Conflict between Individuality and Conformity in The Bell Jar

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Conflict between Individuality and Conformity in The Bell Jar

In Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood seems incapable of healthy relationships with other women. She is trapped in a patriarchal society with rigid expectations of womanhood. The cost of transgressing social norms is isolation, institutionalization and a lost identity as woman. The struggle for an individual identity under this regime is enough to drive a person to the verge of suicide. Given the oppressive system under which she must operate, Esther Greenwood's problems with women stem from her conflict between individuality and conformity.

In formulating my topic, I have relied on Adrienne Rich's book Of Woman Born, as well as Cathy
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There was the famous poet, and Philomena Guinea, and Jay Cee, and the Christian Scientist lady and lord knows who, and they all wanted to adopt me in some way, and, for the price of their care and influence, have me resemble them (180).

Early in the novel, Esther expresses her dissatisfaction with the nature of mentoring, observing that "all the old ladies I ever knew wanted to teach me something, but I suddenly didn't think they had anything to teach me" (5). Added to the list of problematic mentors and mothers could be Mrs. Willard, with all of her negative associations as potential mother-in-law. She, like those mentioned specifically by Esther, represent conformity to others' expectations. Esther's problem with mentoring and modeling is not limited to older women. It extends as well as Doreen and Betsy, who represent conflicting images of Esther. Doreen is referred to by the narrator as "one of my troubles" rather than one of her friends (4). Esther perceives Betsy as an attempted rescuer, saying she behaved "as if she were trying to save me in some way" (5). This resentment toward those women who try to help her can be read as a reflection of Esther's fear of conformity.

The fullest expression of matrophobia comes with Esther's vocalization of her underlying feelings towards her mother: "I hate her" (166). The statement was provoked by an expression of maternal affection, namely bringing flowers

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