Amid reports of Kirsten Dunst’s next project, directing The Bell Jar, the story has regained relevance. Most of The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath examines with the question of socially acceptable identity and the pressures on a mid-century American woman, echoing current gender role tensions. The main character, Esther Greenwood, begins The Bell Jar by explaining, “I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” contrasting her own feelings with societal expectations. These pressures are revealed early in Esther’s story, climaxing in her breakdown.
Esther was supposed to be notable. She won an internship with a New York magazine at the beginning of the story. Although she was included in a feature, the end of the experience was anti-climactic. Upon completion, Esther mourns that her experience in New York didn’t turn into something more.
Esther was supposed to be stylish. She was surrounded by beautiful women with a passion for fashion. Esther appeared to be a careful consumer but, the pressure of keeping up her appearance fatigues her after a while.
This can be seen at the very beginning, “I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me all over America who wanted nothing more than to be tripping about in those same size seven patent leather shoes I’d bought in Bloomingdale’s one lunch hour with a black patent leather belt and black patent leather pocketbook to match.”
Esther was supposed to be happy. Upper middle-class and presented with great opportunities, Esther experiences guilt for feeling empty. Her mania builds from a desire to correct discontentment. Her peers and parents condemn her as both unbalanced and ungrateful.
The end of the story is unsettling, as her fate is still being determined. She is “analyzed” and may possibly be sent out in the world, supposedly cured. However, if one applies Plath’s real-life conclusion as an epilogue of Esther’s story, the ending takes on a tone of hopelessness. The institution boxed her into a role, “recovered”.
Do you ever get stuck focusing on what you’re “supposed” to be?
Upon reading this often-referenced, near-memoir, I endeavored to seek out universal meaning of The Bell Jar beyond the teen angst punchline. This is not a story about a weak woman, a torn person, or a thinly-veiled autobiography of an addled author. It’s a screech in the darkness, a song with no words. Plath picks at the question, “Why does society get to decide who young women are supposed to become?”
Appearance Is Reality
Chronicling a period in Esther’s life, starting with an internship at a women’s magazine, moving through an agitated summer where she unsuccessfully attempts to draft a novel, and ending with a phase of outdated psychiatric treatments, the book takes on serious subject matter with the flippancy of modern journalism.
The descriptive colors, tastes and scents of the story, leave me with the same impression as watching Gidget or something with Frankie Avalon singing exposition. The only difference is that this story is frustrated by the Technicolor emptiness behind the drama. Basically, it makes the reader sit there and think, “Even killing yourself really doesn’t stir things up.” She’s tired of being watched, judged. She’s not tired of failing expectations so much as tired of people putting expectations on her. All of these components create the metaphorical titular terrarium, under which she feels trapped, “in sour air” of paranoia.
Women Must Procreate When They’re Young
After years of being scolded by hypocritical pastors, listening to health advice from unhealthy doctors, and tolerating unsolicited opinions from dysfunctional adults, I have developed an interest in stories that focus on shared delusions.
In modern American culture, there are still people that consider me selfish and wrong to delay procreating. It’s the big picture that bothers me… the fact that people think they may assert control over another person’s decisions. Esther sums this up in her meeting with her first, entirely inept doctor, ““What did I think was wrong? That made it sound as if nothing was really wrong, I only thought it was wrong.”
Dysfunction is Limited to One
One of the themes in Girl, Interrupted by Susana Kaysen, questions whether institutionalized individuals are the only dysfunctional component of a family. In that memoir, it becomes clear that Kaysen’s mother, may have even more of a personality disorder. However, Kaysen’s mother has the social power, allowing her to force the main character into therapy. Kayson proposes that dysfunction groups of people, but the “weakest”, compliant individual who enters treatment.
Similarly, I have often found, when confronted with a group of dysfunctional people, one who does not accept the lie will be seen as a threat. This is revealed in phrases like, “You haven’t been around long enough…” or, “All of us agreed…” with the false reality supported by stories about situations. Often, these tales started with some truth, or at least the perception of it. But, the extrapolations extend beyond the actual applications. People divulge and withhold information based on their own agendas. Those who refuse to admit it, are terrifying to the dysfunctional group.
The cycle repeats as people with their own massive problems will attempt to control others in an effort to keep their made-up world from crumbling. This ranges from small-scale social bullying to nefarious political agendas. Sometimes, the sheer presence of someone who raises an eyebrow at a mutual, agreed upon lie– made up in an effort to manipulate outcomes– puts the untruthful party on the attack.
And then more lies follow–lies about the eye-brow-raiser– who “obviously doesn’t understand, never could, and should be put in place” before they disrupt the false order of a micro-universe. And although one can assure them, “I have no interest in your drama,” they will seek to discredit and destroy, lest we see the mold on the gingerbread house.
This is why women revolted in the last century. That’s why we will never dismiss Plath or her work.
Are you excited about the upcoming film?