The Bell Jar


"The Role Models of Sylvia Plath?s The Bell Jar"

Throughout the novel Esther Greenwood has trouble deciding who she wants to be. Her search for an identity leads her to look at her female role models. These women are not ideal in her eyes. Although they represent a part of what she herself wants to be, Esther finds it impossible to decide which one she is to become. Jay Cee, Mrs. Willard, Philomena Guinea, her mother and Doctor Nolan all act as role models for Esther Greenwood. The ways in which these women are portrayed reveals a lot about Esther?s perspectives on identity and her search for an identity of her own.
Jay Cee, Mrs. Willard, and Philomena Guinea are characterized as archetypes and therefore very limiting. Jay Cee is portrayed as hyper, abrupt and she speaks, "waspishly" (29). She is smart and talented but she is ugly. Philomena Guinea, on the other hand, says that she was stupid at college and is always described as being surrounded by beautiful things. The beauty that Esther sees as the binary opposite of ugly seems to have been acquired through her "millions and millions of dollars" (38). Jay Cee has "brains, so her plug-ugly looks [don?t] seem to matter" (5). But, Philomena has money so nothing else matters. Mrs. Willard is portrayed as the ultimate wife and mother. We are given the impression that Mrs. Willard embodies sensibility. She is what every little girl is supposed to grow up to be. But Esther sees differently. Mrs. Willard represents the inevitable outcome of marriage and motherhood ? to flatten out under the husband?s foot like a kitchen mat (80).
The way the women are described brings to light the kind of relationship she had with them. For example, Esther doesn?t even find it necessary to reveal much of anything about the person, Philomena Guinea. Whenever she is mentioned it is about her black Cadillac or her exotic hat or her finger bowls.
Esther doesn?t embrace her the way she tries to embrace Esther. The only time Esther shows any kind of appreciation for Philomena is when she uses her money to get "fitted". It is then that Esther feels that Philomena buys her her freedom when actually she buys Esther?s freedom many times over with college scholarships and proper treatment from Dr. Nolan, for instance. Esther rarely refers to Philomena directly, preferring instead to mention her car, her hat, her letters, objects around her, actions of Philomena to other people, but never any direct interaction between Esther and her. This tells me that Esther felt no connection with this woman. Even though Philomena obviously cared a lot for her, she just couldn?t connect.
The older women in Esther?s lives all want to adopt her as their own daughter and influence her or teach her "and for the price of their care and influence, have [Esther] resemble them" (211). She complains about this always happening with her and older women, but she effectively internalizes the need to be them. Each of them represents a fig on the tree that Esther can?t decide which one to pick. Not only does she consciously try to decide who to emulate, but she is also willing to have them as her mother. She actually wishes she "had a mother like Jay Cee. Then [she?d] know what to do" (36). None of these role models are her mother and she doesn?t know what to do.
Esther?s Mother is a powerful role model and has a lot of influence on her. However, Esther comes to the realization that she actually hates her mother. This is a source of intense struggle for Esther. Unlike Philomena Guinea, the mother is described often and intimately. Their conversations are recounted many times and Esther frequently describes her mother?s looks and actions. She does this more so than any of other older role model characters. These descriptions, though, are not generally favorable. Through Esther?s eyes we see that her mother has no tact and no consideration for her daughter?s feelings. Esther is never good enough for her: "My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major" (72). Like the other women the mother is constantly trying to mold Esther into her own image. She symbolizes everything that Esther doesn?t want to become. But, since she is the person Esther is the most closely connected to, then