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Sunday, January 04, 2004

The Book Was a Little... Jarring?

I put my rant about The Awakening up here some time ago (around October, I think) and why I think it's a badly written book in general. I will be repeating a lot of what I said in that, since they seem to have repeated the same type of thing in The Bell Jar. I want to preface a lot of this with a sort of disclaimer, though. I am going to use the word "feminist" in here a few times. I'm only using this to refer to the ongoing theme in the book that an individual who is female within a repressive society which does not allow her own personal image of life to come to fruition. I don't really care about any other definition or connotation of the word, since that's the one which struck me as relevant and the one I want to come back to.

I'm not sure what the obsession is with the victim complex that keeps coming through in these books. These novels praised by feminists tend to be given glowing remarks so much for giving unconventional female roles, especially to female protagonists, but it seems like over and over the foil in question is defeated by society. In both Awakening and Bell Jar, the individual finds themself unhappy or unable to cope with the rigors expected of them in the traditional gender roles. This places them at a sort of existential crossroads within the framework of the story - and in both cases under consideration, the protagonist goes on to fight and lose. This strikes me as odd for a number of reasons.

What sort of movement does the supposition of insurmountable social roles create? It's the sort of starting point which resigns preemptively to the inevitable crush of others, especially when the barrier being put up isn't one of discrimination or institutionalized prohibition of a lifestyle, but just disapproval. Esther, in Bell Jar, isn't prevented from what she wants to do by society - on the contrary, she is awarded at every turn and it's during her summer at a prestigious job that she has her breakdown. The descent and eventual breakdown is propegated entirely by a sinking fear of choosing the wrong life. The Bell Jar even utilizes the metaphor of a fig tree (conveniently and diadactically introduced in a fable within the story) and the different choices of fruit in order to show this. In the book, the fig rots and falls due to indecision.

Even worse, a relatively minor character within the book shows perfectly well that being rebellious is embraced within society to nearly the same degree that being an unquestioning comformist is. The role Esther fears - that of becoming a wife, with no ambition towards poetry, her love - is balanced out by the fear of being alone. She takes a boyfriend and seems to think an inordinate amount about the acceptance his superficial value gives her with her "friends. She continually worries about what other people are going to think - and in fact, the symbol the book uses for her constant lack of identity ends up being that she doesn't recognize her own face in reflective surfaces. The superficial artifice constantly substitutes for substance and depth.

The other major issue I have to take with the enterprise is the vector which is constantly chosen by the protagonist is men. Throughout the book there is this constant quest to lose her virginity, which she somehow sees as a method to gain knowledge about herself. This drive to have a meaningless tryst is something which repeatedly displays only her need for validation through extrospective means. When the UN guy shows a lack of interest, this instills doubt (which is questionably causal, though still proximal and seemingly relevant). Over and over she tries to find herself through other people, never considering that maybe that's not where her identity lies. She knows what she wants to do - she knows what her desired profession is - all she seems to lack is the courage and strength of character to execute. This doesn't even strike me as a tragic hero - the hero ought not be someone who is personally weak. Achilles does not become a hero if he stays on his boats, afraid of the conflict and knowing the wealth and life he could lose, and nor should cowardice on the part of Esther and the consequences thereof be considered tragic.

I also had a slight problem with the transparent victimhood being invariably propegated by the men Esther keeps trying to use. She attempts to accomplish intercourse with a number of different men, and then has the turpitude to leave her boyfriend over his honest revelation that he had been successful in such an endevor. Not to say leaving him was wrong, but her outrage at his hypocrisy and the ostensive motivation being so was a little off. It is then a man who tries to rape her, the psychiatrist who happens to be uncaring is a man, the doctors who are apathetic to the pain of childbirth is a man... on and on. Women are portrayed as nurturing, if sometimes petty, while men are monoliths of cruelty, hypocrisy and apathy to the plight of women. It's a bit much.

I realize that the "novel" is largely autobiographical, and it may very well be that these events transpired faithfully. But the story is still one which feminists ought to condemn if they actually believe that progress is rightfully theirs. Sympathy can only get a movement so far, and the distance this can take you is not especially impressive. I don't understand why it's praised as being such when in the end it's a depressing story about an individual who could not cope with her own life, despite it being given to her on a silver platter. Poor thing.

cranked out at 3:17 PM | |

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