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
Women and Social Expectations Quotes in The Bell Jar
…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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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...’