Patriarchy, Conformity And Individuality As Expressed In The Bell Jar And Edible Woman Essay, Research Paper
Patriarchy, Conformity and Individuality
as Expressed in The Bell Jar and Edible Woman
There has always been some amount of difficulty being a woman in our society, whether
it be in the present day or fifty years ago. There are many roles that women are expected to
play and many circumstances they have to face if they ?fail? to live out these certain roles. Our
world is filled with conformity, patriarchy and stereotypical attitudes that are so embedded into
us that it is near impossible to look past. The book, Edible Woman, written by Margaret Atwood,
is about a woman who is torn between the feminine stereotype of the Nineteen-sixties and her
own personality. This is very similar to Sylvia Plath?s, Bell Jar, which examines the life of a
woman suffering from the patriarchal society that offers her no positive role models. Both novels
have similar themes and characters as well as similar portrayal of men and other women and the
different roles that they play in society.
Marian McAlpin, the protagonist in Edible Woman is in her mid-twenties and is about to
get married to her young and immaculate fianc?, Peter. Marian is a graduate student who now
has an office job working for Seymour Surveys. She is now very upset because for the first time
in her life she has to make choices that are very important to the direction of her future but she
is absolutely overwhelmed by all of these choices. She begins very slowly to reject different types
of food until eventually there is nothing left that she is comfortable eating. She has the ongoing
feeling that it is she that is being consumed and grows very disturbed by the people around her.
Eventually, she sees that in order for her to be healthy, she has to take responsibility for her
actions and destroy the socially approved feminine role that has been forced upon her.
Esther Greenwood is faced with similar problems in the Bell Jar, where she is reaching a
point where she has to make many important decisions and to choose what path she wants to
take in life. Although she is very talented and has many options ahead of her, she lacks decent
role models and is unsatisfied with the positions that women are supposed to take in society.
Eventually she becomes very mentally strained and this leads into her ongoing struggle with
schizophrenia in mental hospitals. Esther sees herself mirrored in other characters in the novel,
especially a woman named Joan who is somewhat of a reversed parallel to her personality.
Eventually when Joan commits suicide, Esther is able to recover.
In both novels, it seems that there are many paths that both protagonists are
presented with. These paths are seen in the many different characters that Marian and Esther
are faced with in their lives and because none of the roles are very satisfying to them, this
causes very much rebellion and stress for both women. For Marian, these roles include her
widow landlady; a spinster who is presented to her by a woman organizing pention plans at
Seymour Surveys; a pure woman waiting for marriage and children like some of the ?office
virgins? who work with her; mother, represented by her friend Clara, who is so obviously wiped
out by her children she refers to them as ?leeches?; and the enlightened unmarried woman who
she associates with her roommate. ?…Marian McAlpin has a…problem with defining her own
reality in a puzzling and nonsensical environment.? Marian deals with much stress with the
realization that she has very little control over her life.
Esther Greenwood is also faced with many different characters that seem to split her
personality into two parts. At the beginning of the novel, there are two major paths that are
presented. One is presented by Doreen, a sassy, beautiful woman who is wild and sluttish. The
contrasting role to this is Betsy, who is polite, clean and pure. This is the initial conflict that
Esther finds hard to deal with. There are two sides to her personality and she can?t accept them
as both being an integrated part of herself. Other contrasting roles for Esther is the role of the
mother and the role of the career woman. There are many women who represent the pure
traditional role of motherhood and there are also many women who represent the independent,
exciting role of the career woman. For example, Jay Cee represents the role of the career
woman, and her mother and Buddy?s mother are maternal figures, but all of these women are
poor role models for Esther and she feels even more unsatisfied.
