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The Bell Jar and the Societal Expectations of Women in the 1950s

Elyse has taught middle school for five years. She majored in middle grades education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.

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There was a lot that disturbed the main character, Esther, throughout the entirety of The Bell Jar, including the presence of a woman that represented, to her, a dead end. The character Dodo Conway, though deemed a little peculiar in certain ways, ultimately represents a societal expectation of women that Esther does not wish for herself. The idea that women are supposed to get married and settle down to create a family is a theme that plays throughout the novel, and a theme that Dodo Conway emulates in many different ways. This societal expectation is one that Esther shows a particularly transparent disdain for, and one that she continues to question quite openly throughout the rest of the novel through pretty much every choice she makes.

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It’s after Esther goes back home that she is awoken by the squeaking of the wheels of a carriage rolling past her house. “A woman not five feet tall, with a grotesque, protruding stomach, was wheeling an old black baby carriage down the street. Two or three small children of various sizes, all pale, with smudgy faces and bare smudgy knees, wobbled along in the shadow of her skirts” (Plath 95). This particular scene, which would be viewed by most as a pleasant picture of domesticity, is turned ludicrous and disgusting by Esther’s rhetoric. Dodo’s body is described as unnatural, swollen, and even almost diseased. This reflects Esther’s opinion on motherhood. Despite this less than positive picture, Esther goes on to say that Dodo is opposite of herself in another way, that is to say, happy. “A serene, almost religious smile lit up the woman’s face. Her head tilted happily back, like a sparrow egg perched on a duck egg, she smiled into the sun” (95). By referring to her smile as borderline religious, Esther not only comments on the serenity Dodo exudes, but also, perhaps, questions that happiness a little bit, as Esther herself does not seem to have much faith in religion. She also makes fun of Dodo’s disposition a little further by comparing her posture to balancing eggs, the absurdity of which is demeaning to the young mother’s overall appearance. Esther’s overall tone in these few sentences contains a hint of contempt towards Conway and the happiness she has.

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Esther’s contempt continues as she goes on to give Dodo Conway’s backstory, which is revealing in itself. Dodo was college educated, and married a Catholic architect. The fact that Conway had an education beyond high school, like Esther, and chose to have a family instead of a career is certainly significant, as this is the fate that Esther is currently avoiding. “They had a big, rambling house up the street from us, set behind a morbid façade of pine trees, and surrounded by scooters, tricycles, doll carriages, toy fire trucks, baseball bats, badminton nets, croquet wickets, hamster cages and cocker spaniel puppies—the whole sprawling paraphernalia of suburban childhood” (95). In this passage, she uses listing to mimic the “rambling” that she perceives around the Conway house. The long list of children’s toys paints a picture of chaos and disarray, which shows what a mess Esther considers Dodo’s domestic life. She then goes on to describe the building itself, which is considered odd by the neighbors for its unusual coloring and unsociable isolation. This setting seems to hint that Dodo is alone in her domesticity, happy, perhaps, but cut off from the rest of the world. Her home is her world, and even the pine trees hiding it from view seem to discourage anyone visiting. She is not like the other mothers on the street, because her domesticity is more consuming, her home being one example, her children, another. “The older people around, like my mother, had two children, and the younger, more prosperous ones had four, but nobody but Dodo was on the verge of a seventh” (96). Other than being fully domestic, Dodo Conway goes above and beyond by having more children than everyone else as well. While the generation younger than Esther’s mother were actually having more children—a reflection on the time period—Dodo still exceeds the usual number of children by a wide margin. Esther ties the reason for this to religious background. “Even six was considered excessive, but then, everyone said, of course Dodo was a Catholic” (96). This particular sentence reveals that the rest of the neighborhood was most likely Protestant, and therefore Dodo defies the norm in that was as well. Her religion, however, was widely viewed as an acceptable excuse for having an impractical amount of kids. Esther also admits that Dodo is a skilled parent. “Dodo raised her six children—and would no doubt raise her seventh—on Rice Krispies, peanut-butter-and-marshmallow sandwiches, vanilla ice cream and gallon upon gallon of Hoods milk. She got a special discount from the local milkman” (96). This diet she describes with a hint of irony, naming brands that are clearly household names, again tying Dodo to the role of domesticity. Even so, her savvy in getting a discount from the milkman, and the fact that such a menu would be most kids dream, admits that she has motherhood well under control, even with an unheard of number of children.

