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The Bell Jar, published by Sylvia Plath in 1953, expresses Esther Greenwood's perspective. Because of sexism, the character feels alone. This discourages her from pursuing her goals in the future. Throughout the book, Esther employs water as a factor that can either disseminate the type of woman she wishes she could be. She also uses water to disseminate the kind of empowerment she desired by cleansing religious expectations that had to be chased before she could marry. She felt it would be useful when she became a wife and mother. These feelings consume her, and she attempts suicide. Esther in the latter part of the novel breaks the patriarchy that holds her by losing her virginity and slightly regaining the sanity she had lost. In the occasions, she accepts that she had really lost her sanity. The double meaning that water plays of being secular and consecrated contrasts with the singular sexual expectation of a religious woman. Esther also becomes liberated from the double personality that she had she rebels.
There are four important male figures that run her life including Dr. Gordon, Buddy Willard, Irwin, and Marco. Throughout the novel, the author uses male archetypes to show the evolution that Esther underwent. Marco in the novel is used to symbolize an abusive male, who did lead Esther to strengthen her resolution against patriarchy after she made away after he attempted to rape her. The author uses this to show how inhuman he was and the abusive language that he had towards Esther. Esther says, "Then Marco gripped my hand in such a way I had to choose between following him onto the floor and having my arm torn off" (Plath 87). Marco does not stop here but forces Esther to dance with him. Marco as a male was dominant and he expected Esther to do anything he told her without any resistance. Patriarchy has the same effect on Esther through her thought and the ideas that she makes. When they go to the garden and Marco tries to rape her she thought she was helpless and say "It's happening…It's happening. If I just lie here and do nothing it will happen" (Plath 89).
Esther gets caught to the role that she played for being so obedient to men. She almost did nothing to rescue herself from getting raped. The author uses the words, "The dust cleared and I had a full view of the battle. I began to writhe and bite" (Plath 89). This shows the patriarchy which was occupying the mind of Esther, but afterward resisting and fighting back to free herself. She later goes back to her room and starts throwing away her clothes from the balcony. The author states, "The wind made an effort, but failed and a bat-like shadow sank toward the roof garden of the penthouse opposite" (Plath 91). Releasing her clothes from the balcony symbolizes her escape and the freedom that she had from patriarchy.
Buddy is good to Esther, and she views him as uncorrectable and pure. However, when she realized that he had already lost his virginity, he becomes revolting to her. When she talks of Buddy losing his virginity, she thinks "And that's how Buddy lost his pureness and his virginity" (Plath 57) and goes ahead to say "What I couldn't stand was Buddy pretending I was so sexy and he was so pure, when all the time he'd been having an affair with that tarty waitress and must have been laughing in my face" (Plath 57). Buddy in these aspects shows temptations for Esther.
In the novel, Esther also tries to embody an ideal woman features through the use of water as a purifier which annihilates the conflicting feelings that affected her from fulfilling the patriarchy standards. When she goes to a bar, seen a vodka and once" and when she got her vodka it "…looked clear and pure as water", her "dream was someday ordering a drink and finding out it tasted wonderful" (Plath 10). Esther takes plain vodka because she wants to become one person rather than be stuck in a double mindset regardless of their authentic. It is indicated, "…glass full of vodka standing in the middle of a snowdrift…" the feeling that she gets after taking the vodka makes her feel and gives the illusion of being liberated however without knowledge. She also realized that what patriarchy wants from her may make her crushed and can make her deviate from many that she could achieve without having to strive to achieve them. Many of the women who were in the 1950s were brainwashed by religion such that they became products of embarrassments. The religion that was in the time also suppressed the sexual endeavors that the women would have had. It made women become objects, and they were to be subjected to men rather than having respect for themselves.
