to examine how female authors have presented their own views of a gender restrictive era. Therefore, I am going to analyse two feminist theories, Margaret Fuller´s theory Woman in the nineteenth century (1845) and Betty Friedan´s Feminine Mystique (1963), as well as Sylvia Plath´s novel The Bell Jar (1963). These texts are chosen as they all deal with issues related to femininity and tried to redefine gender roles at their time. The first part of this thesis will compare the theoretical ideas of Friedan and Fuller in order to see how these authors have experienced the patriarchal system of their time and to what extent the role of women in American society has changed. Both theories are important for the analysis of The Bell Jar as they contribute to an understanding of the protagonist´s struggle to adapt to the implicit rules of the patriarchal system she lives in. The concepts of marriage, education and career as well as motherhood and domesticity are exclusively chosen to explain Esther´s place in a society that has certain expectations and rules for women the heroine can no longer accept. Sylvia Plath´s novel calls attention to the injustice of the treatment young women received at that time and shows the destructive effects of her era on women who refused to conform to ideals and rules made by the patriarchal system.

The main part of this thesis examines how the novel presents the oppressive system of 1950´s America in which the heroine has to live in. With The Bell Jar, Plath provides insight into 1950´s America and underlines several issues regarding femininity. She demonstrates these issues with several characters that are either challenging or upholding the system, with character relationships or with medical institutions that “stand as an emblem for women´s oppression” (Cosslett 59). Thus, the focus will be on analyzing the instruments and devices Plath uses to shed light on the inequality women experienced at that time.

2. Feminist Theories

This section discusses two feminist theories of different time periods, Margaret Fuller´s theory Woman in the nineteenth century (1845) as well as Betty Friedan´s Feminine Mystique (1963) and compares how the oppression, described in both theories, differs or has changed over time. Both theories help to understand the situation of Sylvia Plath´s protagonist in that they give an overview of the situation of women in American society. Feminist theories in general help to understand the social, cultural, economic and political position of women and try to eliminate the widespread adoption of women being inferior to men (Stanford 2018). There are many different theories of feminism (mainly due to historical development), however, all theories are concerned with freedom and equality between the sexes (Stanford 2018). The following concepts are chosen as they help to understand Esther´s thoughts and feelings about her social environment. She experiences the oppression described by Friedan and Fuller herself and can therefore be regarded as a literary embodiment of the oppressed woman illustrated by them.

2.1 Comparison Marriage

According to Fuller, a married woman´s status can be compared to that of a black slave. She draws a connection between the oppression of women and slavery and claims that women at her time were treated not better than servants and illustrates the wife-slave analogy as follows:

It may well be an Anti-Slavery party that pleds for woman, if we consider merely that she does not hold property on equal terms with men; […] as if she were a child, or ward only, not an equal partner. (Fuller 121) Knowing that there exists in the minds of men a tone of feeling towards women as towards slaves, such as is expressed in the common phrase, ‘Tell that to women and children,’ that the infinite soul can only work through them in already ascertained limits; […]. (Fuller 122)

Fuller states that women and slaves were both suppressed by patriarchy. In her opinion, this is not to be justified because God is the highest power and not men. Therefore, men have no right to “lay restrictions on woman” or “hold another in bondage” because slaves as well as women were all children of God (Fuller 124-125). Fuller repeatedly criticizes the traditional concept of marriage because of the physical restrictions society puts on a married woman as well as the restriction of the mind. She argues that only if women were liberated they and their husbands could turn their house into a real home. Like all life, women needed expansion, otherwise they would “perish”:

A house is no home unless it contain food and fire for the mind as well as for the body. […] For human beings are not so constituted that they can live without expansion. If they do not get it one way, they must another, or perish.” (Fuller 123-124)

Despite all these restrictions, Fuller argues that a woman was generally very willing to be married and notes that she did so mainly “to find a protector, and a home of her own” (147). Fuller criticizes this superficial idea of marriage and reveals that emotions were very important to her. She complains about the superficiality of many bonds which were in fact meant to be formed for “eternity” (143) and presents her image of a perfect marriage as follows:

I have in my eye a youth and a maiden whom I look to as the nucleus of such a class. They are both in early youth, both as yet uncontaminated, both aspiring, without rashness, both thoughtful, both capable of deep affection, both of strong nature and sweet feelings, both capable of large mental development. They reside in different regions of earth, but their place in the soul is the same. (202)

She stresses the importance of profound affection for one another and the importance of equality of rights and responsibilities between husband and wife. Moreover, she expects man and woman to be “uncontaminated” when they begin their marriage which shows that Fuller regards chastity to be a necessary requirement. She not only demands of women the “naturally pure” sex but also of men. She lived in a time when sexual experience was regarded as “masculine”, and therefore purity was not expected from them. A woman had to fulfill much higher moral standards. If she had premarital intercourse she was stigmatized as “fallen woman”. Since there was no comparable expression for man, she refers to promiscuous man as “monsters of vice” (198).

