“Perpetual Female Entrapment:” An Analysis of Identity in Mrs. Dalloway and The Bell Jar

By Anastasia Kolokatsis

The Modernist movement is renowned as being a period of tension and change. This atmosphere is translated into the literary works of the time, in which authors reflected on the disillusionment brought on by the events of World War 1. They wrote openly about their collective anxiety and helplessness concerning these topics and, particularly, the female modernist writers were concerned with making gender a focus in the movement. Many of their works reflected the alienation felt by many women living in a patriarchal society. The female protagonists in Sylia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963)  and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) both experience the negative effects of living in a male-dominated society, where their individuality and identity is repressed due to the harsh constructs imposed on them. In different ways, the novels suggest that Dalloway and Greenwood come to internalize these stereotypes, which then leads to their psychological demise. In Plath’s novel, Esther feels isolated from the rest of society because of the limitations imposed on her as a woman, which ultimately contributes to her rapidly declining mental health. In Woolf’s work, Clarissa performs the role of a conventional woman to remain consistent with what society expects of her, however, she also fights her own internal battle as she feels the need to keep parts of herself concealed. Through an analysis of both novels and a close reading of the way female characters are presented in the modernist period,  I will argue that these characters have internalized the concept of being an ideal woman which has, in turn, stood in the way of their ability to uncover other aspects of their identities. However, while Clarissa performs the role of the traditional wife and throws parties to distract herself from the isolation and anxiety that she experiences, Esther’s internalization of the concept of the ideal woman manifests itself in the form of depression as she slowly detaches herself from reality. 

The Modernist movement emerged as a response to a universal sense of helplessness felt by the population because of World War 1. The disillusionment brought on by the war contributed to the creation of a completely new genre of literature (modernism) and many literary works employed a darker tone when expressing the detrimental effects that the war had. Other novels, such as Mrs. Dalloway, focused on the aftermath of the war and the impact it had on the masses. Virginia Woolf’s work is set in post-war British society and depicts the ways in which everyone remains deeply affected by the war and the changes that emerged because of it. The remarks about the degree to which society has changed are made by the character Peter Walsh, who returns to England from India for the first time since the war has taken place and comments on how “people looked different. Newspapers seemed different” (70), and how overall, morals and manners had shifted. Clarissa’s own anxiety comes out as she reflects on the people in her society as a whole by saying that “we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship”  (Woolf 76).  The memory of the war brings her a great deal of discomfort and as Judith P. Saunders, an author and researcher, mentions, “the war is presented throughout as an undercurrent in her thoughts: it provides occasion for her meditations on early deaths and wasted lives” (Saunders 143).

Alex Zwerdling, a literary scholar, says that “Woolf is deeply engaged by the question of how the individual is shaped (or deformed) by his social environment, by how historical forces impinge on his life and shift its course, by how class, wealth and sex help to determine his fate” (69), therefore, it is reinforced that the social system plays a crucial role in standing in the way of women who are trying to discover aspects of their identities that may not correspond with the norm. At first glance, it seems that Clarissa is in a place of privilege because she is a part of the governing class, however, her position in this societal category works to her disadvantage because people who belong to this group repress their true instincts and emotions even more. In fact, members of the upper class “turned away from the depth of feeling and towards a conventional pleasantness or sentimentality and frivolousness” (Zwerdling 72); this repression of emotion is yet another reason as to why Clarissa’s place in society does not allow her to uncover other aspects of her identity.  In his article, Zwerdling includes a passage from Woolf’s diary entries, in which she describes her intentions of writing her novel as an attempt to “criticize the social system, and to show it at work, at its most intense” (69).

