The Bell Jar
Women and Femininity Theme
The Bell Jar challenges the prevailing notion in the 1950s that women were inferior to, and dependent upon, men. Regardless of their individual talents and desires, women were expected to become wives and mothers, and, failing that, secretaries. Bright young women such as Esther were expected to sacrifice their own dreams to the needs of their husbands. The novel mocks the assumption that women are inferior to men by showing the hypocrisy and moral weakness of the male characters. But it also takes an axe to the myth of maternity as the epitome of womanhood through its grotesque images of pregnancy and birth.
Questions About Women and Femininity
- According to the novel, what does society expect from women? What kind of roles are they expected to serve? Consider how women were expected to act as daughters, wives, mothers, and sexual partners.
- How does Esther feel about social norms and standards for women? Do you see a change in her perspective as the novel progresses? How so?
- Take a look at the female characters in the novel. Which ones are traditional? Which are unconventional? What distinguishes the traditional characters from the unconventional ones?
- Consider the male characters in the novel. How do they treat the female characters? What is their attitude toward women?
Chew on This
The Bell Jar challenges the view that women must sacrifice their individual dreams to become wives and mothers.
The Bell Jar shows that the consequence of a sexual double standard for men and women is the impossibility of friendship and intimacy between the sexes.