An overarching theme in The Bell Jar is society’s belittling of women’s roles in the 1950s. Esther, the main character, faces many obstacles as a woman in the 1950s. However, she does not always adhere to the social norms of the time. For example, Esther does not get married to Buddy Willard, the seemingly picture-perfect husband, even though most women were expected to be housewives at the time. Esther’s defiance and resolve have been ever-present in society. Today, there are still double-standards that women face. Like Esther, women of today are defiant of social norms. As long as the debate over women’s roles is kept alive, social norms will change, even if it takes a long time. Plath is successful in conveying her opinion regarding the theme of women’s roles in the 1950s, which is that she does not agree with the double standards. In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood is an intern at Ladies Day magazine in New York City. There, she feels unsatisfied and pressured. She does not know what she wants to do after her internship. When the internship is up, she returns home, still unsure of her life. She contemplates suicide, eventually attempting to do so by taking many sleeping pills. She lives in a mental hospital for a while, and after long therapy, makes it out in a better state of mind. However, she is still aware that the metaphorical bell jar that looms over her head could send her back into that state of mind at any time.
One example of Plath showing the view of women in the 1950s is when Buddy reveals his affair. Esther asks if Buddy (who appears to be Esther’s perfect math) has ever had an affair, expecting the answer to be no. Buddy reveals he actually did have an affair. Esther states that “Of course, somebody had seduced Buddy, Buddy hadn’t started it and it wasn’t really his fault. It was this waitress at the hotel he worked at as a busboy the last summer at Cape Cod”. Esther’s comment shows that Buddy played it off at the waitress seducing him, making himself seem less at fault. Buddy expects Esther to be a virgin for when he proposes to her, but he is allowed to do whatever he wants and keep it a secret. Plath’s inclusion of this story builds into the theme of the view on women because Buddy bosses Esther around as if he owns her. He gives her rules to follow but then can do whatever he wants on the side. It is belittling to Esther to be viewed more as an item and less as someone Buddy loves.
Another example of women’s roles being belittled is when Esther expresses her interests in poetry, and Buddy shoots her down. Esther states that “Buddy said he figured there must be something in poetry if a girl like me spent all her days over it, so each time we met I read him some poetry and explained to him what I found in it…Buddy’s father was a teacher, and I think Buddy could have been a teacher as well, he was always trying to explain things to me and introduce me to new knowledge. Suddenly, after I finished a poem, he said, ‘Esther, have you ever seen a man?’…I knew he meant a man naked”. While Esther has an interest in poetry, Buddy does not see the appeal. Instead, he uses these opportunities to teach Esther about his profession, showing a superiority complex. He also was likely not paying attention to her poetry because immediately after Esther finished, he asked if she wanted to see him naked. This shows how Buddy did not nurture Esther’s interest just because it is not something he himself is interested in. He also does not nurture her interests because she is a woman, and Buddy sees womens’ roles as less important than mens’ roles.
Another instance where Plath shows the belittling of women’s roles is when Esther comments on the idea of giving birth. Esther explains that the woman she saw giving birth “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…Later Buddy told me the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she’d had any pain…I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent”. Esther knew how men view women. Even if the drug actually was not created by a man, Esther knows from her past experiences how men treat women more as objects and less as partners. Plath is successful in her commentary because she makes the point that men see women more as object through Esther’s thoughts.