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While women's lot had improved in the job market during World War II, afterward "Rosie the Riveter" lost her challenging job to the returning soldiers; in 1946 alone, four million women were fired from their jobs. One year later, as Susan Douglas reminds us in Where the Girls Are, "Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg published the bestseller Modern Woman: The Lost Sex in which they argued that feminists were 'neurotically disturbed women afflicted with . . . penis-envy'." The authors went on to assert "that the only healthy woman was one who followed her biological destiny and procreated on a regular basis, learned to crochet, avoided higher education at all costs because it would make her frigid, and, in general, embraced a feminine way of life."

In fact, the period following the war, the late 1940s and 1950s, rivaled the Victorian era for women's suppression, oppression, and repression. Women were bombarded with newsreels and advertisements urging them into the home. One ad, from Penn Mutual Life Insurance, for example, showed a bride under the headline "Lady, Do You Have a Job!" then stated "I promise to love, honor, obey, cook meals, make beds, sort laundry, take care of babies, etc."

June Cleaver replaced sassy Lucy, and Alice Kramden dissolved into Donna Reed.

Military manufacturers slowed their production of tanks and bullets and turned their technological prowess to home appliances from vacuum cleaners to washing machines, all designed to keep women in the private sphere and to keep them happy cleaning it while they were there.

Even Hollywood flickered glamorous and seductive images on the silver screen of Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day chasing after domestic bliss by chasing after the closest millionaire or hunk; at the same time, Hollywood warned that ambitious, working women like Mildred Pierce destroyed their children.

Nowhere did the 1950s frustrated female psyche explode with more force than in the work of Sylvia Plath. Her often gruesome imagery reflects the violent damage the 1950s ethos did to women's minds and bodies.

In her 1963 novel The Bell Jar, for instance, when Esther finally loses her virginity to Irwin, the mathematics professor, she bleeds so profusely that she must stuff a towel between her legs. (Similarly, Isadora, just before she returns to Bennett in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, starts her period and bleeds so profusely that she too must stuff a towel between her legs.)

Esther is punished and subjected to physical discomfort for disobeying societal norms and having sex outside of wedlock. Like the ancient physicians who applied leaches to patients in hopes of purging them of disease through bloodletting, the restrictive moral right both punishes and enacts a bloodletting ceremony on her body. Esther's rebellious behavior is a kind of disease, a disease that frightens and confuses her and leaves her blood soaked.

On another level, her body can be read as a battleground; two warring armies, external pressure and natural instinct, meet on this flesh battleground and the ensuing battle leaves the predictable bloodied field.

Esther's bleeding is so excessive, in fact, that it overflows the towel and forms rivulets down her legs and puddles in her shoes. This gore, of course, panics Joan who begins calling doctors. None of the (male) physicians will aid the ailing Esther--they are at country clubs, at the seaside, with their mistresses, in church, or on yachts--and she must get herself to the emergency room in a taxi.

The very man who did this to her, Irwin, simply drops her off with Joan and leaves while Doctor Gordon fails to help her avoid the impending psychological breakdown. His only solution is to deliver terrifying and ineffective shock treatments. Like Charlotte Perkins Gilman's indictment of Doctor S. Weir Mitchell in "The Yellow Wall-paper," the angry Plath indicts the patriarchal and medical power structures here. Her psychiatrist, her lover, and her doctor all fail her.

These warring factions--external and natural--are so difficult for Esther, in fact, that she schizophrenically creates a double in Elly Higginbottom. Her two friends in New York also represent a doubling or a splitting. Betsy, like Esther, represents the pure Madonna while Doreen, like Elly, represents the more urbane sophisticate.

