The Bell Jar

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Women and Social Expectations Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Purity vs. Impurity Theme Icon
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
Personal Ambition Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Bell Jar, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon

The Bell Jar offers an in-depth meditation on womanhood and presents a complex, frequently disturbing portrait of what it meant to be female in 1950s America. Esther reflects often on the differences between men and women as well as on the different social roles they are expected to perform. Most of her reflections circulate around sex and career. Esther’s interactions with other female characters in the novel further complicate these reflections by presenting different stances towards the idea of womanhood.

As noted in the theme Purity vs. Impurity, Esther is upset by society’s insistence that young women stay virgins until after marriage while allowing boys sexual freedom. Female characters like Esther’s mother, Mrs. Willard, and Betsy embrace these social expectations and try to push them on Esther by sending her pro-chastity pamphlets and dispensing sexist maxims. Female characters like Doreen, Dr. Nolan, and Joan Gilling reject these expectations and introduce Esther to alternative ways of thinking. Doreen models an unmarried sexual relationship with Lenny Shepherd while Dr. Nolan assures Esther there is nothing wrong with pre-marital sex and encourages her to get fitted for a diaphragm. Through Joan’s affair with DeeDee, Esther glimpses a lesbian relationship that bucks society’s heterosexual norms.

In addition to enforcing a double standard for women and men’s sexual lives, Esther’s society also imposes different expectations for male and female careers. In general, women are expected to be homemakers, wives, and mothers and to devote their energies to caring for men and children rather than pursuing their own dreams. Esther’s mother, Mrs. Willard, Betsy, Dodo Conway, and many others demonstrate this conventional path and intimate that Esther should follow it too. Her mother’s insistence that she learn shorthand implies her faith in a low-level, traditionally female secretarial career. At the other end of the spectrum, Jay Cee, Philomena Guinea, Dr. Nolan, and Dr. Quinn demonstrate an alternative path pursuing careers outside the domestic sphere, and encourage Esther to do so as well.

Though some of the men in the novel are kind or at least harmless, many of the novel’s male characters reinforce the gross gender inequality in Esther’s society and treat Esther and the women around them with pronounced sexism. Buddy automatically assumes Esther is inferior-minded because she is a woman and also assumes that she will want to marry, have children, and discard all her personal ambition to become a housewife. Marco (and, to a lesser extent, Irwin) objectify Esther for their own sexual gratification. Esther refers to Marco as “a woman-hater.” Indeed, he proclaims all women are alike and attempts to rape Esther.

Women and Social Expectations ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Women and Social Expectations appears in each chapter of The Bell Jar. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Women and Social Expectations Quotes in The Bell Jar

Below you will find the important quotes in The Bell Jar related to the theme of Women and Social Expectations.
Chapter 3 Quotes

…I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Doreen
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

At the Ladies Day banquet, Esther is beginning to grapple with her confusion about her own behavior and her inability to fit in with the other girls at the magazine. Instead of going out to Coney Island with Doreen (the rebellious choice) or going to the fur show with Betsey (the respectable and obedient choice), Esther had laid in bed unable to decide what to do. This marks an initial instance of Esther's tendency to be paralyzed by decision making, particularly when those decisions surround ambition and identity. In this instance, Esther seems to have a very clear idea of what she "should" or "shouldn't" be doing, which shows the well-defined roles and behaviors expected of 1950s women, but Esther seems to have no idea where she, as an individual woman, fits into this scheme. As suggested by Esther's success in school (in which the expectations of her were challenging but well-defined), Esther functions best when she doesn't have to define herself, but still has an outlet for her ambition. 


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Chapter 4 Quotes

I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I’d know what to do. My own mother wasn’t much help. My mother taught shorthand and typing to support us ever since my father died…She was always on me to learn shorthand after college, so I’d have a practical skill as well as a college degree.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Jay Cee
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

On the one hand, Esther’s inability to define her career goals seems to be related to her mental illness. She lacks the kind of self-knowledge that would help her define and achieve her ambition, which is not so different from her literal inability to recognize herself in the mirror. On the other hand, though, as this passage illustrates, Esther’s problems stem from the sexism of 1950s society. Esther knows that she does not want to be a traditional woman by becoming a homemaker or learning shorthand like her mother (who, this passage implies, only works because there isn’t a man in the house), but Esther lacks female role models who could help make a nontraditional life seem concrete and achievable. Jay Cee’s skills and knowledge are admirable to Esther, but utterly mysterious, and Esther does not seem to know how to cultivate a professional mentorship. When she states that she wishes Jay Cee were her mother, it shows that Esther’s only model for relating to older women is maternal. This passage shows clearly that women in the 1950s were structurally prevented from career success.