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Dodo Conway is different from her neighbors in her religion, her dwelling place, and her number of children. These differences, however, do not intimidate anyone because they are seen as being excusable. As the norm for women at the time was to settle down and stay home, the fact that Dodo’s house is a little secluded doesn’t exactly defy the norm, so much as it exceeds it. The fact that she had a lot of children was viewed as a little impractical, maybe, but overall acceptable, as it was a woman’s job to have children anyway. Dodo simply went above and beyond to be a supermom, but still basically followed the societal expectations of a woman. Finally, Dodo is a Catholic, which is different from her neighbors, but not different enough to be a problem. It is, perhaps, made more acceptable by the fact that her husband is also Catholic. Going a little further along that line, Catholicism, especially at the time, is a denomination in which women were subservient to men. Only men could become priests in the Catholic Church, for example. This, too, is consistent with the rest of society at that time, which expected women to be fairly submissive to men. Therefore, Dodo Conway, even in her differences, only exceeded the expectations of society, instead of defying them. This is, perhaps, the reason why “everybody loved Dodo” (96).

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The simple fact that Dodo Conway is such a strong example of the expectation of women shows a lot about the time period Esther is living in, as well as showing the model she is resisting. Dodo went to college and then got married, making nothing more of herself than a college educated mother of seven. Esther is trying to, perhaps, have a career. “What I always thought I had in mind was getting some big scholarship to graduate school or a grant to study all over Europe, and then I thought I'd be a professor and write books of poems or write books of poems and be an editor of some sort” (27). She goes through a few different scenarios in her mind, attempting to pick what she wants to do with her life. Her internship in New York City is evidence of her desire to forge her own path. Dodo Conway also forfeited a career because she got married. Her husband has a career, yet Dodo is expected to stay home. Esther is different in that she considers herself equal to a man. When she discovered that Buddy had had sex before, for example, she felt that she should as well, to make it even. “Ever since Buddy Willard had told me about that waitress I had been thinking I ought to go out and sleep with somebody myself. Sleeping with Buddy wouldn't count, though, because he would still be one person ahead of me, it would have to be with somebody else” (59). In a society where women are expected to be pure and virginal, even if the men aren’t, this is certainly a bold way of thinking. Even bolder is when she rejects Buddy’s marriage proposal, showing that getting married—supposedly a woman’s first ambition—does not rank highly in her mind. Esther also doesn’t think that she’ll ever have children. “Children made me sick,” she says (96). She ensures control over her own body later on by getting birth control (163). Esther takes purposeful steps to keep from getting pregnant, steps that Dodo clearly has never taken, being currently pregnant with her seventh child. Dodo not only has never had any real control over her own life, but she lacks control over her body as well. Esther shows a valiant effort to escape this fate in a series of brave choices that would be seen as nothing short of abominable by her society.

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Esther never referred to herself as a feminist, but her introduction of the happily domestic Dodo Conway show a particular disdain for her, and Esther’s actions reveal an acute desire to escape the sort of fate society also expected of her. The passage introducing Dodo Conway serves as a model of these expectations, in that Dodo’s entire life shows a distinct lack of control and equality. The same passage also makes clear the contrast between Dodo and Esther, both in Esther’s disapproving and contemptuous tone, and simply in the obvious differences between the two regarding their priorities and choices. The content of this passage is truly illuminating toward the character of this protagonist, and of the theme of what was expected of women in the 1950’s.

© 2018 Elyse Maupin-Thomas

Comments

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on May 10, 2020:

Nice book review, Elyse, I'd like to read the book about Esther and Dodo, you pointed out interesting contrasts about two female characters.

Liz Westwood from UK on September 02, 2018:

This is an interesting commentary on life in the 1950s.