?ompare and contrast the presentation of Sexuality in The Bell Jar Essay Example
'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath and 'Oranges are not the only fruit' by Jeanette Winterson are two quite diverse novels in more respects than one. 'The Bell Jar' is a semi-autobiographical critically acclaimed novel that explores the effects of insanity in the form of depression on a gifted academic, who was popular amongst her peers as well as respected by her Tutors. Its major themes consist of societal pressure, confinement, motherhood, and the theme that is the basis of my assignment; Sexuality.
On the other hand 'Oranges are not the only fruit' is an out of the ordinary novel that explores the contradictory life of a religious girl who finds her personal feelings in complete opposition to her Christian way of life. It causes her to be ostracized from the church and to be banished from the...
family. The theme of Sexuality is present in both novels, and is clearly an important aspect of the progress and the direction of the novels. I grant that the novels have some different themes but similarities can be found within the boundaries of the theme of Sexuality.
Esther Greenwood, the heroine of 'The Bell Jar' is troubled and becomes aware of this when on her internship. She thinks through her feelings towards certain aspects of life and becomes aware that society doesn't agree with hers, this is evident in her views on sexuality also. "Ever since I'd learned about the corruption of Buddy Willard, my virginity weighed like a millstone around my neck. " This quotation displays Esther's views on her virginity and her desire to banish this label as soon as she heard Buddy was no longer one
She felt it would be unjust to remain a virgin.
However, in that period of time, Society frowned upon adultery. Yet Esther paid no regard to these conventions, and her only goal was to lose her virginity so that she would be equal to Buddy. Her virginity 'weighed like a millstone' around her neck because it made her feel inadequate in front of Buddy. The key word in the quotation "millstone" is of significant value; Plath seems to have hand picked this word for effect. A millstone is one of a pair of cylindrical stones used for grinding grain.
The connotations of this word may be referring to the role of a woman; to serve. Holding such a heavy object is a burden. Therefore, Plath has used the word 'millstone' to convey the extent of the burden that is Esther's virginity. Similarly, Jeanette in 'Oranges are not the only fruit', shares the same disregard for her community's conventions and her religion's when she is adamant that she will not repent for being a lesbian. "He turned to me. 'I love her' 'Then you do not love the lord. ' 'Yes, I love both of them. ' 'You cannot. " [P. 103, L. 18-21]
This quotation highlights Jeanette's refusal to repent as her lover, Melanie did. The pastor had announced to the whole church congregation about the nature of her relationship with Melanie. They were pronounced sinners, and children of Satan himself. Jeanette clearly didn't feel the need to conform to her community's conventions and views about lesbianism. She didn't feel that she was compromising her religion and faith in God by being attracted to Women. The similarities of
the two references are the obvious disregard for the conventions of the time and society.
However in Jeanette's case, she is more influenced by hers because refusing to repent at all at first, but later when locked in a room for two days without food or light she gives in externally. Yet she cannot seem to deny her feelings inside. And she returns to her ways soon afterwards. Despite the preferences of both heroines of the novels, they share similarities in the aspect of their feelings towards men. Esther's first experience of 'seeing a man' (Buddy) does not seem to 'excite' her as it were. ''Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept staring at him.
The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed. "[P. 64 L. 31-33] Esther's feelings towards Buddy at that moment thrilled her to such a lesser extent that she compared his 'manhood' to the likes of a turkey. Plath's use of an animal image connotes the extent of Esther's insult to the male anatomy, namely the Penis. The penis is a vital organ which tends to define a man. This language has been used in order to highlight the extremity of Esther's disgust towards the basic notion of sexuality in form of the Penis.
Similarly, Jeanette's dissatisfaction with men on the whole leads her to find love elsewhere. The same animal imagery is used when she describes men as beasts and conveys her feelings of resentment towards women who 'settle' for a man who is not worthy of her in fear of being branded a 'Spinster' or a lesbian.
''There are women in the world... Did that mean that all over the globe, in all innocence, women were marrying beasts? " [P. 71 L. 5-16] Jeannette feels as if she is facing a world-wide conspiracy; after she reads Beauty ; the Beast, instead of being enchanted, she becomes worried.