Chapter 5 Quotes

I remember the day [Buddy] smiled at me and said, “Do you know what a poem is, Esther?’ ‘No, what?’ I said. ‘A piece of dust.’ And he looked so proud of having thought of this that I just stared at his blond hair and his blue eyes and his white teeth—he had very long, strong white teeth—and said ‘I guess so’.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Buddy Willard
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Esther is recalling bitterly a conversation that she had with Buddy about poetry, which is Esther’s passion. Buddy had told her condescendingly that a poem was “just a piece of dust,” implying that his occupation (medical student) was superior to hers. Esther remembers Buddy saying this with a smile and with obvious pride that he had come up with this idea, and his attitude betrays both his disrespect of Esther and his own self-aggrandizement. To belittle Esther, somebody Buddy supposedly loves, while only being concerned with his own cleverness is almost sociopathic in its blatant disregard for human emotion. There’s a deep irony here, since Buddy believes that medicine is more important than poetry because it cares for people’s bodies, but Buddy seems indifferent to taking care of Esther’s emotions. This would certainly validate Esther’s claim that Buddy is a hypocrite. Furthermore, this passage shows the ways in which traditionally male professions (like medicine) come with a kind of respect that feminized professions (poetry) lack. Esther has a good argument for why poetry might be more important than medicine (bodies are dust, and a good poem will last longer than any body), but it doesn’t carry much weight in her society.

Chapter 6 Quotes

I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Esther recalls visiting Buddy at medical school and witnessing childbirth. Buddy explained that the woman had been given a drug that makes women forget the pain of childbirth, and this passage is Esther's response. An important distinction here is that the woman is visibly in pain--she is making horrible noises--so we know that this drug does not take pain away in the present, it only one makes women forget it later. Esther says that this sounds "like the sort of drug a man would invent" because it does not relieve a woman of her pain in the moment, but instead serves the purpose of making her forget something terrible so that she will continue to have more children without thinking of the pain they will cause. Here, medicine is seen as something deployed by men for utilitarian, rather than humanitarian, purposes, and Esther is scared and even resentful of it. This passage is also metaphorical for the damage wrought by structural sexism. While women might not be able to account for everything damaging that has happened to them (Esther would not, for instance, be able to articulate that she has not been taught, like her male peers were, to capitalize on defined career goals), there is a part of each woman that is a "long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain."

All I’d heard about, really, was how fine and clean Buddy was and how he was the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Buddy Willard
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Buddy asks Esther if she would like to see him naked, and the question confuses her. As the quote indicates, Esther keeps being told by her family that Buddy is a "fine and clean" person. For Esther, since she is a woman, being "fine and clean" would mean staying a virgin and protecting her body until marriage, but Buddy's question is confusing because he seems willing to engage in behavior that would, if Esther did it, make her no longer fine and clean. Here, she identifies a double standard in social expectations governing sex, in which Buddy can offer to undress in front of her without it making him impure. On the other hand, though Esther is skeptical of the appropriateness of the gesture, she thinks that, because so many people have told her that Buddy is fine and clean, anything he wanted to do couldn't cause much harm. This passage simultaneously illuminates the contradictions of 1950s social norms, and explains the family pressure that undergirds Esther's obsession with purity.

Chapter 7 Quotes

The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes in the midst of a passage in which Esther is taking stock of everything she can't do (a list notable for its traditionally feminine skills like cooking, singing, dancing, etc.). She notes that she cannot do shorthand, a skill that could get her traditionally feminine secretarial work in which her mother insists she could dictate thrilling letters for her (male) boss. Here, Esther notes that she does not want to serve a man--she wants to be at work on her own projects, making her own "thrilling letters." This passage is interesting because it shows that Esther is much better at articulating her faults than her skills, and she is much better at saying what she doesn't want than what she does (she has few concrete career goals, for instance, but she knows she doesn't want to serve a man). A common idea among feminist thinkers is that femininity is a negatively-defined concept, which means that women are most often identified for what they are not (men) than for what they are. This passage seems to be an embodiment of this concept, in which Esther is very aware of what she isn't and what she doesn't want, but has no strong concept of her goals and identity. 

Chapter 16 Quotes

I hated these visits, because I kept feeling the visitors measuring my fat and stringy hair against what I had been and what they wanted me to be, and I knew they went away utterly confounded.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 202
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Esther has just been delighted by Dr. Nolan's news that Esther will no longer be receiving visitors. Esther reveals that she does not like receiving visitors because nobody seems to take her ideas or her descriptions of her experiences and beliefs seriously, and everyone seems to pity her and judge her based on her appearance and the fact of her having been institutionalized. Furthermore, it seems that all of Esther's visitors seek to change or improve her in some way, rather than meeting her where she is and accepting that this is Esther's current state and current struggle. It's reminiscent, in a way, of Esther having always felt that people were trying to push her in the direction of being a more traditional woman. Esther's refusal of traditional femininity has often felt more ambivalent than her refusal of her visitors, though, which shows--oddly--that Esther might be gaining a new sense of self-confidence and self-possession by being essentially exiled in the asylum.

Chapter 18 Quotes

I climbed up on the examination table, thinking: ‘I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just because of sex, freedom from Florence Crittenden Homes where all the poor girls go who should have been fitted out like me, because what they did, they would do anyway, regardless...’

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Buddy Willard
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs when Esther is at the gynecologist being fitted for a diaphragm, a form of birth control. This is one of the only moments in the book in which Esther seems to understand the connection between mind and body; she sees that the diaphragm, a device intended for her body, is actually doing just as much for her mind. The diaphragm means that she won't have to fear premarital sex and its consequences, and she can be free to make her own choices about her body and her future. This melding of concern for mind and body bodes well for her recovery from her mental illness, and it also allows her a new kind of happiness and freedom that she hadn't previously experienced. This passage also shows the enormity of the burden placed on women by the social expectations that they must remain pure and virginal. Simply by having birth control, Esther becomes liberated from her greatest fears about possible limitations to her future.