Sylvia Plath is the woman that I’m embarrassed to write about in my degree in case I’m judged as a clichéd mentally ill English student. It’s remarkable how much this embarrassment misses the point of The Bell Jar. It is an incredible book that shows how the protagonist’s experience of sexism contributes to her breakdown. Mental health problems can be products of both biology and society, and this is undoubtedly the case for Esther Greenwood.
There are several kinds of normalized sexism she experiences in the chapters before her mental collapse that draw uncomfortable parallels with my own life experiences. The most obvious sexism Esther faces is violence. One of the most chilling lines in the novel comes from Esther’s friend Doreen, who tells Esther to ‘”Stick around… I wouldn’t have a chance if he tried anything funny. Did you see that muscle?”’ Doreen giggles because the unequal power dynamic between men and women, which can take the form of physical threat, is normalized. Esther herself experiences this abuse at the hands of Marco, a ‘woman hater’, who rants at her, calling her a ‘slut’ and gripping her arm so tightly he leaves bruises.
Departing from explicit male violence, Plath depicts marriage in The Bell Jar in an impressively grim way. It reminds me of my senior school’s yearbook, where the most popular answer to ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years time?’ was ‘married and with children.’ Obviously I don’t think getting married and having children in itself is oppressive. When this lifestyle becomes mutually exclusive with a career, or being a creative person (as is the case for Esther – her boyfriend of sorts, Buddy Willard, informs her that “after [she] had children… [she] wouldn’t want to write poems anymore”) that it becomes sexist.
The Bell Jar artfully explores double standards held up for women and men’s behaviour. These standards are moral, and more specifically sexual. In The Bell Jar, Eric (‘a southerner from Yale’) tells Esther how ‘disgusting’ it is that girls from her college can be seen ‘necking madly’. His rant does not once mention the boys that were presumably involved. He goes on to tell Esther about ‘losing his virginity’ in a whorehouse. He condemns girls as deplorable for kissing boys, yet his own sexual history warrants no guilt whatsoever.
During my teenage years this has happened repeatedly. A girl who slept with someone twelve hours after ending a six month long relationship would be deemed unstable, rebounding, irresponsible. When my male friend did exactly that he was met not with concern, but with admiration. Even in 2015, girls are sexually shamed for doing exactly what boys are praised for. The effect of this double standard is mentally exhausting – you get angry that boys are let off the hook for everything sexual (because boys will be boys)…you get furious with your childhood friend for having sex with her boyfriend underage (because it is dirty and wrong)…and you get terrified that people will find out that you have had sex (and enjoyed it). How are girls meant to develop a healthy attitude to sex when the messages they receive and internalize are so contradictory? Esther has clearly been damaged by these confused attitudes; she thinks sex is so important that she divides people in the world into those who have had sex and those who haven’t.
Esther’s depression is linked to sexism because facing injustice is exhausting. Gas lighting, when someone is persuaded that their suffering is somehow not real, is even more exhausting. And this is what happens to Esther for those first 10 chapters of The Bell Jar; she faces instance after instance of sexual discrimination and oppression, without any coherent understanding of what she is experiencing.
I believe the solution to this problem is piecing together your experiences of gendered issues until you reach some coherent understanding of what you are experiencing. This is why reading books like The Bell Jar, books with female protagonists, and books by female authors is important. This is why reading about feminism, and engaging in internet feminism, is so important. Don’t listen to anyone that says it isn’t achieving anything of substance. If you are a woman in need of self-esteem and peace of mind, seek out feminism. It wouldn’t have solved all of Esther’s problems, but it certainly would have helped.