Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Woman Reborn: A Look at Cleansing and Purging in Sylvia Plath's the Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, chronicle’s Esther Greenwood’s struggle against an oppressive American society to which she cannot adapt. This struggle results in Esther’s depression, leading to the heavily distorted perceptions that Plath equates to the concave glass of a bell jar. As Esther’s mental state spirals out of control, she attempts suicide in order to escape her family issues, her career anxieties, and the conformism of society. The Bell Jar presents motifs of cleansing, purging, and rebirth to demonstrate Esther’s climb from beneath the bell jar’s debilitating effects after her suicide attempt. The recurring subject of Esther’s rebirth is presented as Esther purifies herself of the material world, her own thoughts, and society’s sexual values.


During her summer internship in New York, Esther realizes that she neither fits in with the traditional girls at the magazine, nor is she able to rebel like Doreen. She also becomes frustrated with her inability to decide on a career path and the limited professions available to women. When Esther’s frustrations build up, she tries to find a ritual to help her cope with her negative feelings and settles on a bath that will wash away the things that upset her. Esther states that she “[feels] about a hot bath the way those religious people feel about holy water” (20). As she soaks, Esther lets her troubles dissolve so that when she “[steps] out at last and [wraps herself] in the — hotel bath towel [she feels] pure and sweet as a new baby” (20). Esther is not religious, so she must find another purifying ritual, another thing that separates her from the norm. The bath that Esther takes rinses her of worldly problems, but it only eases her mind for a short time before she is sullied with them again. Furthermore, the bathing ritual that Esther creates to settle her material worries is an escape mechanism that will not fix her problems, which is why her mental state worsens in the novel.


Esther also attempts to deal with her worries through food. She eats continuously in an attempt to fill the emptiness left by feeling excluded and hopeless. At the Ladies Day banquet, Esther unsuspectingly stuffs herself with ptomaine infested crab meat, resulting in severe food poisoning and copious vomiting. Even though the ordeal could have killed Esther, she feels “purged and holy and ready for a new life” afterwards (48). Again, Esther equates her own rituals to a religious one, and again her ritual fails to solve the underlying causes of her discontent. Esther’s attempts to cope with her problems through excess are inadequate, which, aside from showing why Esther does not get better despite being “ready for a new life,” comment on the emptiness and stupidity of American consumerism.


The therapy that Esther undergoes after her suicide attempt also acts as a cleansing force and rebirth. For example, after experiencing electroshock therapy correctly, Esther feels as though “All the heat and fear had purged itself” and as though “the bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above [her] head” (215). The electroshock therapy cleanses Esther’s mind by not allowing her to focus on her complex, negative thoughts. While the methods used by Dr. Nolan are beneficial in that they keep Esther from obsessing over her failure to fit into society and keep her from contemplating suicide, they also harm her by not allowing her to deal with her actual problems. For this reason, the sort of rebirth Esther undergoes at the end of The Bell Jar, it could be argued, will not be long-lasting.


Throughout The Bell Jar, Esther is frustrated by the double-standard that exists between men and women. When she finds out that Buddy Willard is not a virgin, and that he fully expects her to remain pure for him, she connects his mindset with the overall mindset of society. For example, Esther recounts how a lawyer once told her that ” the best men wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex,” and then expresses how she cannot “stand the idea of a woman having to have a single, pure life and a man being able to have a double-life, one pure and one not” (81). This frustration and Buddy Willard’s betrayal lead Esther to rebel by sleeping with a man. In most of the novel, Esther moves closer to her rebirth through cleansing and purging; however, when it comes to sex, Esther moves closer to her rebirth by breaking away from society’s values and becoming “unclean.” Her first step is to purchase contraception with the help of Dr. Nolan’s references. Without the worry of becoming pregnant, Esther feels like a free woman more equal to her male counterparts. The concept of purging returns when Esther actually loses her virginity. After having sex with Ivan, a professor that Esther meets by chance, she begins to hemorrhage, cut by the same contraception that brought her freedom. Like the time when Esther consumed poisoned meat, she still feels reborn after the traumatizing experience.


Throughout The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath presents motifs of cleansing and purging of the material world, her own thoughts, and society’s sexual values to signify Esther Greenwood’s rebirth. Many times, the cleansing and purging are a result of rituals that Esther has specifically devised to cope with her family, vocational, and worldly troubles. Unfortunately, at the end of the novel, the reader does not know whether Esther’s final rebirth allows her to function in an oppressive American society, or whether it only continues the cycle of the bell jar’s descent and eventual lifting.


Labels: A Woman Reborn: A Look at Cleansing and Purging in Sylvia Plath's the Bell Jar

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