Friedan could find the same willingness of women to marry in the middle of the twentieth-century. She argues that women in the 1960´s no longer strove for independence and equality but for “[…] security of togetherness” (Friedan 44). She finds evidence in the high number of girls, fourteen million, who were engaged by seventeen (16). According to Friedan, girls who wanted to get married at the teenage age “[were] simply refusing to grow up, to face the question of their own identity” (76). In other words, young girls tried to avoid making decisions over their own lives by marrying as they were overstrained with the seeming opportunities society offered them in the middle of the 20th century and the resulting pressure of choice (Friedan 76). Women gained more rights, nevertheless they had to suffer from enormous social pressure that made them lead the same restricted life women led a century earlier (Friedan 43). Friedan concludes that the changing role of women in society is the core of women´s identity crisis, especially because “[…] culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentials as human beings […]” (77). She further states that “(t)he feminine mystique permits, even encourages, women to ignore the question of their identity. The mystique says they can answer the question “Who am I?” by saying “Toms wife […]” (71). This loss of a personal identity leads many women to become emotional dependent on their partner as they missed their own life-fulfilling experiences: “’She has no identity except as a wife and mother. She does not know who she is herself. She waits all day for her husband to come home at night to make her feel alive’” (Friedan 29). However, women were not only emotional dependent on their husband but also financial:

The problem is her $42.10 allowance. She hates having to ask her husband for money every time she needs a pair of shoes, but he won´t trust her with a charge account. ‘Oh, how I yearned for a little money of my own. […].’” (Friedan 45)

Friedan refers to a woman who was not allowed by her husband to start a business on her own as her job was to be a wife and mother, a job which required full-time and undivided attention. The interviewed woman was obedient to her husband´s commands, “’Yes boss,’ I murdered obediently, […]’” (Friedan 46) and her “[…] solo flight to find her own identity was forgotten […]” (Friedan 44). Friedan criticizes this passive attitude of women and wanted to encourage them to build a personal identity without the pressure to conform to society´s expectations. Fuller strengthens Friedan´s argument that women should become independent from men. In order to show the strong dependence of women on their husband, Fuller refers to a “profound thinker” who has said, “’No married woman, can represent the female world, for she belongs to her husband. The idea of Woman must be represented by a virgin’” (Fuller 216). Once a woman gets married she “does belong to the man, instead of forming a whole with him” which is, according to Fuller, the “very fault of marriage” (216). She criticizes that married women were no longer seen as personal individuals and rather wants husband and wife to become “one”:

But that is the very fault of marriage, and of the present relation between the sexes, that the woman does belong to the man, instead of forming a whole with him. Were it would be otherwise, there would be no such limitation to the thought. (Fuller 216)

Fuller clearly illustrates her ideas of a fair marriage in which women and men have equal rights and are treated as independent individuals that complete each other.

2.2 Comparison Education/ Career

Since Fuller´s aims are concerned with equality between the sexes, she demands men to grant women the same educational privileges they themselves enjoyed. She criticizes the widespread belief that women were inferior to men in their mental capabilities and states that she considers women to be capable of joining masculine intellect: “But that it should be acknowledged that they have intellect which needs developing” (Fuller 163). According to Fuller, men should grant women the same education out of respect and out of acknowledgement of woman´s intellectual capabilities.

Moreover, she wants women to become independent from men and to be more self-reliant. She refers to the fictive Miranda, a woman who she considers to represent the ideal of self-reliance and states:

Of Miranda I had always thought as an example, that the restraints upon the sex were insuperable only to those who think them so, […] She had taken a course of her own, and no man stood in her way. […] Her mind was often the leading one, always effective. (Fuller 126)

In contrast to other women Miranda had been educated by her father and was “raised like a man”, therefore “the world was free to her, and she lived freely in it” (Fuller 126). Fuller praises her untypical upbringing, “[…] he addressed her not as a plaything but as a living mind” (125), and demands society to guarantee women the same educational privileges. Moreover, she encourages women to make use of them when she states:

In so far as he possessed the keys to the wonders of this universe, he allowed free use of them to her, and by the incentive of a high expectation he forbade, as far as possible, that she should let the privilege lie idle. (125)

Fuller regards education to be necessary for women to become self-reliant and argues that their lack of it resulted from society´s refusal to foster women´s intellect (125-126). In the voice of Miranda, Fuller criticizes all men who are not able to recognize women as equal members and for retarding their progress in society (126). She notes that if women behaved self-assertively, they were considered “manly” women, which restricted women´s activities and influence to the domestic realm (127). To those who were afraid that the intellectual freedom of women would result in women becoming more and more masculine, she assures them, “Were they free were the wise fully to develop the strength and beauty of woman; they would never wish to be men, or manlike” (142).