After Doreen gets drunk with Lenny the D.J. and is dumped at the door, Esther recoils from this side of her own split personality and aligns herself with the conventional ideology, ideology we see personified through Betsy who will become the quintessential matron model for women's magazines. This "divided image of women," argues Lynda Budtzen, will eventually drive Esther to madness. According to Caroline King Barnard Hall in Sylvia Plath, Revised:


Esther is an unwilling captive of her background and conditioning; external familial and social pressures war with her natural instincts, and her level of self-confidence is far too low for those instincts to assert themselves sufficiently. Her naïve expectations of sex and marriage, for example, have been thoroughly conditioned by her mother and by others: to be an acceptable wife she must remain a virgin, and after marriage she must assume a submissive domestic role. Instinctively she rebels against these notions, partly because she naturally senses their limitations, and partly because she discovers that men are not bound by similar premarital rules. The confusion thereby produced is extreme.

These pressures confuse Esther especially when she discovers Buddy Willard has slept--over thirty times--with a waitress from Cape Cod. Here is the double standard, glaringly unfair. Her mother and her grandmother always told her what a "fine, clean boy" Buddy Willard was, and "how he was the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for," and here she finds out that he leads a dirty double life.

However, the premarital rules are not Esther's only worry. If she keeps herself fine and clean, she will be eligible for an "excellent" husband like Buddy, but Esther despises Buddy, and she does not care to marry him or anyone. Thus she resists normative behavior on two levels: she does not want to obey the premarital rules, and she does not want to marry . . . ever. As if those two rebellions are not enough, Esther does not want to learn shorthand either--the prerequisite for getting a good job after college:


My mother kept telling me no one wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.

This triple resistance--against premarital rules, against marriage, against nurturing or subservient work--does not empower Esther; rather, she is filled with self-doubt, confusion, and depression. She believes there must be something wrong with her because she does not fit into the world around her. When her mother picks her up from the train station and tells her she was not accepted into the writing course she wanted to take over the summer, Esther falls even lower:


The gray, padded car roof closed over my head like the roof of a prison van, and the white, shining, identical clapboard houses with their interstices of well-groomed green proceeded past, one bar after another in a large but escape-proof cage.

For readers of women's writing, I hardly need to mention how remarkably similar this passage is to Erica Jong's description of the hotel in Fear of Flying and Kate Chopin's description of the Lebrun home in The Awakening. For Esther, the car feels like a prison van, and the suburban neighborhood feels like a cage. Obviously, Esther feels trapped by the narrow, domestic existence prescribed for her as a woman. This narrowness drives her to madness; she even imagines the car is a padded wagon--the kind that takes patients to insane asylums--or a padded room--the kind patients stay in once they get there.

Of course, this scene is also clever foreshadowing as we now know. The dazed, lost, and supremely unhappy Esther becomes obsessed with suicide. She saves newspaper articles on the subject and dabbles in drowning, hanging, and razor blades. She finally does attempt suicide with sleeping pills. Esther does not succeed and, instead, find herself in an asylum.

By the end of the novel, after being treated by Doctor Nolan, she is entering a room for her exit interview, but we are not hopeful about her future success. She refers to herself as a tire"patched, retreaded and approved for the road," but, as we all know, retreaded tires do not last very long; every day we see their scattered remains along the sides of our highways.

Likewise, if she is released, she will be released into "the heart of winter." Esther says, "I pictured . . . the reaches of swampland rattling with dried cattails, the ponds where frog and hornpout dreamed in a sheath of ice, and the shivering woods." Drudging through swampland or trapped in ice or shivering in the woods, she will have to face an even more hostile world, more hostile now because everyone will know she has been in an asylum. For her, the world is still, even more intensely, "a bad dream."

True, Esther is being released, and, true, she has been "patched" and "retreaded," but this ending is darkly ambivalent at best. But why should the ending be any different considering the world in which Plath herself lived?

Perhaps herein lies the reason that many of us still obsess over Sylvia Plath: her art provides us with a compelling historical record of the effects of the 1950s ideology on the female spirit.

And perhaps herein lies the reason, also, for a tired female artist to run away to England.

September 2001

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