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