Therefore, while many changes occurred within the world of literature, some other things remained static and unaltered, such as the role of women in society. Although everyone felt collective anxiety during this movement, women experienced higher levels of frustration and confusion because they lived in a society deeply embedded in patriarchal norms and conventions, which imposed countless limitations on them. E. Miller Budick, a literary scholar, said that some of the major themes explored in works written by women were “madness, powerlessness, betrayal and victimization” (872), issues that both Plath and Woolf write about in their novels. In fact, the symbol of the bell jar in Plath’s novel is used to relate to the notion of powerlessness and madness caused by the internalization of societal norms, seeing that anywhere she goes, Esther feels as though she is “sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in [her] own sour air (Plath 185).  Unlike Mrs. Dalloway, The Bell Jar is set in the period following World War 2; for a brief period of time prior to the war’s end, women felt a measure of freedom by taking over men’s roles in the workforce while they were on the frontlines and thus, felt angry when they lost their jobs once the men returned. Experiencing this slight amount of freedom motivated women to question themselves as well as their role in society[1]. They were seen as inferior to men and a successful woman was defined by the terms of the “Cold War Ideology” set by Vice President Nixon, who promulgated the idea that housewives (the ideal women at the time) were proof of the superiority of the United States over the USSR and proudly stated that women should not work because they belong in the house.  Kate A. Baldwin, a literary scholar, says that The Bell Jar was written “during a period of heated political debate about the future of Americanness” (22) and there are many moments in the novel which point to “a kind of female domestic incarceration” (23), meaning women were bound to live within the confines of their roles as traditional housewives. If a woman reverts from the traditional stereotype, she is seen as both a disgrace and “unamerican[2],” a theme that is explicitly touched upon in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Choosing to adhere to the stereotype of the housewife was considered a patriotic act, and people like Esther who view marriage as “a dreary and wasted life for a girl” (Plath 84) are instantly labeled as unstable and insane; as a result, literary scholar Marjorie G. Perloff remarks that every woman “in some measure wears a mask” (509) and the way they present themselves is “simply a stylized or heightened version of the young American girl’s quest to forge her own identity” (509).

Esther is trapped in a theatrical society in which she has been forced to internalize the characteristics that constitute an ideal woman, contributing to her progressive detachment from reality as well as her rapidly declining mental health. Esther’s depression is reactive[3], meaning it does not necessarily have as much to do with her supposed mental instability but instead, could have a better correlation with the toxic social construct in which she lives in. Literary scholar Kate A. Baldwin says that The Bell Jar is a novel with an “uncanny sense of perpetual female entrapment” (21) because Esther, who is a woman living in the 1950s, represses her emotions in order to conform to a pre-designed model; by failing to relate to this idea, Esther expresses that she feels “dreadfully inadequate” (Plath 77). The symbol of the bell jar is the most prominent example of confinement and entrapment in the novel; it is both a metaphor for her suffocating mental state as well as for society altogether, since she is unable to break free of societal expectations and conventions. The bell jar stifles her completely and it is the ultimate obstacle that stands in the way of her quest for identity. We can get a sense of how the bell jar affects Esther’s point of view on life when she explains that “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream” (Plath 237). Though she tries to distract herself, Esther still lives with the perpetual worry that “the bell jar, with its stifling distortions” (Plath 241) will descend again and obstruct her from healing her inner fragmentation and uncovering her identity. Putting this idea to the forefront, Perloff says that “the central action of The Bell Jar may be described as the attempt to heal the fracture between inner self and false-system so that a real and viable identity can come into existence” (509), emphasizing the idea that Esther’s inner fragmentation is the result of her inability to embrace and even discover her true self due to the pressure of having to conform to the traditional role of the woman.

 Moreover, Esther’s “recovery” from her mental illness can also be seen as yet another attempt to comply with traditional stereotypes because the hospital itself represents the social order of the outside world, and the electroshock therapy she receives is meant to bring her back to an acceptable state of being; this idea is highlighted by Diane S. Bonds, a literary scholar who supports the idea that Esther’s recovery “merely leaves [her] prey to defining herself unwittingly and unwillingly in relation to all that remains to her: culturally- ingrained stereotypes of women” (49). Esther’s environment is toxic and contributes to “the self-annihilating distortion of Esther’s basic instincts, rendering them voiceless cries of help” (Budick 875), which then leads to her adopting a distorted image of herself. There are multiple occasions in the novel where Esther gazes at herself in the mirror and fails to recognize her reflection, one of them being when the nurse hands Esther a mirror and she says “It wasn’t a mirror at all, but a picture” (Plath 174), and refers to her reflection as “the person”(Plath 174); her inability to recognize her own face demonstrates how substantial the divide between her mind and her body has become. However, there are several more instances where we can notice this divide as “she repeatedly confronts her own unrecognized or distorted image in the mirror, mistaken on one occasion for “a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman”(16), and “ looking like a “sick Indian” (92)” (Bonds 50). Her foreign relationship with her reflection indicates the slipping grasp she has on her own identity and emphasizes her detachment from reality.

