Although The Bell Jar is set in the 1950s, its mix of realism and idealism sends a clear message: Women don't have to settle. The novel's narrator, Esther Greenwood, a young woman whose biography resembles Plath's, is as much a 1950s rebel as J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, but in dealing with a series of feminist issues ranging from career choice to marriage, Esther is largely on her own. She has no National Organization of Women to turn to, no Ms. Magazine to read, no campus women's group.
The realism of The Bell Jar is reflected in the struggles that cause Esther to have a breakdown and undergo electroshock treatment. Save for her therapist, most of the women in Esther's life seem either lifeless or silly. Their real goal is to harmonize with the men they believe control their lives.
The men whom Esther encounters are far worse than the women. Her Yale boyfriend is a medical student who thinks of women as helpmates. The Harvard professor with whom she has her first affair is a glib seducer, and the older men she encounters during the summer she spends in New York working as the college editor at a women's magazine are uniformly shallow.
What makes Esther so remarkable is that she refuses to accept the bleak alternatives she is given. In a revealing scene at the start of The Bell Jar, Esther imagines herself sitting in a fig tree being given a choice of figs to eat. Each fig presents her with an option. She can have a husband, or be a poet, or travel the world, or have lots of lovers. She just can't do all of the above, and for Esther that is the problem. The scene ends with her refusing to choose just one fig.
Esther does not become paralyzed by an either/or world. "The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from," Esther says of herself and the ideal of a suburban marriage. "I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket."
Exactly how Esther will achieve such a result, she never says. She is too young to have her life mapped out. The Bell Jar ends with Esther about to return to society after her electroshock therapy has ended. But the conclusion of The Bell Jar is not the last word on Esther's future. Before the first chapter is over, Esther talks about her baby (not her husband or her partner) and what she did with all the free gifts she got during her summer of working for a women's magazine. "I use the lipsticks now and then, and last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses cases for the baby to play with," she tells us.
The modesty of this short passage makes it easy to overlook. But we overlook it at our peril. For at the core of the passage is both an example of Esther rising above the junk in her life and Plath asserting that women like herself don't have to be trapped by bad options. With enough effort, alchemy is possible.
Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College.