Girl Goes Insane: Psychological Response to Gender Interactions in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

Good day, readers!  It has indeed been many moons since I last addressed your directly, what with the more formal English papers and reflections on the various media that has dominated this blog for a good amount of time.  Before I really get started with the discussion I wish to pose here, I want to give a heads-up that I have about 5,000 spam comments queued up on here at the moment, so 1) it would be awesome if y’all left some words here, so that I actually have something of worth to look forward to in that pile, and 2) if you comment and it doesn’t show up, shoot me an email to let me know (  Now let’s get started!

The truth that I wish to start off this post with is that, in reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, despite the knowing I have virtually no connection to any of the characters or situations in the story, I feel an element of guilt regarding the situation in which Esther, the main character, finds herself.  This guilt was triggered by the fact that, to me, it appeared that much of her deterioration was due to her interactions with and perceptions of men.  Now, of course, this was evinced through the actions of such characters as Marco, who almost raped Esther (note: he was one character I certainly did not identify with).  The problem, however, arose in the fact that this was quickly made apparent in the actions of characters who I upon first reading viewed in a positive light (due to my own cynicism regarding Esther’s ideas of her connections to them), such as Buddy Willard, a childhood friend of Esther’s, and Doctor Gordon, the first psychiatrist she consults.  The frightening aspect of this is that, though the society that shaped these characters may no longer exist, they certainly represent characteristics that still do (people I know, much less these).  For this reason, I hope to address what really needs to be done to make sure Esther’s situation isn’t one that is as easy to reach today as it was in her time.

Before I begin my analysis of this thesis specifically, I want to provide some brief context for the situations which surround the interactions that will define the evolution I will describe.  While her personality is indeed important to her development as a person, it is so variable and complex that no explanation here would do it justice.  On the other hand, her hopes and dreams, or at least her approach to them, are explained fairly well at certain snapshots in time.  The first example of this is particularly applicable because of the characterization of the person with whom she is speaking when she says it: Jay Cee.  See page 6 of this analysis for a description of the basis I have for this character, and/or read this summary/analysis written by me.  Upon being asked “’What do you have in mind after you graduate?’” (26), Esther describes, “What I always thought I had in mind was getting some big scholarship to graduate school or a grant to study all over Europe, and then I thought I’d be a professor and write books of poems or write books of poems and be an editor of some sort.  Usually I had these plans on the tip of my tongue” (26-27).  Of course, what happens next is initially unexplainable and later seen as the beginning of an underlying trend towards insanity.  As Esther describes, “’I don’t really know,’ I heard myself say.  I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true” (27).  The fact that Esther “felt a deep shock” after saying that makes it clear to us that she is just as surprised as we are that she seems to be moving away from the highly organized, future-thinking character that was displayed early in the novel.  It is exactly this sort of inconsistency in self-perception that leads to her confusion regarding her interactions with others, and the failure for any of her contradictory goals to line up with what they have in mind for her.  So basically, the starting point for her descent into “the bell jar,” is her own incapability to understand what she wants for her future, or align any of this with what she knows she wanted in the past, or at least thought she wanted in the past.

If we begin our analysis with a look at the progression of Esther’s recovery, the most apparent characters between whom we can make a comparison from this perspective are Dr. Gordon, her initial, male, psychiatrist, and Dr. Nolan, her second, female, psychiatrist at Caplan, the mental institution where she is sent by Philomena Guinea, her scholarship sponsor.  Right off the bat, it is apparent that Dr. Gordon exhibits qualities that not only make Esther uncomfortable, but that could make her condition worse: “I could see right away he was conceited” (105).  Now, conceit isn’t an inherently male trait, but when combined with the fact that “he seemed slow to understand, how [Esther] hadn’t slept for fourteen nights and how [she] could read or write or swallow very well” (110), it becomes apparent that this conceit, likely in place because of the superiority complex the position of men in society at this time, the 1950s, has given him, is clearly not benefiting Esther and perhaps even worsening her condition by feeding her frustration.

Interestingly, this superiority complex seems to further be based in the doctor-patient relationship that Dr. Gordon has with Esther, in that he doesn’t view her as sufficiently capable of managing her destiny, and thus “[talks] to [her mother]” (110), a prospect which Esther “[doesn’t] like… one bit” (110).  Of course, this could further represent the impact of gender roles in that, as a daughter, Esther is expected by Dr. Gordon to be more dependent on her mother than a mentally ill man of the same age would be on his parents.  The problem reflected in this context by modern statistics is summarized by the claim in this paper by the World Health Organization that, “Doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women compared with men, even when they have similar scores on standardized measures of depression or present with identical symptoms.”  Of course, on one hand, this could be interpreted as representing more care being put into the process for women, yet the resulting claim that “female gender is a significant predictor of being prescribed mood altering psychotropic drugs,” would seem to argue that the trait that Dr. Gordon represented in recommending Esther for treatment at his private hospital simply for the sake of profits is still displayed.  The fact that this has the potential to result in such negative effects as those that Esther horrifying experiences with her shock treatment may indicate a continuing element of gender bias in this process at the detriment of women.