 Before being subject to electroshock therapy, Esther expresses her fear of it, notably in the very beginning of the novel when she references the Rosenbergs. When talking about the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, she says “the idea of being electrocuted makes [her] sick,” (Plath 1) but at the same time she “couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves” (Plath 1). Esther already feels detached from reality and wonders if getting electrocuted will help her become happier and more in touch with what society expects of her, therefore “her musing is not merely a response to the electrocution of the Rosenbergs but to her own growing sense of alienation from the cultural demands and images of women with which she is daily bombarded during her guest internship at Ladies Day” (Bonds 51). She knows that she “should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but [she] couldn’t get [herself] to react” (Plath 3) because she did not resemble these women, who embody traditional female characteristics of the time, and thus realizes rather quickly that she is disconnected from this ideal, leading her to continue the process of internalizing the concept of the ideal woman until the point of insanity.

Clarissa Dalloway’s internalization of the concept of the ideal woman prompts her to perform the role of the traditional wife, attempting to adhere to the standards that society has imposed on her and thus impeding her from acknowledging her true identity. Although Clarissa seems to adhere perfectly to the stereotype of the ideal woman and performs the role of the “perfect hostess”(Woolf 7), this comes at the expense of suppressing her true self to fulfill what this ideal demands and therefore, Shannon Forbes, a literary scholar and professor, emphasizes that we must “distinguish between the role Clarissa performs and her split, fragmented self” (Forbes 39). Her desire to perform this role stems from her concern with appearances which has been ingrained in her by the society in which she lives in; Vereen Bell, a novelist, suggests that “she frets constantly over what people in society must think of her, and this anxiety underlies her concern over the success of her party” (Bell 97-98), further explaining the pressure she feels to throw elaborate events. Hence, Clarissa preoccupies herself with the idea of living up to the standards of the ideal woman and “[cares] too much for rank and getting on in the world” (Bell 74) because she is aware that she would not be viewed as successful if she behaves as her true self within that “world.” Internally, Clarissa is aware that she is merely performing this role and knows that there is more to her than what she allows people to see, which is why “every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself” (Woolf 166) and her restraint from revealing too much of herself makes her seem as though she has a “coldness” or “impenetrability” (Woolf 166) about her when in reality, she is just guarding herself and “performs the role to the extent that it consumes her.” (Forbes 39)

Furthermore, Clarissa’s identity is defined by her marriage to Richard Dalloway. Woolf opts to choose the title of her novel for a reason because by introducing Clarissa as Mrs. Dalloway, she is reinforcing the idea that her identity is contained within the role of Richard’s wife and in this way, “Clarissa is absolutely defined in terms of the role she has chosen to perform.” (Forbes 39) By not being seen as a complete entity when she is not associated with her husband, Clarissa feels even more disconnected from herself and is once again, incapable of discovering who she is when she moves away from her role as Richard’s wife. She feels a great deal of isolation when she is confronted with this idea and says that “she had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown” (Woolf 10) and “this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (10). The fear of losing herself becomes more acute and it is clear that this thought causes her a great deal of anxiety; although she attempts to mask her fear by distracting herself and hosting a party, James Sloan Allen, a cultural historian and critic, emphasizes that Mrs. Dalloway is “an excursion into the psyche of an often joyous, yet emotionally fragile and circumstantially constrained woman.” (587) Clarissa is also “bound to the traditional female role of socialite” (Allen 589) and has an eagerness to conform to the ideals that men have defined for her, to the point where it has reshaped her own perception. She perpetually internalizes these stereotypes and she questions “did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely?” (Woolf 9) With this in mind, Saunders says that “her question becomes an outcry against biologically imposed limitation of gender” (141).

