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The Bell Jar Shows How Shock Therapy Makes Women Strong Essay

Pages:7 (2016 words)



Topic:The Bell Jar

Document Type:Essay


How Esther is a Model of a Self-Sufficient Woman in The Bell Jar


Sylvia Plath’s first person narrator in The Bell Jar comes across as a Holden Caulfield type—a disaffected, somewhat lost, but highly intelligent individual capable of critical thought and therefore exceedingly lonely in a world of conformists, who seem to show no desire to question anything or to know themselves. The narrator of Plath’s novel is Esther Greenwood—a young woman living in New York, a city she loathes. As a result of an acute sense of not being able to fit in anywhere, Esther suffers from depression and tries to kill herself. She ends up receiving a number of shock therapies—such as insulin shock therapy and electroshock therapy—before finally beginning to feel free to be her own person without fear. From a Feminist Criticism perspective, it can be argued that Esther is the model of a strong, independent, self-sufficient woman, and this paper will show why.

Feminist Criticism

Feminist Criticism focuses on “the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women” (Tyson, 2006, p. 83). It stems from critical theory, which posits that “to be critical, an inquiry must challenge directly underlying human interests and ideologies” (Short, 1991, p. 245). Feminist theory examines the constructed relationship between gender and power in society. Feminist Criticism examines this relationship in terms of literature art. As the original Critical Theorists, particularly those of the Frankfurt School, such as Adorno and Horkheimer (2007), were interested in deconstructing modern culture to explain why things are the way they are, Feminist Criticism is another dimension of this approach and focuses on deconstructing systems of power as they are represented in works of art.

In Plath’s The Bell Jar, Esther is the main protagonist and narrator of the story. She narrates her unhappiness alongside worries and fears that she knows she is supposed to be happy because everyone else is and that is what is expected of her: “I was supposed to be having the time of my life. I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girlst just like me all over America…”(Plath, 1996, p. 2). In her hyper-awareness of the gulf between where she is emotionally and where she thinks she is supposed to be (based on cultural norms and expectations), Esther is very similar to Salinger’s Caulfield, who expresses the same sort of misgivings as he wanders the same city in the midst of an existential crisis: in fact, as Bell (2016) points out there is a veritable geneaology of type that stretches from Twain’s Tom and Huck on down to Holden and Esther. But Holden and Esther particularly seem like mirror images of one another: both characters seek to achieve something special and both wind up in a mental health facility. But though Holden Caulfield has been commonly viewed as a hero of sorts for the anti-establishment, Plath’s Esther may be viewed as a weak creature who never quite finds her own footing. Is this because she is a woman and thus any weakness in her character is associated with the concept of being of the “weaker sex”? Alberga-Parisi and Pope (2018) call it the problem of the “perfection crucible” and suggest that it is more acceptable for the male Holden to come across as a bit antic and crazy than it is for the female Esther. From a Feminist Criticism perspective, the problem of the perfection crucible is one that reveals gender inequality in society, and, since the two charactes are really rather similar in terms of plight, one should not be judged as more heroic than the other. If Holden is strong because he opposes and questions the status quo, then it should also be the case that Esther is strong, since the only difference between the two is one of gender.

The Gender Stereotype

The “weaker sex” issue is one that…

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…psychologically, and socially (Codina & Pestana, 2019), the Feminist Perspective posits that these differences are superficial and irrelevant in the light of Feminism, which focuses on gender equality.

However, because Feminism cannot make the biological distinctions go away, there is a need to overcome them, and that becomes part of the hero’s journey in the Feminist narrative. Esther obtaining a diaphragm is akin to Holden Caulfield catching the children in the rye and preventing them from going over the cliff. The latter saves the innocent from the corrupt world of adulthood. The former overcomes her biological nature by putting a medical lock on her womb and ensuring that no man will impregnate her unless she chooses to open her womb with the key. Biology is neutered in this respect, and the female Esther can now have sex without fear just like a man (though Plath does not go into any exploration of the fact that men are just as capable of feeling fear with regards to sex because—just as easily as a woman can become a mother—a man can become a father, which has its own set of responsibilities and places new parameters on one’s life). But the Feminist Perspective is typically not focused on the male perspective. Here the focus is Esther and how she becomes strong, independent and self-sufficient and from the Feminist Perspective the solution is clear: shock therapy and a diaphragm.


Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar can be considered a strong, independent, self-sufficient woman in the light of Feminist Criticism because she overcomes the limitations and constraints of biology as well as the sexual double standard that she perceives in society. She completes her own hero’s journey and by the end of the novel is confident in herself and in her own identity as her own woman. She no longer feels distressed or overwhelmed by expectations from others and has had her self-doubt and self-recrimination shocked out of her. For Feminists, the autobiographical heroine…

Sample Source(s) Used


Alberga-Parisi, A., & Pope, B. (2018). Loss and the Perfection Crucible in The Bell Jar and The Catcher in the Rye. When Loss Gets Personal: Discussing Death through Literature in the Secondary ELA Classroom, 141.

Bell, E. (2016). Adolescence and Liminality in Carson McCullers’ Short Fiction. In Childhood through the Looking Glass (pp. 89-98). Brill.

Codina, N., & Pestana, J. V. (2019). Time Matters Differently in Leisure Experience for Men and Women: Leisure Dedication and Time Perspective. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(14), 2513.

Effthimiou, O., & Franco, Z. (2017). Heroic intelligence: The hero's journey as an evolutionary and existential blueprint. Journal of Genius and Eminence, 2(2).

Plath, S. (1996). The bell jar. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Short, E. C., ed. (1991). Forms of curriculum inquiry. New York, NY: SUNY Press.

Tyson, L. (2006). Critical theory today: A user-friendly guide. New York, NY: Routledge.

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