Being a mother means that you need to give up your career and independence and
being a career woman means that you are going to die alone and lonely. Both Marian and Esther
have difficulty finding the balance between these two roles. ?Marian, Duncan [Marion?s lover] and
Peter are all twenty-six, at the age when society expects them to abandon youthful freedom and
being to assume imprisoning life-time roles.? Because of the expectations of society, both of the
women feel that they don?t have any time and that they are being pressured into taking their
In both novels, there is a very similar and interesting portrayal of men. The character
Lenny that is introduced near the beginning of the novel as Doreen?s boyfriend can very easily be
compared to Peter, Marian?s fiance. Both men are portrayed as ?predators? who have
apartments furnished with animal skins and horns. One of Peter?s hobbies is hunting and both
men have the stereotypical interest in electronics (Lenny?s DJ equipment and Peter?s Hi-fi
system and photography equipment) as well as their obvious interest in drinking. The societies
that are portrayed in the novels are very patriarchal and men are seen as consuming of women.
In Edible Woman, many of the male characters are seen to be feeding off the core of women.
Clara?s husband, Joe feels that he and his children have corrupted Clara by making her be a wife
and mother instead of letting her persue her intellectual interests. He states women should not
be allowed to go to university because when they begin a family, that life isn?t an option for them
anymore and they know what they are missing by being tied down with children and a husband.
In the Bell Jar, men are also seen as destructive to women and somewhat of a ball and
chain as opposed to a gentle anchor. Esther had difficulty dealing with her relationship to Buddy
Willard. She found that he wasn?t very supportive of her creativity and the idea of marrying him
was very smothering to her. The negative stance on premarital sex in her patriarchal society was
infuriating to Esther. She thought that Buddy was a hypocrite because it was acceptable for him
to have an affair with a waitress but on the other hand, if it was she who had the affair, she was
no longer pure and not a respectable woman. This double-standard was very restrictive to
Esther?s growth and development as a woman.
There is a point in both novels where it seems that both women have split themselves
into two personalities or two individuals. In the Bell Jar, Esther begins to take on an alternate
role as Elly Higginbottom from Chicago. It seems that she uses this personality when she wants
to escape from being Esther because she is unsatisfied with the way that her life is going. Being
Elly means that she can choose to be someone different and she feels that she has more control
in creating someone, rather than her life being out of her hands. The Edible Woman is broken into
three distinct parts. The first part is spoken in the first person, but as the novel goes on and
Marian loses more and more control, she switches over to the third person in the second part.
This represents the fact that Marian feels she has no control over what she is doing and she is
watching herself from the point of an onlooker. Only when Marian finally gets hold of herself and
her situation does the novel finally switch back into the first person for her final recovery and
Because of the oppressive society both women are living in, the become seriously ill and
although their illnesses are not similar, they are caused for the same reason. Many people
believe that Anorexia is caused by the person feeling that they have no control over their lives
and by monitoring their diet they can have control over themselves. Because Marian felt that all
of her decisions were being made for her, her body began to protest and by not eating, she was
controlling something that Peter never could. In the Bell Jar, Esther?s stress and oppressed
personality seemed to have caused her illness. With the overwhelming feeling that she was being
torn into every different direction, she increasingly became ill and eventually needed
hospitalization and serious medical treatment. The stress and lack of control caused both
women to break down and hit rock bottom before they finally realized that they had to take
responsibility for themselves and pull themselves into recovery.
Similarly to their illnesses, both women recovered in the same fashion. Marian finally
realized what she was feeling and she saw that she had to take control. She baked a cake to
resemble herself which represented the superficial feminine role that she was being forced to
take. By consuming the cake, she was destroying that image of herself and therefore by freeing
that part of her and the expectations of society, she was able to finally see herself as she was.
Esther finally recovered when Joan committed suicide. Joan was her ultimate reality and
strongest parallel to her own personality. It seemed that when Joan became more mentally
stable and improved in her condition, Esther?s sickness would get worse. This battle between
the two paths finally ended when the role of Joan was destroyed and Esther was allowed to
Both Edible Woman and the Bell Jar display the effects that a patriarchal society can
have on a woman. It shows the emotions that women feel or any person for that matter, when
their life is taken out of their hands and controlled by an outside force. Both novels question the
idea of conformity and the troubles that come from choosing preassigned roles. Both Esther and
Marian have to examine their personality and realize that in order for them to be healthy, they
must rebel against their oppressive society and live as individuals as opposed to living for
someone else or living as someone they are not.