Additionally, Clarissa represses her sexuality and conceals her sexual orientation because otherwise, she would not properly adhere to society’s standards. When recounting on her years spent at Bourton, she reminisces on her romantic encounter with Sally Seton and considers that moment to be “the most exquisite moment of her whole life” (Woolf 35). Although her feelings for Sally are pure, she is unable to pursue the relationship any further because she is aware that women of her class are expected to marry men and repress their own desires and ambitions. As a result, author James Schiff states that “Clarissa Dalloway, whose sexual orientation would appear to be largely towards women, ends up in a rather chaste, heterosexual marriage that crushes her soul” (368). The way that Clarissa describes Sally is proof of her devotion to her, especially when she says that “Sally’s power was amazing, her gift, her personality” (Woolf 33) as well as remembering “the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally” which was “not like one’s feeling for a man.” (Woolf 33) Clarissa is unable to fully discover and explore this important aspect of her identity because she has internalized the heteronormativity of her society and thus, she is “consumed by guilt at [her] repressed homosexuality” (Bell 93). Therefore, Clarissa’s sexual repression is yet another instance of the harmful consequences of internalizing the notion of the ideal woman. 

         In conclusion, both Esther and Clarissa are negatively affected by the social construct in which they live in because they have been forced to internalize stereotypes that constitute an ideal woman, such as the concept of the housewife, and ergo, neglect their true selves. As a result, they struggle to uncover other aspects of their identities in fear of failing to comply with these traditional standards, which leads them to endure varying degrees of psychological distress. Clarissa copes by repressing her sexual identity as well as performing the role of the traditional wife and hostess, while Esther’s response to internalizing the concept drives her to a point of extreme mental distress and a disconnection from reality.

[1] This idea comes from Marie-Thérèse Blanc’s lecture in the course “Literary Movements” (Fall 2018)

[2] This idea comes from Marie-Thérèse Blanc’s lecture in the course “Literary Movements” (Fall 2018)

[3] This idea comes from Marie-Thérèse Blanc’s lecture in the course “Literary Movements” (Fall 2018)

Works Cited

Primary sources

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York, Harper, 2013.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York, Harcourt, 2005.

Secondary sources

Allen, James Sloan. “‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and the Ethics of Civility.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 107, no. 4, 1999, pp. 586–594.

Baldwin, Kate A. “The Radical Imaginary of ‘The Bell Jar.’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 38, no. 1, 2004, pp. 21–40.

Bell, Vereen M., and Vereen Bell. “Misreading ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’” The Sewanee Review, vol. 114, no. 1, 2006, pp. 93–111.

Bonds, Diane S. “The Separative Self in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.” Women’s Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, Oct. 1990, p. 49.

Budick, E. Miller. “The Feminist Discourse of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.” College English, vol. 49, no. 8, 1987, pp. 872–885.

Forbes, Shannon. “Equating Performance with Identity: The Failure of Clarissa Dalloway’s Victorian ‘Self’ in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 38, no. 1, 2005, pp. 38–50.

Perloff, Marjorie G. “‘A Ritual for Being Born Twice’: Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 13, no. 4, 1972, pp. 507–522.

Saunders, Judith P. “Mortal Stain: Literary Allusion And Female Sexuality in ‘Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street.’”Studies In Short Fiction, vol. 15, no.2, pp.139-145.

Schiff, James. “Rewriting Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Homage, Sexual Identity, and the Single-Day Novel by Cunningham, Lippincott, and Lanchester.” Critique, vol. 45, no.4, pp.363-382.  

Zwerdling, Alex. “Mrs. Dalloway and the Social System.” PMLA, vol. 92, no. 1, 1977, pp. 69–82.

 

 

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