The Bell Jar, published in 1963, presented issues of power and control. The story is about Esther Greenwood and the problems presented to women. She faces the issue of control, sexual double standards and maintaining her identity which are portrayed in an overarching analogy of a fig tree.
Esther has always been a high achiever at school. This results in her to getting an internship at Women’s Daily magazine. It is here when she begins to become depressed. So, she returns home and finds out that she didn’t get into the summer writing program she was looking forward to. Because she has no control on any rejection she faces, Esther tries to control her death. She becomes increasingly fascinated by the idea of controlling how and when she dies. Esther steadily loses her self-confidence as she does not find any interest in reading and writing over the summer. Therefore, she is trying to find something that she can control to feel better about her-self. She makes lavish plans of slitting her wrists and bleeding out in the tub, and eventually swallows a bottle of sleeping pills in hopes that it will help her regain control over her life.
Sexual Double Standards:
Esther’s first boyfriend is Billy. She has been taught her entire life that women must remain virgins until they are married. She expects the same standard to be set for men. However, she finds out that Billy has been sleeping with a waitress. She is shocked to learn from Billy, “it is hard to find any intelligent man to remain a virgin after the age of 21”. Esther expresses that she wishes to pursue her career even after they get married. Billy laughs at her and tells her duty is to be a mother and care for her family. She wonders why limitations are placed on the sex lives of women and why all women are expected to becoming mothers. Furthermore, to let Esther know what her expectations for the future should be, Billy brings Esther to the hospital on a date where she watches a lady give birth. Esther is shocked by the idea that women would willingly want to undergo the pain of having a child. She compares the birthing room at the hospital a torture chamber. Esther concludes that having children gives men power to control over women. Women are expected to give up their careers to raise their children, thus giving up their financial independence and relying on a husband for everything. This allows men to control and manipulate women.
One the biggest issues Esther faces is trying to maintain her own identity. The men around her expect women to give up their identity to become known as the wife or mother of someone. Esther wants to maintain her own identity through her writing. Billy, however, expects that she will give up her hobbies and profession in to keep order in the family once they get married. Esther is baffled as to why only women are expected to have nurturing personalities and it is their job to upkeep a family. Esther, an overachiever, has always expected she could be everything all at once. Now she realizes that she can’t. She must pick only one identity either as a writer and remain unmarried and lonely or as a wife and mother while sacrificing her career. The two women Esther primarily draws inspiration from are her mother and her boss Jay Cee. Both women have only been able to choose one type of life for themselves. Esther’s mother became a house wife and Jay Cee gave up marrying on order to maintain her job. The idea of sacrificing part of her identity has never occurred to Esther and when the realization hits she falls apart completely. She is unaware of how to cope with this newfound information and begins to search for a way to control her sexuality and pursue her dream of being a writer.
A Fig Tree:
The analogy that Sylvia Plath uses of the fig tree is the best summary of the decisions that women and Esther must make in their life. Esther sits underneath the fig tree starving because she cannot pick which one she wants to eat because she isn’t sure which one is the best for her but she can only have. The figs on the trees are analogous to the choices that women are faced with: a good husband, nice family, career. However, it is impossible to have everything. Esther is afraid to decide; she is worried that she will regret it any decision she makes because another one may have been better. Although she is aware that any “fig” will give her a pleasant life she doesn’t want to take a random guess and miss out of the ripest, juiciest, tastiest “fig.”
Leave a comment below on your thoughts about the problems Esther had to deal with.