Double Standards in The Bell Jar

February 20, 2021 by Essay Writer

Gender double standards, which are among the effects of gender stereotypes, are reflected in Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographic novel The Bell Jar, which was published in 1963. This work tells the story of a young woman named Esther Greenwood, who is extremely intelligent but starts to consider committing suicide in New York during her internship with a magazine company. One of the main reasons for her suicide attempt is that she cannot handle the burden of the double standard of gender brought on by the society. She is expected to play a traditional woman role by society and by the people around her, but she fails to fit into such a constraining image. This limited gender role is upheld by social activities such as education, marriage, sexual liberty prescriptions, and career choices in the novel.

First, gender double standards exist in education and career in The Bell Jar. The society depicted by Plath provides women with education, but Esther pointedly describes the education of the young women who are staying at the Amazon Hotel: “They were all going to posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other” (56). Esther’s descriptions imply that the women’s education is useless because educated women and uneducated women both were waiting to get married instead of working.

In the novel, some women are obliged to work on their own because the men they rely on fall to disability or death. Esther’s mother can be cited as an example: “My mother was teaching shorthand and typing to a lot of city college girls and wouldn’t be home till the middle of the afternoon” (115). The double standards of the society produce these limitations in women’s career. Though Esther gets a college scholarship to major in English (a seemingly male pursuit), her mother keeps asking her to study shorthand, because shorthand was a stable and safe job. Such work was prescribed for women and accepted by the society at that time. Plath describes Esther’s mother’s attitude towards Esther’s more cerebral major: “I didn’t know shorthand either. This meant I couldn’t get a good job after college. My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major” (76). This is not only Esther’s mother’s view but also the view of Esther’s world at large. Plath uses specific, well-engineered vocabulary to show how Esther undergoes such uncertainty about her career: “The only thing was, when I tried to picture myself in some job, briskly jotting down line after line of shorthand, my mind went blank. There wasn’t one job I felt like doing where you used shorthand” (122). Even worse, women were compelled to give up their careers due to the pressures from the society that surrounded them. Dodo is one of the example in the novel, a woman who gives up her career or maybe who has never had a career. After all, “Dodo raised her six children—and would no doubt raise her seventh—on Rice Krispies, peanut-butter-and-marshmallow sandwiches, vanilla ice cream and gallon upon gallon of Hoods milk” (116).

In the real world, Plath had a painful marriage. In the novel, Esther is subject to the virgin/whore dichotomy, a troubling standard that society uses to value women. Esther has few expectations regarding marriage: “I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor and had been a private school teacher herself” (79). In the perspective of Esther, a woman’s role in marriage resembles the role of a nanny. Society sees women who do not choose to marry as outliers. In Esther’s own personal life, Buddy laughs at Esther when she refuses his proposal; Esther loves Buddy until she knows Buddy is not virgin. After all, Esther desires equal relationships and compatible standards between men and women: “It might be nice to be pure and then to marry a pure man, but what if he suddenly confessed he wasn’t pure after we were married, the way Buddy Willard had?” (81). Esther’s society expects women to be pure before marriage, but encourages men to have more sex before marriage. This double standard of sexual behavior for men and women annoys Esther. Thus, she sleeps with other men to catch up with Buddy even though once women have sex they, supposedly, become whores. There is no middle space for virgin and whore: “Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republicans and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another” (87).

In general, Plath relates the frustrating lives of Esther and herself from the aspects of education, career, and marriage, since The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiography. Much of the psychology of the story was derived from life, but Plath changed the names and places. Esther is not the only woman placed in the bell jar, but she is an epitome of the women who suffered from the double standards of Plath’s era.

Work Cited Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

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