Esther is also infatuated with the ability of alcohol and becoming what she really wanted to be. She viewed vodka as a way through which she could be liberated from the deposits of religion which held her sanity making her believe that drinking and making her numb would make her get the genuine happiness that she had been looking for and will make her single oppressive life more meaningful. She does not draw, and she still faces the challenges that she had before taking the vodka since the opinions that she had could not be washed once they were residing inside her. Essentially, water did not have the ability to cleanse something that was inside her. It cannot cleanse something that makes her a person since it is not tangible. After the drink, she goes back to her residence, takes a bath and says ‘I don't know them, I have never known them, and I am very pure. All that liquor and those sticky kisses I saw and the dirt that settled on my skin on the way back is turning into something pure' (Plath 20).
She was attracted to the rebellion that Doreen had against the society, but she does not want to show it. She thought that the actions of Doreen were doing what was not expected from a woman but she was doing the right thing. She however needed to become what the society expected her to be; experience happiness and the gap of being purely religious. She also needed to become and do what the society wants such as the belief that alcohol and sticky kisses made women be dormant and not submissive as they were expected to be. These actions would also signify that a woman was longing for discretion. This was not expected from the society that she lived.
When women explored their sexuality, they were considered to be subjected to mockery and the community would degrade them since the religion that they were expected to abide by ways that which emphasized chastity. This is contrasted towards the end of the novel where she had a different view of sex and affection. Filthy, dirty and tangible contrasts the attraction and the characteristics that a woman should have in a society. Esther has a new view of women as there is a change in the way that she used to view sex and the image that she had of herself being distorted by the contradictions with patriarchy and an alternative woman.
Water used in the novel could cleanse the residue of the dirt that she had, but it could not completely remove the attitude and the thought that held her back from becoming a woman who could be heard and fight for the others in the society. She at one point wears a skirt and heals when in a beach and sees a boy throwing a stone into the water which is described as "…water" which "…swallowed it with a resonant plop" (Plath 152). In this aspect, Esther can be thought to resemble the ways through which the water absorbs objects which are thrown into it. The comparison is made since the resonant sound that the water makes similar to that where Esther always tries to conform and seek help to the Holy insinuations of the society with the hopes of answering her plea one day. The attraction of a woman that she has outside the norm can be observed through the unusual clothes that she wears when she goes to the beach displaying her while at the same time trying to maintain what the society wanted to be while combating herself. In an instance, she seduces Irwin. This shows the control that she had over patriarchy and also the idea that she could seduce and she could also lose her virginity anytime she wanted to make her get a good mental grasp of the life she lived.
At one time, Esther becomes exhausted of trying to show false portrayal of herself. She decides to cleanse herself with secular water to make herself free from the patriarchy anointing herself using her sexual standards. She makes her way to the bus station, but she is not able to a subway to go to a prison since,… they filled up the water with dirt, and now it joins on to the mainland' (Plath 148). Dirt fills her, and she compares it to the glass of vodka
which completely drowned her, ultimately making her ill and long to die to find peace for herself. The society, however, forces her to obey the expectations through "filling water with dirt" and become someone who was totally abiding by the laws and the rules. She is seen as the inability to become the right product of the society (Plath 148).
In one situation, she helps Buddy push his car which was stuck in the snow. In this situation, “she …felt the same profound thrill it gives me to see trees and grassland waist-high under flood water — as if the usual order of the world had shifted slightly and entered a new phase" (Plath 239). One the water she referred to transformed and was back to its natural state, Esther becomes at peace with herself. At this point, the world presented itself to her as something that she could have control on and make decisions on what she wanted to do with it. At this point, she did not want visitors as she felt that the visitors always made her fully drown and this allowed her to be at peace with herself while at the same time coexisting with patriarchy. The full glass of vodka that she took in these instances became "waist-high" (Plath 239) and made her have a stronger grasp on sanity and not just being fully trapped by the snow that was flying over her.
From all the beliefs, Esther liberates her social, religious personality sexually through using the double connotation that water had secular and consecrated to become liberated from the ambivalent personalities. Esther begins a new life after several attempts of suicide to stray from the definition that woman was given in the misogynistic society. Finally, both illnesses of women coexist with the society rather than becoming a product of it. When women become a product, it allows them to eat men just like air and not become air eaten by men. The evolutions that she undergoes can be understood better by looking at the male archetypes mentioned in the novel and how they contributed to her rebellion against patriarchy and taking control over her life.
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