Study Guide

The Bell Jar Women and Femininity

By Sylvia Plath

Women and Femininity

This hotel – the Amazon – was for women only, and they were mostly girls my age with wealthy parents [...] and they were all going to posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and junior executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other. (1.15)

Esther self-consciously distances herself from the other women staying at the Amazon, which is a rather ironic name for a residence designed to keep virginal young women safe from lascivious men (think about the mythological Amazons). Her rejection of the secretarial career path is one of the reasons she can't stand her mother, who teaches shorthand, a necessary skill at the time for secretaries.

[Buddy and I] had met together under our own imaginary fig tree, and what we had seen wasn't a bird coming out of an egg but a baby coming out of a woman, and then something awful happened and we went our separate ways. (5.47)

This passage refers to a story that Esther reads where a Jewish man and a Catholic nun meet under a fig tree until one day they bond over seeing a bird hatching out of an egg. The next day, the Catholic nun is replaced by another, grouchier nun. For Esther, the story helps her understand what happened when she went to visit Buddy at medical school, where she witnessed a delivery being performed. Instead of the experience bringing her and buddy together, the experience only confirmed her reluctance to go down the motherhood route.

My trouble was I took everything Buddy Willard told me as the honest-to-God truth. (5.60)

Early in their relationship, Esther idolizes Buddy as a moral and intellectual guide.

The woman's stomach stuck up so high I couldn't see her face or the upper part of her body at all. She seemed to have nothing but an enormous spider-fat stomach and two little ugly spindly legs propped in the high stirrups and all the time the baby was being born she never stopped making this unhuman whooping noise. (6.23)

While society celebrates motherhood, Esther views maternity as something disgusting and "unhuman." The woman she witnesses in the delivery room is reduced to a horrible spider.

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. (6.45)

Like Quote #3, this quote shows the extent to which Esther idolized Buddy. She accepted what everybody said about Buddy: that he was an upstanding and chaste – "clean" – man who would want an equally "clean" woman to marry. Later, Esther is crushed when she discovers that Buddy isn't so clean after all; he's spent his summer sleeping with a waitress on Cape Cod. She's not bothered as much by the sex as she is by Buddy's hypocrisy, his pretense that he's such a "fine and clean" individual.

"What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinity security," and, "What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from" [...] (6.79)

These fine words are the sayings of Mrs. Willard, Buddy's mother and Esther's prospective mother-in-law. "Infinite security"? "The place the arrow shoots off from"? The idea that a woman might want to be something other than her husband's biggest fan is foreign to Mrs. Willard.

The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters. (7.14)

Here, Esther explains her resistance to learning shorthand, a secretarial skill, from her mother. Shorthand is contrasted with creative writing, which is an expression of her own individuality.

The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket. (7.65)

In this passage, Esther rejects Mrs. Willard's views (see Quote #6). Instead of having her future defined by long years of fawning over a husband, Esther wants to open up her horizons and explore the possibilities.

I pulled up a chair opposite [Miss Norris] at the table and unfolded a napkin. We didn't speak, but sat there, in a close, sisterly silence, until the gong for supper sounded down the hall. (15.65)

At the psychiatric institution, Esther identifies particularly with Miss Norris, a patient who is described as something of a spinster, with a plain dress buttoned up to her chin and her hair arranged in a "schoolmarmish" bun (15.54). Miss Norris's silence could represent the way women's needs and desires are silenced by society, perhaps explaining Esther's "sisterly" identification with her.

Why do I attract these weird old women? [...] [T]hey all wanted to adopt me in some way, and, for the price of their care and influence, have me resemble them. (18.60)

In this passage, Esther looks back over the many older women who have attempted to mentor her in her life, and she doesn't find any of them adequate. None of them seems to have been able to enjoy a fulfilling romantic life and an intellectual life at the same time. Perhaps she resents most of all the fact that they are trying to mother her – and she's had quite enough mothering from her own mom.

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