The dynamic reflected by these two characters is put in complete contrast with the relationship that seems to lead Esther back to good health and escape from the bell jar under which she is trapped: her connection with her second psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan.  Esther’s very first, and, I believe, most important, observation regarding Dr. Nolan is her statement that, “I didn’t think they had woman psychiatrists.  This woman was a cross between Myrna Loy and my mother” (153).  Particularly in the second sentence, it is apparent that her immediate perception of Dr. Nolan puts the doc in an important position for Esther: as her “mother,” she takes on a role defined by trust that is necessary to remind Esther of the positive consistencies in her world, an important factor for recovery.  As “Myrna Loy,” she takes on the role of one of the most important characters from earlier in the book, Doreen, as a role model for Esther, except, this time, in a context that has the potential to bring Esther peace and comfort, rather than the fear and action that Doreen’s life with Lenny displayed.  Finally, the final description of Dr. Nolan as having “stylish, crescent-shaped spectacles” (153) makes her out to be similar to two other important women in Esther’s previous positive idea of her world: Ee Gee and Jay Cee, two magazine editors who served as Esther’s inspirations in New York.

The fact that Dr. Nolan is able to take on all these roles without judging Esther for her condition, as all these actual people did, contributes greatly to her recovery by reinforcing the comfort in her life that those who were similar to her created, and which the early onset of her condition had destroyed.  The question that truly intrigues me about this, however, is whether this dynamic would’ve functioned similarly if the gender of the patient were changed.  It would seem that, even if the patient were male, the superiority complex demonstrated by Dr. Gordon would cause him to dismiss this difference and still approach him in such a way that would not be particularly beneficial.  On the other hand, there’s the potential that, demonstrating similarities to Esther’s mother to her, Dr. Nolan could be more effective for the recovery of male patients based on that element of comfort, as compared to Dr. Gordon.  The perfect character to analyze to question this is Buddy Willard.

The main situation which replicates that in question while also involving Esther and her own mental state is upon Esther’s visit to the sanatorium where Buddy has been sent to recover from tuberculosis.  The ideal reversal of power is initially demonstrated by “the last thing [Esther] expected” (73) or Buddy, “to be fat” (73).  Since an element of the control that Buddy appears to have over Esther in her earlier stories is through her attraction to him, this negates that.  Nevertheless, Buddy seems to maintain a self-confidence that continues to marginalize Esther’s personality.  He, first off, asks her, “’How would you like to be Mrs. Buddy Willard?’” (75).  Besides seeming unusual in his asking of this question despite his clear reduction of power and limitation of physical state at the moment, his response to her clear refusal via explanation of skewed and varying priorities, is summarized in his statement “’Let me fly with you’” (77).  Now, to most this would appear to be something of a surrender to the desires, even career-wise, of Esther, but, considering the context offered by the skiing incident which is described just a couple pages later, this appears to highly patronizing.

By referring to a statement as patronizing in a situation where I had clearly described a power reversal, I am making a grave statement on the perception that Buddy continued to hold of how Esther would react even if he were to follow through with his actions.  The conflict which results in Esther’s mind is significant in the worsening of her condition in that understanding this action by Buddy forces her to interpret all positive actions towards her in similar form as flawed and faux.  Just as she is confused by his intentions and perception to such a deep degree, she is similarly impacted by the actions of Dr. Gordon, particularly his seeming nonchalance towards her serious problems, those of her mother as she attempts to help Esther while herself attempting to grasp the desperation of Esther’s situation, and those of such characters as Joan, who Esther seems to think moved to Caplan to be with her.  Each of these situations has its own impact on this idea, so I’ll leave these interpretations to you, readers (perhaps comment if you have any ideas?), so that I may continue on my more general path.  This directly impact her psychological state by degrading her trust to such a degree that it transcends simply her human interaction and even begins to impact her environmental interactions.  After all, there is the entire point that Esther makes to Dr. Gordon when she says that she “hadn’t slept for fourteen nights and… couldn’t read or write or swallow very well” (110).

Now, the real question here is, is it right of me to entirely accuse Buddy for this?  In my opinion, yes.  The greater role that he plays in Esther’s life is that of a trigger for the actions that truly do lead to her insanity.  The situation of a “sexual competition” that he poses for Esther by disturbing her with his personality inconsistency is, in essence, what leads her to go out with Marco.  Of course, it is this starting point from which the assault which she suffers stems.  As the WHO emphasizes, “gender specific risk factors for common mental disorders that disproportionately affect women include gender based violence… and unremitting responsibility for the care of others.”

It is true that there are many aspects of her psychological state that are either Esther’s fault or the fault of females in her society, but it is clear that much of her deterioration is directly triggered by the roles of men in her life and the respective judgments of her state by these people.  Of course, as my English teacher, Dr. Olsen, questions, why must we ascribe fault to any given entity/group of entities in such cases?  Perhaps it is true that it is overreaching for me to do so myself, but I would say I have reason behind it.  Perhaps you readers would have something to say on this matter?  Guilt considered here is particularly defined by the way that this hasn’t gone away and is, in many ways, maintained in ideology that can even be considered positive today.  This is why I am scared.  This is why I wrote this.  This didn’t turn out quite as I had hoped, but I hope you enjoyed it all the same.  Leave any comments/ideas/questions below!  Thanks!


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