Seeing Through the Bell Jar: Distorted Female Identity in Cold War America

Abstract: Through the character of Esther in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, this essay investigates the struggle of middle-class white women coming of age in 1950s America to achieve personalized identities. It argues that the Cold War era led to the creation of an ideology of cultural containment, enforcing prescriptive roles on women within an American suburban, conservative, and conformist setting. Investigated here are methods by which this model of domesticity was promoted. Also, examined here is the fracturing of identity those methods caused in women, who were unable to fully assimilate themselves into this role. Butler’s theory of performativity is employed to assess strategies of female identity formation. Furthermore, it indicates how functionalist approaches arising from popular Freudianism defined gender roles as principally biologically determined and saw differing models of sexuality and female dissatisfaction as illnesses treatable by psychology. In this context, Esther’s search for a self with whom she can identify becomes the novel’s principal quest and is, by drawing on the concept of hyper-realism, explored through the processes of observation, reflection, and image reproduction.

Kat, the feisty, shrewish heroine of the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You, is shown reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar when in the depths of teen angst. Kat is the stereotypical Plath reader, representing the generations of bright, troubled young women who have recognized their own pain in Esther Greenwood’s minutely-evoked disintegration. The much-discussed events of Plath’s mental illness and suicide, made known to the world at large by the posthumous publication of her letters and journals, have mythologized her internal life.1 The Bell Jar tends to be read under the cloud of this mythology, either as the epitome of a book sentimentally exploring subjective aspects of existence or biographically, as a set of clues to the causes of her death. Certainly, the text speaks to something universal—the struggle to grow up and build an identity—but an approach that grafts Esther Greenwood’s personality and pain onto a fin de siecle heroine such as Kat is dubious.

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