The fairytale about a beautiful girl who is bound to a Beast's castle but then falls in love with him. She then finds that he turns into a beautiful man when a teardrop of true love falls onto him. Jeanette is apprehensive about this misjudgement as she is aware that not all 'beasts' morph into beautiful, caring men. Thus, her dissatisfaction with this unjustness regarding the lack of sufficient Men as opposed to 'Beasts' and so prefers to love women. The image of the beast is most certainly a negative one. Calling someone a 'beast' also means that they are brutal and contemptible.
The use of the animal image in both The Bell Jar and Oranges are not the only fruit is vital when the reader is trying to understand the heroine's perspective towards men. However the key issue of exactly what may have influenced both Esther and Jeanette to detest the total concept of sexuality and men has yet to be resolved. The absence of Esther's father in her vital growing period may have had a considerable affect on her outlook on Men and sexual activity in general. The only male role model she had known was her Father, and her brother.
However the latter is barely mentioned in the novel, so the reader is unable to form judgements based on the influence Esther's brother may had
or had not had on her mental wellbeing. Despite her positive feelings towards the character of her Father, the fact that he died seems to her like he betrayed her, even though he died of an illness. This resulted in creating vulnerability in Esther, which caused her to later be dissatisfied with all the men she meets. It seems that the development of Jeanette's sexuality is due to a few particular reasons.
As a young child Jeanette had been conditioned to fear and to abstain from any kind of sexual activity. And when she reached adolescence she was told never to let anyone 'touch her down there' but apart from that her Mother didn't discuss anything else, to inform Jeanette about feelings, and emotions that may arise as she grew up. It may have been that lack of knowledge or the wrong type of knowledge was fed into Jeanette, which lead her 'astray' in terms of Society's solid policy being Heterosexuality.
The key to her lesbianism may be as a result of repression in more than one aspect as she went from child to adolescent. However, the opposing argument could in fact be that lesbianism could have been innate within her. Thus, the larger argument would be the case of nature vs. nurture. The argument supporting the idea that Jeanette's lesbian sexuality was innate within her is as strong as the idea that she was a lesbian as a result of her upbringing. Firstly, the fact that Jeanette was adopted needs to be taken into consideration when contemplating the importance of it in regard to her sexuality.
I'd had an ides that there was something curious about the
circumstance of my birth, and once found my adoption papers hidden under a sack of flannels in the holiday drawer. " The quotation highlights Jeanette's feelings of uncertainty about the details of her birth; she is proved right when she finds her adoption papers, but her Mother proclaims she had Jeanette by the Lord to save the world by teaching them religion. If we agree with the current popular theory about homosexuality being an actual gene, it would support the nature argument that Jeanette's lesbianism is innate within her.
On the other hand, the contradicting argument is the Nurture theory. This means that Jeanette's sexuality developed as a result of her upbringing. Consequently, the influence of her extremely religious mother and the Church with its male figurehead may have resulted in Jeanette's unlikely lesbianism. Another suggestion could be that Jeanette was reacting against the male lead in the church; The Pastor in this case. In other words, she was subconsciously opposing the Hegemony in the Church in form of her Sexuality. Perfection, ties in well with the notion of Esther's sexuality and her mistrust of men.
Due to her nature as a Perfectionist, she strives for its presence in her academic performance as well as life; or in a narrower sense which regards Men and sex. "I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn't do at all. " As we know there is no such thing is flawlessness, Esther is also aware of this, this adds to her depression because she almost feels that she will never meet a man 'worthy'
of her. The effect that the absence of Esther's Father may have had on her, the other confounding reason is most probably her issues with perfection.
Esther's preoccupation with it is detected in the aforementioned quotation. It highlights how Esther feels towards men in general; the message being sent out to the reader here is basically that Esther feels that no man is in fact good enough for her. In regard to sex itself, it may be that Esther had an expectation of exactly how it would be, and so when she does in fact have sex with Irwin (near the end of the novel); she has a multitude of feelings. She is only happy that she has finally lost her virginity, however the actual feeling of having sex is not a positive one.
