Examining Oppression Through the Lives and Stories of Sylvia Plath and Charlotte Perkins Gilman

By Sandra L. Meyer
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/3 |

Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar is about a young woman named Esther Greenwood entering college in the early 1950’s, a time before the second wave of the women’s movement had been implemented. Esther has dreams of becoming a famous writer while most of the women around her dream of finding a husband. Esther does not fit in with these women - no matter how hard she tries she knows she is meant for something more than domestic life. Her struggles between the world she knows and the world she wants create an inner turmoil that eventually sends her to an institution where she receives electrical shock treatments. These treatments are meant to stifle her creativity and desires, leaving her placid and docile – which is exactly what she feared she would become if she surrendered to the domestic life of wife and mother.

A similar theme is threaded throughout Charlotte Gilman Perkin’s The Yellow Wallpaper in that the female protagonist is also a writer who is struggling with her own identity. Gilman brilliantly takes her readers on a harrowing journey of a woman controlled completely by her husband, so much to the point that she has been imprisoned in a solitary room by his command. Gilman confirms the woman’s unimportance by not giving her a name, as she does to the other characters in the story. The woman, having recently had a baby, is suffering from post-partum depression. Her husband, however, insists her problems are a product of an overactive imagination. His solution is to take away all activities that may stimulate her imagination any further and instills the ill-fated rest cure. As a result of this treatment, the woman is confined from her friends, family, and creative abilities, and she spirals downward into a state of dementia, unable to return to her former life.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Sylvia Plath utilize their real life situations in these compelling works about how being a woman living in a patriarchal society ultimately caused their mental breakdowns. The labels of wife and mother that were coveted by many women during the Victorian era and still in the 1950’s, were not labels that appealed to Gilman and Plath. Instead, they felt stifled by these stereotypes and wanted to break the mold - society, however, had a different view. The oppression and creative stifling, faced by the female protagonists created by Charlotte Gilman and Sylvia Plath, fueled their problems, and ultimately led to their mental decline.

There have been many critical reviews of The Bell Jar over the years, and most agree, that the male dominated society in which the character of Esther Greenwood resided, attributed to her mental breakdown. Wendy Martin writes “Male writers are permitted to articulate their aggression, however violent or hostile; women writers are supposed to pretend that they are never angry. Sylvia Plath refuses to honor this concept of feminine decorum and dares to express her negative emotions.” (Martin 55-68). In her essay ― “’God‘s Lioness’ – Sylvia Plath, Her Prose and ,’” Martin describes similarities between Plath and her character, Esther Greenwood and points out that Esther was fueled by Plath‘s anger at the treatment of women, and the limited options she felt were available to her because of her sex.

Critic Linda W. Wagner acknowledges the gender issues raised in The Bell Jar, and further describes the problems faced by Esther as being identity related, as well as the struggle of being a woman in a male dominated society. In her article: “A Ritual for Being Born Twice: Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar,” Wagner analyzes the struggles that the character of Esther Greenwood faces in choosing between career and family. She summarizes that  “disease, whether mental or physical, is an index to the human inability to cope with an unlivable situation.” (Wagner 2). Another critical perspective comes from Marjorie G. Perloff, who concludes that Esther‘s issues stem from a battle between her  ‘inner self‘ and her ‘outer behavior‘, suggesting Esther suffers from schizophrenia. Perloff points to several situations in which Esther seems to divide herself into two separate personalities, each serving the purpose of survival of the self.  Perloff suggests though, that the struggles that Esther faces “seems to have a great deal to do with being a woman in a society whose guidelines for women she can neither accept nor reject” (Perloff 3).

The idea of the battle against self is further investigated in an article in Women’s Studies by Diane S. Bonds. Bonds suggests that The Bell Jar is a “collusion between the notion of a separate and separative self (or bounded, autonomous subject) and the cultural forces that have oppressed women” (Bonds 1). Bonds explores the idea of self exploration that Esther faces throughout the novel, and how the patriarchal atmosphere slowly causes her to actually lose pieces of herself as she fights the oppression. All of these perspectives have one thing in common – they all point back to the issue of oppression of women. Though each critic finds a different angle to discuss, each argument is founded on the basis of a woman trying to validate herself in a man‘s world. The ideas presented by these critics lend a great deal of insight into the tragic breakdown of Esther, however, could have further concentrated on the affect of her writing, or lack of writing, to her mental state. I will explore this in greater detail in my own analysis.