Betty Friedan lived at a time when women were allowed to enter higher education, however, in her view, women in the 1950´s still suffered from educational inequalities. Friedan considered education to be of substantial importance for women to find their self-confidence and self-reliance and therefore wanted to disprove the widespread belief that higher education was responsible for women´s dissatisfaction. Friedan compared interviews of housewives of all educational levels and concluded that not only women who enjoyed higher education suffered from their daily routine as housewives but also women who never went to college (27-28). All of them would get an “inferiority complex” by thinking of themselves as housewives who “never made anything out of [their] life” (Friedan 41). As a solution to women´s feeling of despair experts suggested to change women´s education in that they get prepared on “how to play the role of woman” (Friedan 156). Friedan criticizes this education which she called “sex-directed”1 because it would prevent women from using their “critical, creative intelligence” and from developing their minds (156). She states that women would only be prepared for their sexual function as housewives and mothers which prevents their growth in other directions (162-163). Friedan further argues that a sex-directed education is comparable to the lack of education that existed a century earlier because both systems would create women who “[…] are passive, dependent, conformist; incapable of critical thought or original contribution to society; […]” (178). Just as a lack of education served to retard women´s progress in society, a sex-directed education was also invented to confine a woman solely to the home.

Both theorists repeatedly criticized society for regarding independent women who have career ambitions as unfeminine. However, women in the fifties were not forcefully torn away from their jobs but through the modern media that encouraged them to consider motherhood and marriage as their true purpose. Friedan explains that especially women´s magazines were guilty of pressuring girls into the fabricated feminine image. Whereas magazines from 1939 presented strong women who created their own lives and identities, magazines from the fifties only presented images of the “perfect housewife” whose life revolved entirely around her family (Friedan 38). She observes that while women in her days were presented as “childlike” and “kittenish” women from 1939 were presented as more “mature” as they stood up for themselves and tried to achieve their goals: “One heroine runs away from home when her mother insists she must make her debut instead of going on an expedition as a geologist” (39). Her point is that women should no longer put the social norms and ideals before their own needs but must finally ask themselves “what do I want to do?” (Friedan 81) and then seek answers in order to discover their own self-identity. Friedan regards work to be a source of a personal identity and states that a woman would need more than her husband and her children to build a personal identity. Otherwise she would “just exist […] in and through others” (Friedan 40).

The arguments which denied women access to higher education in the 19th century were almost the same as those which denied them equal access to all professions. Men regarded women as incapable of hard labor, which Fuller points out to be a self-contradiction:

Those who think the physical circumstances of woman would make a part in the affairs of national government unsuitable, are by no means those who think it impossible for the negresses to endure field work, even during pregnancy, or the sempstresses to go through their killing labors.” (123)

This shows that she believes that women were capable of physically hard work and that men just ignored this fact as they wanted to defend the traditional gender concept (Fuller 119). She states that women always had every form of power and that she regarded them capable of all kinds of professions: “But if you ask me what offices they may fill, I reply-any. I do not care what case you post; let them be sea-captains, if you will” (215). In whatever woman was interested, she should have the right to pursue. Another argument she wanted to disprove was that mothers had no time for work except domestic work. She refers to successful female rulers of history who were capable of being a mother and wife, while at the same time they were powerful rulers (Fuller 143). The fact that there had been female rulers at all, is for Fuller evidence that women were as capable as men to rule and govern a country. However, observing the situation in American society of her time, Fuller draws the conclusion that women were generally immature: “Now there is no woman, only an overgrown child” (Fuller 216). She blames men for retarding women´s progress in society and states that they did so to hold up the patriarchal order (128-129).

2.3 Comparison Domesticity/ Motherhood

Friedan embarks on the idea of the feminine mystique as the cause of women´s unhappiness. It confines women exclusively to the domestic sphere and thereby limits them to explore their inner potential as woman (43). She argues that women were not given a fair chance to unfold their potential and refers to Theodor Parker who states: “To make one half the human race consume its energies in the function of housekeeper, wife and mother is a monstrous waste of the most precious material God ever made” (Friedan 85). He agrees with Friedan when he states that the domestic function of a woman does not exhaust her powers. Margaret Fuller supports Friedan´s criticism by claiming that a woman should have the freedom to decide for herself whether she wants to be a housewife or work in the public sphere. Allowing women to choose motherhood and family as their true purpose in life will make them happier and more effective wives and mothers, she argues (Fuller 129). Therefore, Fuller did not mean to denigrate domestic duties as such, only their restrictive usage (129). If domestic duties were enforced, they became “drudgery” (Fuller 129). Fuller refers to the position of her opponents2, who want to defend the traditional gender concept, and argues with an imagined voice that they do not consider women´s personal wishes (Fuller 119). She criticizes their arguments, that the housewife´s life was quite comfortable and pleasant and that mothers would have to neglect childcare by engaging in the public sector, because women would be able to find out themselves what is best for them. Women have a head of their own and should therefore have the freedom to make independent decisions (Fuller 119).

