Under the Bell Jar and across the Wide Sargasso Sea : women’s mental health and wellness in novels by Sylvia Plath and Jean Rhys
Many works of women’s literature find their purpose by acting as ways to draw attention to what Maria Farland labels “the psychological implications of sexist stereotypes” (925). The 1960s saw an emerging trend of feminist fiction focusing on mental illness, especially as a way to indicate the negative influence of the standards set and the roles applied to women by the prevailing social order of patriarchy, eurocentrism, and capitalism. Several novels by women were published in the 1960s that follow accounts of women and insanity, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Sylvia Plath also noticed “this increasing market for mental-hospital stuff” and used it as an opportunity to document her own experiences in her work of autobiographical fiction The Bell Jar in 1963 (Kukil 495). The story follows Esther Greenwood’s descent into depression from her time interning in New York City to her summer trapped in the Massachusetts suburbs. Set in the 1950s, Plath’s novel is informed by her own experiences in the rigid world of the United States Post-World War II in which a woman who esteemed career aspirations over family aspirations were looked down upon. Plath’s novel examines the ways the pressure of rigidity and uniformity creates a breeding ground for a mental breakdown. Jean Rhys explores similar issues in her 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea while also adding the additional layer of a historical and cultural complexity – which establishes the long-standing existence of a split between gender and the ability to accomplish individual ambitions and objectives. She spent much of the 1950s and early 60s writing her protagonist Antoinette Cosway Mason. Antoinette’s internal fragmentation is exacerbated by her particularly divided surroundings of early 1800s, post-emancipation Jamaica, in which the split between black and white communities was especially prevalent, as well as her inability to find her place within that setting. The novel is a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in which the concentration shifts to provide a history of the story’s madwoman Bertha Mason. All of the novels mentioned find their central theme in madness – with The Bell Jar and Wide Sargasso Sea being cornerstones of this literature - which seeks to dismantle the traditionally held fixed notions of femininity such as chastity and purity, the necessity of wifehood/motherhood, and propriety. Though the function of madness in both The Bell Jar and Wide Sargasso Sea have been previously examined independently, the two works are rarely compared. As will be shown, there is more than foundational similarities between the two novels. The enduring lack of attention paid to this fact signals to prevailing sociological issues regarding the continued presence of adversarial feminism within literary criticism. With lack of recognition of the similarities between The Bell Jar and Wide Sargasso Sea, comes a lack of acknowledgment of the continued struggle for non-European and non-American voices to be heard on an equal playing field within the feminist community.
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