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Apocryphally labeled a novel confined to the voracious appetite of mental illness, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath truly explores the societal ills in the role of young women in the 1950s. Despite the inevitable and universal recognition of internal strife, The Bell Jar’s main character, Esther Greenwood, is also faced with peremptory, pivotal physical violence. A young, bright woman in the 1950s, Esther is distressed when encountering the possibility of being raped. The near-rape scene, while violent, poses several devices in Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel; moreover, it functions to represent a deeper issue rather than simply showcase the specific violence of Esther’s plight. Plath carefully engineered the scene’s details, diction, and narration to reveal thematic relevance and societal issues through character violence.
In the first part of The Bell Jar, Esther’s character is portrayed indirectly through her narration as mildly cynical and dreary, yet observant. Perpetuating the character’s development, Esther is apprehensive before meeting a boy whom her friend, Doreen, knows; this boy will accompany her as his date for dancing, drinking, and night behavior. However, the night goes astray and blunders into discomfort, fear, and misogyny–and violence ensues. The violence of the near-rape scene is employed by Plath to generate thematic relevance–especially so in its antagonist, Marco, as a typical misogynist male archetype. He is suave, wealthy in some form, yet dark. This lethal mixture of male character traits is repeated throughout 18th, 20th, and 21st century literature in characters such as Richard Lovelace in the famous epistolary novel, Clarissa; Andy in the bestselling young adult novel, Speak; and even Christian Grey in the infamous, erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey. In all these literary texts, the suave, wealthy, and dark male is most often used to present a problem to a young, naive, and impressionable female character–usually a conflict of a sexual nature. However, for Plath’s purposes of thematic development, an example of Marco’s violent, suave nature is met with Esther’s fist rather than her heart. This almost automatic attack from Esther after being called a “slut” by Marco can be easily juxtaposed alongside Esther’s feelings of dissatisfaction in her world–despite her ability to fight back (Plath 57-58). Esther’s jaded nature is solidified in this violent scene as she previously foreshadowed Marco’s attack and voiced fear of a superficial, sexually-perverse date–allowing a theme of rebellion against convention to be evoked. Instead lapsing into the state of confusion often characteristic of rape scenes, Esther thinks, “It’s happening. If I just lie here and do nothing it will happen.” (Plath 57). Esther’s sense of observation coupled alongside her intuition build the text’s thematic transformation from a story of young woman to the story of her demise. The near-rape scene is essential in revealing thematic development, as it shows Esther’s character remaining perpetually dimmed and slightly dreary despite her situation.
Rape in the 1950s was rarely reported, often misunderstood, and socially under-defined (“Women’s Center”). The term “Rape Culture” emerged in the late 1970s; however, its principles existed in American culture long before (“Women’s Center”). The near-rape of Esther in The Bell Jar shows how a young woman in the 1950s with an unusually obstinate notion toward self-restriction faces a violent attempt at rape. In the novel, Marco “brands” Esther first with a diamond pin, then with his own thumbprint from grasping her wrist, and finally with mud from being thrown face-down into a puddle as a result of his assault. This symbolic “branding” contributes to Plath’s use of Esther as a vehicle to highlight or represent a societal issue for young women in the 1950s. Despite the 19th amendment being in effect, Plath sought to showcase the remaining imbalance between men and women in regards to sex during the time period. She used the character of Esther as a vessel or symbol for many young, bright women faced with unfair, oppressive sexual situations. As the reader has gotten to know the character of Esther, and her struggles, the reader is more likely to see Marco as the “villain” of the scene–effectively indicating Plath’s use of violence to imply a societal issue. Marco’s “women-hating,” misogynistic nature is arguably most evident as he asserts that all women are sluts no matter if they say “yes or no” to sexual advances (Plath, 58). This assertion on behalf of the antagonist makes the male character seem superficial, under-educated, and manipulative. Because Marco was meant to represent many suave 1950s men, Plath indirectly cautions both readers–women and men–about the dangers of rape and the emotional, mental, and physical implications it could have.
The violence of the attempted rape scene in The Bell Jar functions not only as means of plot progression and narrative development, but also as an important catalyst in revealing thematic transformation and societal issues. Specific violence to the character of Esther represents not simply her struggle, but endless other struggles on both literary and cultural levels. Young women in the 1950s were cautioned, entertained, and understood alongside Plath’s work for its vivid scenes of success, violence, mental distress, and cultural pressures. Rape will perpetually exist as an intimate topic of discussion; however, the culture it morphs and changes is forever the responsibility of all.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines. New York: Quill, 2003. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.
“Women’s Center.” Womens Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2014.
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