Friedan blames the media for women´s regression in society because it served to idealize and reinforce the ideals of motherhood and domesticity (36). Her critique is merely directed against men as they are responsible for a magazine´s content and she refers to them as “Frankensteins”. She states that they have created a “feminine monster” and their image of a perfect woman “makes them [women] deny their minds” (66). Male editors considered women incapable of serious topics and therefore excluded them from all economic, social and political areas (Friedan 50-51). In other words, women´s magazines contained almost no mention of the world beyond home.

Both theorists considered the outside world to be an important factor for women to define their personal identity. However, Friedan argues that only aspects like motherhood and being a wife were central to the identity to the majority of women of the 1950´s which she regards to be a retrogression (18). Childbearing and rearing dominated most adult women´s lives and was aside from domestic duties the only path of happiness and fulfillment offered to them (Friedan 18). According to Friedan, a woman´s daily routine was the core of her feeling of despair. Domestic duties, such as child raising, do not tax a woman´s whole capacity yet they suffer from “housewife´s fatigue” (30). Thus, she repeatedly emphasized a woman´s need of personal fulfilment when she, for example, states: “Love and children and home are good, but they are not the whole world […]” (67). Friedan refers to a play called A doll´s house and found that women in her days had to suffer the same oppression they did in 1879 when the play was written (83). She praises the protagonist of the play who finally found the strength to free herself from her oppressive situation in marriage and therewith broke away from the social norms of the 19th century. Friedan states: “But like Nora, the feminist had to win those rights before they could begin to live and love as human beings” (Friedan 83). In making this comment, Friedan urges women to find the same strength as Nora to begin their lives as “human beings” and end theirs being treated like “stuffed dolls” (67). She states that the solution to “the problem that has no name” has to come from women themselves. They have to start listening to their own voice and then follow their own interests.

The comparison between Friedan and Fuller makes clear, women in 1950´s America suffer with much of the same issues as women in previous periods. This is an important fact, especially if one considers that women in the 1950´s had much better conditions regarding education, work and legal rights compared to previous periods. Whereas Fuller merely criticizes America´s patriarchal society for suppressing women Friedan was concerned with the question why women decided to go back home, when not long ago they fought for their own place in the world. She criticizes that women in post-war America failed to take the opportunities female activists, like Fuller, fought for (Friedan 37) and claims that it were mainly the patriarchal ideologies, conveyed by the mass media, that forced them back to the domestic sphere. However, the main concern of both authors was to reach gender equality. Both authors present gender concepts that go clearly beyond the traditional notions of their time in that they question the strict gender roles society placed on women. Therefore, it could be argued that their concepts can be compared to concepts of modern feminist scholars such as Judith Butler. Butler´s idea that gender is a social construct (Butler 9) was not yet established at their time, however, it seems that both theorists attempted to redefine or even deconstruct the traditional gender concepts. Whereas traditional concepts upheld the belief that women were completely feminine and men entirely masculine Friedan as well as Fuller attempt to blur the gender division that far that they had a legitimation to demand equal treatment for men and women. Their arguments can be summed up as follows: If women had the same rights as men (Fuller 142) and were not influenced by society´s expectations (Friedan 34) they could do everything men do both physically as well as mentally. In other words, women are not naturally inferior to men but this clear distinction between male and female was rather constructed by society to maintain the balance of power (Fuller 212; Friedan 50-51). Both authors openly attack the patriarchal order and address many of the issues that are illustrated by Silvia Plath in her novel The Bell Jar.


1 „Instead of opening new horizons and wider worlds to able women, the sex-directed educator moved in to teach them adjustment within the world of home and children.“ (Friedan 157)

2 ‚Is it not enough,’ cries the irritated trader, ‚that you have done all you could to break up the national union, and thus destroy the prosperity out of our country, but now you must be trying to break famly union, to take my wife from the cradle and the kitchen hearth to vote at polls, and preach from a pulpit. Of course, if she does such things, she cannot attend to those of her own sphere. She is happy enough, as she is. She has more leisure than I have, every means of improvement, every indulgence. (119)

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Oppression of the Female in "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
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oppression, female, bell, sylvia, plath
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Anonymous, 2019, Oppression of the Female in "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/538619


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