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From being labeled “crazy” and denied help, to “ill” with an overflowing amount of support, mental health has always been a difficult topic to understand. Living in North America today, where fewer people are excluded from society due to an illness they cannot control, we are left wondering how this was not always the case. In the 1950’s to 1960’s, the time setting of The Bell Jar and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, mental health was a topic no one talked about and anyone who was not fine mentally was immediately scrutinized. In both stories the struggle of conforming to societies norms and the negative effects of not being able to do so are highlighted. Both Esther and Bromden struggle to find their place in society, which leads to their mental deterioration, resulting in them seeking for help through others.
Resulting from mental health issues, individuals often find difficulty successfully integrating into society, which is what both protagonists experience. Both characters introduce metaphors that express their distorted perspective on the world, in turn preventing them from being able to connect with others. In The Bell Jar, the title alone represents the madness that is Esther’s life; the madness she feels trapped in. Introducing her helplessness and how her mental illness follows her everywhere, Esther narrates “wherever I sat…I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air” (Plath, 98). Paralyzed by the feeling of inescapability, she is unable to enjoy and move forward with her life. Similarly, “the fog” and the hallucinations that affect Bromden’s daily life are debilitating, affecting his ability to function normally. “He [McMurphy] keeps trying to drag us out of the fog, out in the open where we’d be easy to get at” (Kesey, 123). He despises the fog, however finds comfort in knowing he is separated from reality by it. Due to their inabilities to interact with the outside world, their mental state thus appends to their confidence and difficulty to form new relationships. While out with Doreen and her male friend Lenny, Esther is given the opportunity to possibly form a relationship with a new man, however rather than pursing, she chooses to go home. This is a key point in the understanding of Esther’s complex personality, because the readers are shown that Esther does not glorify relationships and men like her peers do and she cannot bring herself to meet new people. In Bromden’s case, he finds difficulty interacting with the other patients at the ward, proven through the way the other patients describe him. Bromden is known as the dumb and deaf Indian. With such a negative impression on the other patients, Bromden chooses to keep to himself, doing his job of sweeping the corridors without bothering to interact with anyone, which is largely affected by his self-confidence. Furthermore, alongside their distorted view of the world and their plummeting confidence, they face the negative effects of paranoia. Esther becomes overly aware of the people around her thus making her unnecessarily suspicious of their actions. Esther feels as if people are over examining her, “I picked up the pieces of my letter to Doreen so Dr. Gordan couldn’t piece them together and see I was planning to run away” (Plath, 143). Despite the unrealistic situation, Esther finds herself over thinking minor details and assuming people are deceiving her. Correspondingly, Bromden believes the Big Nurse is out to get him, “I creep along the walls … but they got special sensitive equipment, detects my fear and they all look up” (Kesey, 9). Bromden seems to be living in fear believing people will discover what he is hiding, such as the fact that he is not actually mute. Therefore both characters find themselves unwillingly isolating themselves.
The harsh reality of someone’s differences being used to degrade is what both characters face in the stories. Esther does not conform to the typical stereotype of women, one reason being her mental illness disables her ability to react a certain way, “I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty” (Plath, 3). This leads to confusion and misunderstanding as to why Esther acts the way she does, because she herself does not understand her own mind. Bromden too finds himself misunderstood by the people around him, causing him to distance himself from them, “it wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all” (Kesey, 178). Because of everyone’s perception, he is trapped and misunderstood and thus chooses to keep to himself. Sexuality is another prominent theme in both stories. Esther feels she does not meet the expectations of every other young woman, as she is not sexually active. “I saw the world divided into people who had slept with someone and people who hadn’t… I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line” (Plath, 82). This alone is a large barrier between her and other girls, however she accepts the reality of the situation. Bromden is also surrounded by men who have an interest in sex while he does not. When describing nurse Ratched, he says “…Just like she was above him, and sex and everything else that’s weak and of flesh”, showing his disinterest in such topics (Kessey, 138). Describing sex as something weak, shows his different mentality that prevents him from fitting in with the rest of the men at the institute. Additionally, Esther and Bromden find themselves segregated due to the fact that they are both minorities. Esther feels oppressed by the gender roles society created, “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 coloured arrows from a 4th of July rocket” (Plath, 68). In talking about societies expectations and her own ambitions, Esther is expressing her inability to convey herself the way she would like to and her resistance against the expectations, affecting her ability to fit in. Bromden finds himself struggling to find his place, as his life is a constant reminder of racial prejudice. Bromden is saffected by his Indian characteristics such as his “Indian’s face and black, oily Indian’s hair”, as he feels everyone looks at him as an outsider and examines him (Kessey, 26). His stature and appearance seem to be the first thing noticed about him, this is proven when McMurphy says, “I swear you’re the biggest Indian I ever saw”, thus being identified and characterized by uncontrollable features affects him as it is one of the reason for his separation from others (Kesey, 219). Both characters have notable differences, which they feel drastically separate them from everyone else.
The overwhelming effects of mental health are impossible to deal with without someone to talk to; Esther and Bromden soon come to realize this. They find themselves confiding in others and slowly beginning to find happiness in their lives again. Esther finds comfort in her doctor, Dr. Nolan, a maternal figure in her life. Dr. Nolan is the first person Esther feels comfortable with to be able to instill her trust in. Through this trust, Dr. Nolan is able to ease Esther onto the path of recovery and convince her to go through with shock therapy. Bromden finds himself forming an unexpected friendship with the newly arrived patient, McMurphy. McMurphy brings out the best in Bromden and manages to get him speaking and thus opens him up to the other patients at the fishing trip, giving him clarity in his life as his friendship seems to have diminished the fogginess in his life. These friends provide an outlet for Esther and Bromden, however as a result, both protagonists face shock therapy. Esther fears the therapy, “I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along your nerves. I thought it must be the worst thing in the world”, however despite her best efforts to retain herself from that therapy, the result was inevitable (Plath, 3). Her trust in Dr. Nolan leads to her convincing Esther that the treatment would not be bad and thus she unwillingly went through with it. Much like Esther, Bromden speaks negatively of the electroshock describing it, as “jointly administered therapy and a punishment for your hostile go-to-hell behavior” (Kesey 67). Despite his fear, being alongside McMurphy and his rebellion, he is put through the therapy and forced to face the consequences. Resulting from their new friends and the consequential shock therapy, both characters find themselves recovering. Following her treatment, the depression Esther feels engulfed in, slowly dissolves, “I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air” (Plath, 113). For the first time, Esther feels relief and ready to enjoy the experience of life. Ultimately being given a second chance at life. Bromden slowly notices the fog clearing up through his past electroshock therapies and his relationship with McMurphy, “there’s no more fog anyplace”, representing his ameliorating mental state (Kessey, 130). Bromden gains the courage to finally escape from the institute and start his new life. Through opening up to others, both characters manage to escape their dark past.
To conclude, both the authors of Cuckoo’s Nest and The Bell Jar portray how through unrealistic expectations that society feels the need to conform to, one struggles with self perception and seeking acceptance, their mental health is destroyed and they are ultimately forced to seek help through others in order to aid them with their struggles. A startling 20% of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime (www.cmha.ca), not to mention the percentage of Canadians and people throughout the world who may not be affected directly but are helping friends or family through it. The world we live in today is referred to as a dog eats dog world, where only the strongest come out successful. We live in constant fear of being judged or looked down on and thus everyone wears their façade with pride, but with such ridiculously high standards and expectations, who is to say anyone is truly as mentally strong as they appear.
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