The Significance of Maternal Relationships in
Sylvia Plath’s Novel The Bell Jar
© Julia Weinmann
“It’s quite amazing how I’ve gone around for most of my life as in the rarefied atmosphere under a bell jar.” (Plath, Sylvia: The Bell Jar. New York. HarperCollins Publishers 1996, p. 250)
Although uttered by Sylvia Plath, this statement fully applies for the protagonist Esther Greenwood in Plath’s novel The Bell Jar. It exemplifies her feeling of being imprisoned in a world and society she can neither accept nor reject and further reveals the identification of author and protagonist. Both Plath and Esther suffer from living under this sort of glass bell jar which makes it hard for them to breathe and to break free from the regulations of contemporary society. The author Sylvia Plath herself has experienced most of the events in the novel, including psychological disease, depression and suicide attempts. Moreover, most of the characters in The Bell Jar are based on people Plath knew and loved, although she often draws caricatures or uses the device of irony when describing them. Plath’s intention was “to show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown” (p.262) but we never completely come to know why this breakdown occurs, which almost leads to her destruction and drives her into madness and the asylum. What we do know, however, is that Esther doubts the traditional way of a woman’s life in the 1950s which means marrying a respectful man, having children and being an obedient housewife. She can hardly decide which way of life to choose and experiences a strong inner conflict between her wish of leading the life of a poet and that of a loving wife and mother. This conflict leads to a fracture in Esther’s inner self, to diminished self-assurance and false made-up selves. Esther’s mother, although seemingly playing a passive role in the novel, has a significant influence on her daughter’s way of thinking, on her doubt of social values and to a certain extent even on her psychological disease which derives from her inner disorder.
In the following, I will try to analyze the importance and influence of Esther’s relationship to her mother Mrs. Greenwood in the course of the story. In doing so, I will also examine the meaning of maternal bonds in reference to a couple of further female relationships in the novel. Moreover, I will dwell on Esther’s doubt and partial rejection of social and traditional values of her time, most of which are embodied by her mother.
For all her life, Esther has got the urge to be her own self, regardless of what others expect her to be. In public, however, she wears a mask, builds up a facade and takes on the roles others expect her to play although her inner self strongly rejects these roles. Esther never feels integrated, she criticizes the superficial world of cover girls and fashionable magazines. Nevertheless, she also belongs to this world and works for a fashion magazine in New York. Whereas she rejects the traditional life of a mother and wife, which seems boring to her, she at the same time thinks about what it is like being married and having children. She is looking for the woman inside of her and wants to find out what it means to be a woman in contemporary society, while at the same time she is torn by this burden. However the person who is closest to her, which is her mother, cannot fulfill her duty as a role model but rather seems to be a terrifying presence for her daughter. In the first paragraph about her mother, Esther describes her helpless attitude:
“My own mother wasn’t much help. My mother had taught shorthand and typing to support us ever since my father died, and secretly she hated it and hated him for dying and leaving no money because he didn’t trust life insurance salesmen. She was always on to me to learn shorthand after college, so I’d have a practical skill as well as a college degree.”(p. 39)
Esther’s mother has gone through bitter and difficult times as her husband had died early and left her with the children and no money, so she tries to make a living by teaching shorthand and typing. Although Mrs. Greenwood encourages Esther to pursue her writing career, she does not really believe in it and wants her to earn money in a more secure and permanent job. As a result, she urges her daughter to learn shorthand so she could find work as a secretary after college. For Esther, however, shorthand symbolizes a domestic life, and she therefore refuses to learn it. Her own mother’s warnings why Esther cannot succeed in life throw shadows on her future and make it hard to decide what to do in life and even harder to believe in her qualities.
“This meant I couldn’t get a job after college. My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English Major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.” (p.76)
In the end, Esther even starts learning shorthand but gives up soon as “there wasn’t one job I felt like doing where you used shorthand” (p.122). She definitely does not want to become a secretary as she “hated the idea of serving men in any way” (9. 76). This shows her modern attitude towards life and her resistance to a society in which women have to serve, respect and obey men who are the dominant power. In general, Mrs. Greenwood embodies the ideas society had about women in the 1950s. Men were the dominant gender so whereas they earned the money, their wives had to pursue their domestic duties and please their husbands. The fear of becoming one’s mother is a central issue of adolescence and one of the major concerns of American middle class girls in the 1950s. Moreover, the Greenwood family serves as a typical example of the ‘nuclear family’ that moves to the suburbs, leaves their social background behind, and is characterized by a missing father and a disturbed relationship between mother and daughter. Sylvia Plath takes up this motive in The Bell Jar by describing helplessness and pain both on the motherly and the daughterly side. Although Esther and her mother long for each other’s love, they lose it at the same time and even start blaming each other in the end. Yet this aspect will be treated in detail later on.
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- Julia Deitermann (Author), 2004, The Significance of Maternal Relationships in Sylvia Plath's Novel "The Bell Jar", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/61103