I lay rapt, and naked, on Irwin's rough blanket, waiting for the miraculous change to make itself felt. But all I felt was a sharp, startlingly bad pain. " The quotation above depicts the image of awaiting a wonderful feeling, because she had had a positive feeling about sleeping with Irwin in the outset, but then she felt a sudden, excruciating pain. That particular moment succeeded in assuring all her negativity towards men and sexuality as a couple. When she began bleeding constantly, she saw a doctor in emergency only to find that what she is experiencing is a one in a million condition.
The irony of this situation is that the deed she had just gone through with not only failed to make her happy but caused her a temporary but very rare condition. Perfection also holds a strong part in Jeanette's case
also; there was a constant need for her to be perfect, which seems to have made her into the woman she becomes at the end of the novel. It was at a sermon, that Jeannette began to explore the notion of perfection. ''Perfection is flawlessness. " Jeannette then uses a motif in form of an allegorical fairy tale about a Prince who is searching for perfection.
People tell him he is mad, and that there is no such thing as perfect, but then he finds her, a perfect woman. But, she explains to him that perfection is only a balance of qualities and strengths, but flawlessness does not exist. She is beheaded for telling the Prince he is wrong, and he sets out on his journey once again to find a perfect, flawless woman. Jeanette needs to be perfect, because her Mother wants her to be. But as the allegorical fairy tale, she finds that there is no such thing in sense of flawlessness.
In terms of religion, and as a daughter she is perfect, but when it comes to choosing what kind of lifestyle she wants to live, her sexuality becomes her flaw, which in effect proves the theory of Flawlessness to be impossible. As there is always something that someone else does not agree with, no matter what it may be therefore, flawlessness cannot exist. The fairytale is used as a motif in the sense that the Prince is Jeanette's Mother, and the Woman is Jeanette. As the woman is killed, Jeanette is ostracized by her Church and disowned by her family.
Perfection seems to Jeanette's enemy, as is her sexuality at times. Despite Jeanette being
confident in her sexuality, she feels that it is the reason why the rest of her life is not progressing in a positive way. When her community find out about Jeanette's sexuality, they force her to decide whether she is Jeanette; 'Devout Christian, Budding Missionary' or Jeanette; 'Mistress of Unnatural, and unholy passions'. Similarly, Plath has used a story to convey Esther's feelings towards sexuality. The importance of the fig tree story in 'The Bell Jar' is imperative to understanding Esther's thoughts about sexuality. I saw myself sitting on the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death... as I sat there, unable to decide; the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. " [P. 73. L. 5-19] The image of Esther sitting on the 'crotch' of the tree is a heavily sexually co notated one. The language adds greatly to the story as it is purposefully used to allow the reader to be analytical. The image of the 'fig' is a sexual one itself. The story is used as a motif in order to convey Esther's feelings towards her sexuality.
It seems that she is describing her own situation in the sense that she can choose so many men to be in a relationship with, yet she wants none of them. Her obsession with the idea of perfection is closely linked to the fig tree story. Her depression seems to be her handicap; her disease is the fact that she cannot be happy or satisfied. Therefore, the irony of the situation appears to overwhelm her and Plath uses this particular story in order
to depict the extremity of influence her depression has on her sexuality. It is imperative that the novels are also seen from a critical perspective.
The Bell Jar is largely seen from a combined Feminist-Psychoanalytical perspective. Freudian critic would view Esther's outlook on the role of women, or the lesser role of women in form of 'Penis Envy'; not the literal sense but in terms of social power and position. They state that Esther envies a man's ability to 'do as they please'. One aspect that she felt was unjust was the subject of sex before marriage. The social convention at the time was not to have sex before marriage, however when she found out Buddy had had sex with another woman and this didn't seem to bother him, she felt it was very hypocritical. [Ref. Pg. 77]
Sandra Gilbert ; Susan Gubor are two feminist-psychoanalytical critics; their argument about 'social castration' may support Esther's views about a woman's position in society. I think that Esther feels that she, and the majority of woman have been 'socially castrated', this explains the fact that women lack power and social standing, because they are obligated to be dependant on men in this exceedingly patriarchal society. On the contrary, a Feminist-Psychoanalytical perspective of 'Oranges... ' is quite the opposite. In the novel, Jeanette's Mother holds authority in the family, as her Husband has little say in how the house is run etc.