The story of The Yellow Wallpaper has been the subject of numerous critical reviews since its first publication in 1892. Some critics see this as a Gothic tale, meant to create the feelings of horror and shock that Poe‘s short stories achieved. Greg Johnson points out the Gothic themes in his critical analysis, but also identifies the narrator‘s need to write as an escape from her confinement. Johnson describes the story as  “a woman attempting to save herself through her own writing…” (Johnson 2).

While critics like Beverly Hume and Penelope Deutscher agree that Gilman‘s tale exemplifies the problems that stemmed from the narrator‘s desire to fight her oppression, others concentrate on the actual treatments that the narrator faces as additional causes for her unraveling. John S. Bak writes about a method of prisoner surveillance called Panopticon. Bak argues that the Panopticon method was very similar to the treatment in which the narrator was subjected to, and was shown to be detrimental to the emotional state of the prisoner to whom it was instated. Bak also notes that  “The Yellow Wallpaper, then became a feminist text that indicated the men who were responsible for the narrator‘s physical confinement and subsequent mental demise” (Bak 1). This is yet another critic agreeing that the way the narrator in this story was treated, was largely responsible for her eventual total breakdown.

Another facet to the treatment faced by Gilman‘s protagonist was the instilment of the famed ‘rest cure‘. Critics Paula A. Treichler and Linda Wagner-Martin touch on the rest cure and its effects on the narrator, agreeing that the treatment was often worse than the supposed illness. In regards to The Yellow Wallpaper, Treichler writes  “A feminist reading emphasizes the social and economic conditions which drive the narrator – and potentially all women – to madness” (Golden 195).

While there are an unlimited amount of positions that critics can argue in regards to this story, most agree that at the center lies the issue of the narrator’s forced subservience to her husband, John. John controls every aspect of her life, from her diet, to her sleeping routine, down to with whom she is allowed to interact. This complete relinquishment of freedom takes the narrator from a slight depression into the full throes of a mental breakdown in which she apparently never recovers. The aspects of oppression, submission, and failed medical treatments, will be further scrutinized in this paper, and proven to be key issues in the narrators‘ madness.

Gilman and Plath were creative and educated women who had a desire to live up to their full potentials, and not just the role of wife and mother that society had created for them. The characters that they wrote about had many of the same aspirations and faced many of the same obstacles. In writing The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath creates the character of Esther Greenwood as a way to deal with the emotions she wrestled with. Wendy Martin writes “Male writers are permitted to articulate their aggression, however violent or hostile; women writers are supposed to pretend that they are never angry. Sylvia Plath refuses to honor this concept of feminine decorum and dares to express her negative emotions” (Martin 55-68). The character of Esther Greenwood unabashedly describes her emotions about the resentment she has about the patriarchal society in which she lives. The only purpose that Esther sees in a man is so that she can lose her virginity. She does not desire , instead she says, “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in anyway. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters” (Plath 76).

Esther defies her social role at every turn, dating a variety of men and thinking that men exist only to control women, a thought that keeps her running from any type of serious relationship. Life is viewed as meaningless if she does not have her own identity as a writer, and she refuses the notion of getting married, though she pursues love anyway. Martin writes that  “the bell jar is a symbol for the internal chaos and despair produced by excessive external prohibitions” (Martin 3). These  “prohibitions” consisted of the fact that Esther feels condemned to a life of domesticity based on the fact that she was born female. She believes that she could either have a career, or a family, but both would not be possible. Esther begins imagining marriage as she pursues men in New York in a quest to lose her virginity. She soon comes to the realization though, that  “in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard‘s kitchen mat” (Plath 85). This is not the life for which Esther has worked so hard - she did not spend years studying and proving her intelligence just to wind up as someone‘s property.

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