Until the 1970s, American literature did not have a great many female heroines in its works of fiction, and too few of them had been created by women authors. We had Dreiser's Sister Carrie and Faulkner's and Sherwood Anderson's young girls and women; Hemingway left us the unforgettable Bret Ashley, but none of these characters came from the pens of women. Cather gave us Ántonia, but this heroine seemed to be an idealized romantic "other" of Cather herself. Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers gave us memorable figures, but who were they in relation to their authors? Perhaps the most personal, intimate insights to come from an American woman author had come from the poetry of Emily Dickinson and from Kate Chopin in her novel The Awakening, a piece relegated to obscurity until recently. But there were no women counterparts to Huck Finn; there were no women Gatsbys or Holden Caulfields, or Christopher Newmans.
There were, in short, no women writers creating women characters who spoke their minds; we had no parallels to Jane Austen's Elizabeth; no American women were telling their readers what it is/was like to grow up in this vast and complex culture. If we are to understand the American female, using the idea that women themselves tell us what their lives are like and how they think and feel, we certainly need more fictional characters with more candor and insight and the courage to reveal themselves.
It is probably this vacuum in American literature that made The Bell Jar's protagonist so popular. Esther Greenwood: she is a college girl, a good student, a talented writer, and a fashion magazine contest winner; she is the well-bred oldest child in a typical family with two children, a clever games player, a semi-liberated budding intellectual, and a sexually confused late adolescent. Finally, she is a mental patient.
Esther lives in New England; she grows up in the 1930s and 40s, arrives in New York City just before her last year in college, and works on an apprenticeship for a fashion magazine. The year is 1953, before the popularity of the birth control pill, before women's liberation, and before all the major social movements of the 1960s. Esther Greenwood has achieved success in her academic endeavors and has won prizes for her writing. But her future and her female role are not clearly laid out for her. Indeed, how is she supposed to fuse her scholastic success with being a truly "feminine" creature of her era? That is a very real problem for Esther. She is plagued by her "fig-tree" metaphor/concept, in which each "ripe fig" represents a different female role, and Esther cannot pick just one. As a result, she is afraid that they will all shrivel and drop off the tree before she can decide which one to choose.
Esther reaches maturity in the early 1950s in an America where women's roles were rigidly assigned. Basically, American women fell into two groups: the good girls and the bad girls. Good girls married well and had 2.5 children, possibly more but not too many more. They kept nice houses, cooked proper, nutritious, and economical meals, went to PTA meetings, and, in general, were dutiful "wives." If they were successful in life, they became very much like Mrs. Eisenhower, or Mrs. Nixon, or Doris Day. The bad girls, in contrast, were sexy, bosomy, probably blonde, and they did not marry proper lawyers and doctors and politicians. They might, if they were clever, become lesser Marilyn Monroe types. Then there were also a group of women who were not really considered women. These were the spinsters and librarians and social workers and old maid school teachers. These intelligent women, these Ethel Rosenbergs (cited by Esther in the first paragraph of the novel), were doomed in society. They were not classified as good or bad because they did not "play the game" for male attention.
Thus, the good girls and the bad girls were classified and identified in terms of their relationship to men and society; they were not given value in terms of their own personalities, talents, and endeavors. Esther Greenwood is terribly aware of this problem of being shoved by society into an "either/or" situation. This dilemma is portrayed in New York City through the characters of Doreen (the "bad" girl) and Betsy (the "good" girl). The one startling characteristic that Esther has is that she intends to defy any role or life path that will pigeonhole her into being one kind of woman or another. Esther Greenwood wants to be herself, and to be an individual. She wants her American birthright, which is why she keeps saying over and over, "I Am I Am I Am."
But this task she has set for herself is overwhelming. How can she integrate the good girl, the "A" student, with the fashion-conscious, man-teasing young lady? How can she integrate the innocent, pure young woman who loves cleanliness with the young woman who has intense sexual desires? How can she integrate the person who wants to be a poet with the person who wants to be a mother? How can she integrate the young woman who wants to travel and have many lovers with the one who wants to be a wife? And as Esther proceeds, at a rapid pace, first through her terms at college, then on to New York City, the center of the sophisticated chic world, she becomes more and more frightened that she will not be able to pick only one role, one "fig." This is tragic because there are no successful, interesting whole women to encourage Esther to pick all the "figs" she can. Indeed, Esther is constantly being warned and restricted by the adult women of her world. "Watch out, Esther," they all seem to say, and perhaps with some cause. Then Ethel Rosenberg is electrocuted. There is clearly not much encouragement for women to be individual, to be different, and to be brave and daring.
So Esther, confused and scared, heroically struggles on, keeps up her grades, tries to be fashionable, and begins to play games. She develops other names for herself, as if that will solve the problems of multiple roles and a fractured identity. She lies to her teachers, her editor, her mother, and to her friends — usually in situations where it is not useful to her, or to the advancement of her career. She lies mostly to play games and to protect herself from conflict. She is deathly afraid of revealing her true identity, or her muddled identity, to anyone. And she is certainly not ready to fight others for it. Because of these fears and conflicts, Esther has no really close friends. None of her friends truly know her, and even if it is true that her mother and her editor and her teachers cannot understand her, Esther certainly doesn't allow them to try.
Esther is desperately in need of help to get herself from adolescence into adulthood; she continually cuts herself off from others and from her own feelings, as well. She is convinced that her father might have helped her, but, she sighs, he died long ago. Thus, she feels all alone, and her world becomes grayer and grayer as she becomes more and more in conflict with herself and depressed about herself. After her stint in New York City, she has a severe mental breakdown, and, eventually, she takes sleeping pills in an almost fatal suicide attempt.
When Esther is institutionalized and treated, she is, of course, not in charge of her own life at all. She feels that she is in a bell jar, stewing in her own foul air. Meanwhile, her mother, and Mrs. Guinea, and even Buddy and some of her girl friends, plus the institutions for mental health and the proverbial wheels of American good will — all these are trying to piece Esther back together again, in their image of what she was or should be. No wonder we are so sympathetic with this bright, sometimes charming, attractive, but victimized young woman.
One of the major causes for Esther's breakdown — that is, the lack of a clear individualized female role — is not dealt with at all in her treatment. How can Esther get well when she is subjected to the same forces and pressures that made her ill in the first place? Dr. Nolan is a kind and helpful woman, but, for the most part, she treats Esther's symptoms — not her problem.
As the reader follows Esther through all her trials and misfortunes, we begin to see a young American girl whom we never knew existed. We see how she feels, how she is bad, how she is good, how she is dumb, and how she is smart. Most of all, we see how human she is, and we want her to make it — to survive. But after Esther's recovery from her breakdown and as she prepares to leave the "asylum," after Joan's (her double's) suicide, we feel apprehensive about her future. We wish desperately that Esther would tell them all to mind their own business, that she's going to do it her way. But she does not seem to have that strength of Huckleberry Finn. And again the reader is brought back to Sylvia Plath, Esther's creator, and we mourn for the victimization of one of our first, authentic young American female voices. If Esther is the darker side of Plath, a voice from her more negative side, we are indeed sorry Plath did not live long enough to give us another female character — perhaps a more mature and bright, and certainly a more positive woman.