8. mars og kvinnedag. En dag jeg anser for fortsatt å være viktig, spesielt i et internasjonalt perspektiv. Her i bloggen vil jeg markere den ved å poste en tekst jeg skrev da jeg studerte engelsk mellomfag ved universitetet. På grunn av at teksten som nevnt ble skrevet i forbindelse med mine engelskstudier, så er teksten på engelsk, og jeg har ingen planer om å lage en norsk oversettelse. Teksten ble skrevet i 1997.
Med denne teksen ønsker jeg med andre ord gratulerer med kvinnedagen!
In what way(s) can Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar be seen as an early feminist text?
Sylvia Plath was born 27 October 1932 in Boston, and was the first child of Dr Emil Otto Plath and Aurelia Schober Plath. She had her first verse published at the age of nine and went on to be a brilliant student at Smith. Her father died in 1940 after being ill for a long time. In June 1956 she married the rising British poet Ted Huges, with whom she had two children, but she separated from him in September 1962, after he had a relationship with another woman. In February 1963 she committed suicide.
The Bell Jar is said by some to be an autobiographical novel, but one cannot say this for sure. Even though many events in the novel fit with Plath’s life, it is difficult to decide how much of Sylvia Plath herself is in Esther Greenwood, the main character of the novel. The Bell Jar was first published in January 1963, with reasonably good reviews, pseudonymously under the name Victoria Lucas. Robert Taubman wrote in The Statesman that The Bell Jar was a ‘clever first novel… the first feminist novel… in the Salinger mood.’ It was republished in the United Kingdom in 1967 under her real name. After first having been rejected in the United States of America, it was finally published there as well, in 1970.
The modern feminist movement can be said to start with Betty Freidan’s book The Feminist Mystique, which was published in 1963. As this book came out during the 1960s and the protests of the civil rights movement, the two events reinforced each other, because the civil rights movement emphasised the extent to which groups were oppressed on the basis of both cultural and physical factors.
Freidan describes in ‘The Problem That Has No Name’, one of the chapters in her book, how ‘no name’ probably describes what thousands, or perhaps millions, of American suburbian housewifes felt. During the fifties this had been a personal and private problem, which one did not talk about. There was something wrong with the woman who did not feel that her life as a housewife was fulfilling. Billy Graham, a Baptist minister, says in ‘Jesus and the Liberated Woman’ that ‘the problem that has no name’ is boredom, and that males are as subject to this syndrome as females. He also says that ‘many of the frustrations of life are caused by our failure to accept our role, our God-given duty’, and argues that woman’s role is to be a wife and a mother, because this is what God biologically made her for. ‘The biological assignment was basic and simple: Eve was to be the child-bearer, and Adam to be the breadwinner.’ By ‘breadwinner’ he means the one who should work for the food.
At the end of the fifties the average age of marriage had actually fallen to 20, and was still dropping. It was not uncommon for girls to drop out of college (or high school) and to marry, in fact education was seen as a bar to marriage. During all of the fifties housewifery tasks were glorified as ‘proof’ of a ‘complete’ woman. One could see loving couples embracing under the trees of the new suburban house everywhere: on TV, in advertising, and in the movies. The birthrate was at the end of the fifties overtaking India’s. People before had two children, they were now having four, five, six. By the 1960s, the employment of women was rather the norm than the exception, but they were holding mostly part-time jobs, to help put their husbands through college, or widows supporting families.
Betty Freidan founded, and became the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, Title VII included a ban on discrimination in employment on the basis of sex as well as race. Older women activists, particularly business and professional women, and veterans seized the Title as an instrument of change. When the government failed to act on complaints of sex discrimination, exhibiting the same reluctance it had shown with the civil rights violations, these activists formed NOW to mobilise pressure on behalf of women’s rights.
The fight for equal rights for women were flowering in the late sixties and the seventies, and that The Bell Jar came out before those ideas were debated, shows that it is an early feminist text. There were few literary novels about female characters during the fifties, and this fact makes The Bell Jar a feminine text of its time. The Bell Jar was an attempt to write sympathetically about growing up in the United States of America during the forties and fifties, especially about being a woman. Recognising that females faced difficult decisions about their own and their family life was at this time a feminist realisation in itself, as women were not supposed to be as smart as men were.
