People embodies social institutions within them, and all social cues and behaviors are passed down, weather through direct education or not. The subtle process allows for unhealthy conducts and damaging ideals to seep through and pass on unseen, until it manifest itself in destructive ways, and this destruction can happen to a singular person or a group of people. When this destruction happens, people see it as a singular event rather than a process that has historical implications.
However, it is the social institution that allows for the growth of civilization. The social evolutionary process dictates that civilization evolved of barbarianism, thus, without the social institution embedded within and passed on, civilization will break down, from the individual unit to the family unit, until it reaches the societal unit. While this permits civilization’s continuity, the necessary social norms and acts are often time restricting and harmful, hence people rebel against the system.
In order to rebel, there must be an understanding that the institution itself is hidden, and at times, invisible, but exist nonetheless, which will influences the resistance movement. The resistance that takes shape on the individual scale also resonates beyond the self. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar lends itself to this resistance of expectations and social behavior necessary for fitting in, especially during post-war United States.
The Bell Jar revolves around the way the main protagonist, Esther Greenwood, suffocates under these expectations, and how she goes about resisting this system, ultimately reaching the liberatingly radical form of resistance, suicide, yet, even as she resist, Esther comes to understand the limitation of her resistance and the ways the institution and its dominant ideologies stamps out such rebellions. The novel starts out with Esther in New York, an urban setting.
New York is a major city in American society; it is here in New York where different civilizations meet and share ideologies that will soon entrench itself in society and spread throughout the nation. For Esther, New York should be a new and exciting place, however, she “felt very still and very empty” (Plath, 3), opposing the expectant behavior and emotions she is suppose to feel. Esther is already different from the other girls who knows what they want, and understand how to mold emselves to fit the standard placed upon them.
By this point in the girls’ lives, they already know how to act and behave properly without conscious efforts, but not Esther. Esther mentions that all her successes will “fizzle to nothing” along “Madison Avenue” (2). It is this small, noiseless, insignificant death of her success, where her successes are representations of her fitting into society. She had done what is expected and had been rewarded for it, however, here in New York, where it should be the greatest reward for her thus far, she will fade away, leaving only a short spluttering noise amongst the busy avenue.
Madison Avenue is the hub of advertising, where some of the biggest advertising agency was born. Consumerism is a huge part of American culture, and within these ads, ideologies are reproduced and enforce, which will keeps the American culture alive and Americans in line as they continue to be bombarded with these beliefs, because to step outside of that is reject this civilization.
Advertisements are created in Madison Avenue and then distribute throughout the nation, tying Americans together under one culture; for Esther to pathetically die along this avenue, her resistance is futile for this is the concrete place where the person she is expected to be is born. Her womanhood is born here and, should she die, Esther knows that it will be insignificant. It is also in New York that Esther meets Doreen. Doreen embodies a certain kind of sexual rebellion and Esther is attracted to the way Doreen sees the world, seen through her witty and snarky attitude.
Esther loves the way Doreen resists the expectant behavior, as Doreen’s words “was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones” (7). Esther knows that she wants to resist the forceful containment that everyone around her is so keen on pushing her into. Esther has not fully and consciously attempt to resist the control, since it is still within her bones, Doreen serve as an outlet for Esther’s resistance and a mean of liberation.
With Doreen, the resistance is not privatize, rather, it catches on to people who already had the need to resist within them, however, had Esther been like the other girls, this resistance would not had caught on, showing the inefficiency of this. When Doreen and Esther head to the party, Esther mentions that she “was skinny as a boy and barely rippled” (8), which shows that she knows she does not fit in, yet she’s also keenly aware that her body is resisting the expectation placed upon it.
Despite everyone’s effort, they had barely touched her, and in turn, she has not fully reproduced, and with reproduction, teaches and pass on, the behaviors. All these forms of resistance are under the surface. It is not until when Esther had to leave New York that she began to realize just how deep these expectations goes, and made a conscious effort against it. Esther killed her fake, yet accepted, self on her last night in New York. This self is embodied through her New York wardrobe, which highlights what it means to be a lady.
She “fed [her] wardrobe to the night wind” where it will land “in the dark heart of New York” (111). She is shedding away the lies that her New York body had become for her, despite the fact that her New York self is what society wants her to become. While still in New York, Esther performs her role diligently, and at one point, created another persona, “Elly Higgenbottom”(11), thus, allowing Esther to create a space where she can hide, escape, and even free herself from trying to fit into the unyielding identity that is expected of her.
This all ends once she killed that self, letting go of the visual representation of that out the window, discarding the underlining image of who Esther is supposed to be. The end of New York marks the end of Esther’s subtle resistance. Back home, free from the strain of the big city, Esther desire to live as herself, focusing on her writing. The writing course that she wants creates a “safe” place for her to act out, however, she was not accepted and that safe place, which represent her future and her freedom, “totter and dissolve” (114).
Again, it is not a magnificent death, but a feeble, weak, and silent death. It highlights her insignificance and how her resistance will not hurt civilization at a whole, at least, not with the way she is living now. She made the decision to free herself, yet that decision is rip from her, much like how resistance is stamp out to force everyone to conform. With this, Esther settles into a sense of hopelessness. Now, with the course gone, Esther is in a place where she cannot envision a future for herself, a future without conforming.
Whereas in New York, despite not wanting to be there, Esther still play her role, even creating new personalities to safely fit in because she still hope; here, Esther, decide to isolate herself from society as her way of resisting it. She becomes no one. Her silence is her armor, something the writing course should have been. Through her silence, Esther becomes an outsider. The one power outsiders possess is the ability to observe and understand the situation in their own ways without being tangle in the clutter. Even when the insiders are observing the outsider, they are bounded and contain unlike the outsider.
In the domestic setting, Esther spies on her neighbors, she “raised [her] eyes to the level of the windowsill” where she saw “Dodo Conway” “wheeling an old black baby carriage down the street” with her other children following along (116). Dodo represents the domestic woman Esther is supposed to be, for Dodo is a mother who is married to a man who takes care of her and the family unit. It is the expected lifestyle. Although this is not a direct observation because Esther observes through her window and only at the bottom of the window. The window creates a istortion and the lack of room also creates an even smaller and less clean lens for Esther to peak through. Despite living in the small house and being surrounded by the domestic space, Esther’s silent resistance allows for her to turn her gaze to Dodo, in a way, doing exactly what others have done towards Esther herself. Others who have done this are in the more powerful position, here, Esther have the upper hand. As someone who is resisting the norms, this particular scene shows that Esther and her beliefs are more powerful than the life that Dodo represents, the life Esther is suppose to live.
Esther’s silent, but very active, resistance is also seen through the way she dress herself. In New York, Esther wore different dresses, signifying the different masks and roles she played, the ways in which Esther tries to be someone, but that self died when she threw her wardrobe out the window. Here, in the suburban space where she becomes no one, she “haven’t got the time to change out of this and change into that” (121). This also goes back to the hopelessness she feels without the writing course. In this living space, Esther does not have the desire or the willpower to be someone else.
Additionally, changing allows for freshness; someone who does not change fades away to the background. The odor will spread and people will want to clean it, make it fresh again, as most do with very old laundry. It becomes a nuisance that needs fixing and cleaning. In a way, Esther, while trying to fade away, is allowing people to become aware of her and her resistance. They, who are already contain and living without resistance, will acts as police and teachers to keep Esther in line and reeducate her. She draws more attention to herself while trying to hide away.