On the subject of Jeanette's actual sexuality, Freud suggests that sexuality is built upon experiences through childhood. "Sexuality is learned and influenced by childhood experiences... Gender roles must be malleable and changeable. " Consequently, this means that from a
Psychoanalytical perspective, Jeanette embraced lesbianism as a result of her childhood experiences. Simone de Beauvoir, a Feminist critic/ Philosopher's theory regarding the distinction between sex and gender also supports the Freudian perspective. "One is not born a woman; rather one becomes a woman.
Extract from 'The second sex' - Simone de Beauvoir This idea could well support Jeanette's lesbianism, as the influence of her Mother may have been the cause, or one of them. As I mentioned before, in their family, Jeanette's Mother had the dominant role. Her Father was of little importance, and could be thought as 'just a piece of furniture'. Therefore, Jeanette's Mother acquired the equal status of the Man by taking on the duties as head of the household. The author, Jeanette Winterson feels that the role of women in society is to succeed and to do whatever they feel is right.
This viewpoint may have been the reason why Jeanette's Mother in the novel is given such a status. In comparison to 'The Bell Jar' a woman's role is to be beneath 'the man', she must marry and serve her husband for as long as the live (or at least for as long as they are together. ) Esther's challenge against this role may have been one of the reasons she became depressed. The reason why both novels have different views about the role of women is most probably due to the time periods they were written in. 'The Bell Jar' is said to have been written ten years prior to Plath's death in 1963, this means the Novel was written in the early 1950s.
On the contrary, 'Oranges are not the only
fruit' was published in 1985. The distinction in outlook towards a woman's role is as a result of contextual factors. The leap between the 1950s and the mid 1980s is great, for attitudes to the more independent 'working woman' had changed and developed to a larger extent. The presentation of Sexuality in general is quite similar between the two novels. Despite the actual difference in the heroine's sexualities, their dislike of men branches to their dislike of sexual activity with them.
The explanations to why they have negative outlooks towards it seem to mostly consist of influences from their childhoods. Thus, the feminist-psychoanalytical theory supports this reason. However, there are a significant amount of dissimilar aspects that are generally related to major themes in the novels. For example; In 'The Bell Jar' a major and consistent theme is mental illness, this bears no presence in 'Oranges... ' whereas the major theme in 'Oranges... ' is Religion, which isn't at all present in 'The Bell Jar'.
The presentation of sexuality therefore are quite diverse in comparison as the Heroines are both dealing with different issues; Esther with her depression and Jeanette with Lesbianism and religious excess. However, the root of the issue of sexuality is surprisingly similar, as the shared dislike of men in general and patriarchy is quite evident in both novels; as is the dissatisfaction with the social codes and conventions of the time. The main point regarding structure in 'Oranges... ' is the chaptering. They are set in 8 chapters, named after the first eight chapters of the Old Testament.
Each of these chapter's names reflect the situation Jeanette is experiencing; to the stories in the
chapters of the bible. E. g. Genesis, the first chapter of the Old Testament talks of the beginning of the world, man and the tribes of Israel. Whereas 'Genesis' in 'Oranges are not the only fruit' tells of Jeanette's beginning, describing Jeanette, her placement in her society and her unique family life. Winterson may have used these titles for each chapter in order to express her desire to convey the 'relativity and subjectivity' of various texts. The Bell Jar' is said to be a highly conventional 'bildungsroman'. This is a novel whose principle subject is the moral, psychological and intellectual development of a usually youthful man character; which in this case is Esther. The novel itself tends to use an episodic structure in order to keep the main focus on Esther herself.
A prime example of where the structure really adapts and gives the novel an extra vivacity is in New York. However, Esther feels grossly disappointed with an experience that was supposed to shape her life, but didn't seem to deliver. "I knew something was wrong with me that summer.... ow all the little successes I'd totted up so happily at college fizzled to nothing. " [P. 2 L. 3-9] The quotation highlights Esther's discontentment with something that was supposed to be an experience of a lifetime. In this part of the novel Plath structures it in order to show the process of the disenchantment in rapid acceleration. Therefore, the structure of 'The Bell Jar' is a huge contribution to the merits of the novel. Consequently, the structures of both novels seem to bear very little similarities in terms of the direction and overall use
of chapters etc.
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