Esther Greenwood is in New York at the beginning of The Bell Jar. One can say that ‘the problem that has no name’ is sort of described here. She says ‘I knew something was wrong with me that summer […] I was supposed to be having the time of my life […] Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself.’ One can say that Esther has the empty feeling Freidan talks about in The Feminine Mystique: ‘I felt very still and very empty’. All Esther wants to be is a poet. The scene of Esther’s being photographed with the rose signifies her desire to be a poet, and stands as an image of her frustration. The woman of the fifties were not supposed to want careers. As Freidan says in ‘The Problem That Has No Name’: ‘They were thought to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents.’
Sylvia Plath has become sort of an martyr to women’s rights, an implicit criticism of women’s role in the fifties, the mid-century system that denied women ways to become professionals. She is, as most women during the fifties, expected to marry. Esther Greenwood sees herself as something else that primarily a housewife, and she uses a lot of her energy to try to avoid marrying the one she is expected – Buddy Willard.
The last comment Buddy gave Esther gives a good picture of the attitude towards women, that is women’s role as partners in marriage, in the fifties: ‘»I wonder who you’ll marry now, Esther. Now you’ve been,» and Buddy’s gesture encompassed the hill, the pines and the severe, snow-gabled building breaking up the rolling landscape, «here»‘, but Esther seems to understand the full import of his question. After her well publicised story about her psychic breakdown, her chances for marrying well has become smaller, as she is no longer a ‘normal’ college student, she has become a woman with a frightening past.
The title of the novel is pointing to that this is a feminine text as well. The image of a ‘bell jar’, to be placed under a glass enclosure, a confined space for the purpose of being observed, caught in a vacuum, separated from other lifes, would surely be a negative experience. To be such an observed object, and woman, indicates the image which is to be used often by the later feminist movement, that all too often women are looked upon as objects of their men and their culture. Therefore Sylvia Plath’s use of the idea of being a scientific object, staked out as it were for the explicit purpose of observation, can only be negative and dehumanising. The word ‘bell’ written ‘belle’ was used during the nineteenth century for the ‘belle’ of the ball. It was meant to be a positive term in American culture, and was a ladylike southern woman with many suitors. This was a woman who knew her role and was happy to be the desired object of her lover’s and family’s attention. The woman’s role in the fifties might be a bit different, but as the ‘belle’ she was also supposed to be happy in her role, as a housewife.
The ideal look for women during the fifties was being slim and blonde, like Marilyn Monroe, the ultimate sex symbol of the fifties. Three out of every ten American women dyed their hair, and since 1939 their dress sizes had become three and four sizes smaller. Women were more objects than individuals. In The Bell Jar, Doreen says ‘Jay Cee’s ugly as sin, I bet that old husband of hers turns out all the lights before he gets near her or he’d puke otherwise.’ Esther cannot imagine her boss in bed with her husband, and actually like her: ‘She wasn’t one of those fashion magazine gushers with fake eyelashes and giddy jewellery. Jay Cee had brains, so her plug-ugly looks didn’t seem to matter.’ Esther does not care how her boss looks; for her, it is her boss’ intelligence which is relevant.
According to many critics of the eighties, particularly those who employed feminist strategies, the novel is caught up in the mid-century thinking. Ether’s dilemma is real to the fifties, but the times were changing. The critics say that if Plath had not moved to England, she would even by the early sixties have seen improvement in attitudes about women working and being independent. There are many who presume that Plath started to write The Bell Jar after her first nervous breakdown, in the mid-fifties, and in light of this one can say that it is a novel of the fifties.
Even though the ideas in The Bell Jar are not exactly new, they were not discussed until later. It was only after Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique came out, that the debate began. After her book was published, Freidan began appearing on radio and TV talk shows. The feminist movement peaked in the late sixties and early seventies, and The Bell Jar can therefore be said to be an early feminist text.
The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath – Hayman, Ronald, New York 1991.
The Bell Jar, A Novel of the Fifties – Wagner-Martin, Linda, New York 1982.
The Proud Decades, America in War and Peace, 1941-1960 – Diggins, John Patrick, New York/London 1989.
Bitter Fame, A Life of Sylvia Plath – Stevenson, Anne, London 1990.
The American Experience, A sourcebook for Critical Thinking and Writing – Behrens, Laurence and Nelson, Annabel, Boston/London/Toronto/Sydney/Tokyo/Songapore 1992.
The Unfinished Journey, America Since World War II – Chafe, William H., New York 1995.