It display her feelings of confinement and captivity.

It is argued that in ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘The Bell Jar’
women face large amounts of oppression and have many constraints place upon
them which limit their freedom and capabilities. The main themes that are
present in both ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘The Bell Jar’ are: Women and femininity,
men and masculinity, reputation, love and transformation. The only difference
in themes between these two texts is that ‘The Bell Jar’ also focuses on the
theme of madness. These themes all add to the overall message about the
restrictions on women and the futility of conventional expectations. Plath and
Ibsen both explore the inferiority of women and their restricted and
sacrificial social role through the development of their female protagonists,
Esther and Nora. These two texts present the hurdles and limitations these
protagonists face in their search for an individual identity, rather than
simply conforming to societies’ expectations. Plath and Ibsen challenge gender
inequality in society and conformist attitudes by representing the struggle and
suffering of the protagonists.

Plath uses a bell jar, which is an inverted glass jar, as an extended metaphor. In ‘The Bell Jar’, the protagonist,
Esther, uses the bell jar to display her feelings of confinement and captivity.
She feels that she is stuck in her own head, spinning around the same thoughts
of self-doubt and dejection with no hope of escaping. This recurring motif of the bell jar reflects the
restrictions placed on Esther, she feels like she is in an airless jar that
prevents her from connecting with the people around her. The title of Ibsen’s
play reflects the way in which women were treated in the 1870’s, Nora is not
treated by her husband as if she is a living human with thoughts and feelings
but as if she is an inanimate object, such as a doll, ‘He
goes to her and takes her playfully by the ear’ Helmer treats Esther as
if she is his doll that he can control and play with.

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Plath presents a complex and
disturbing portrait of what it meant to be female in 1960s society, women were
viewed as inferior and dependent upon men. Regardless of their talents and
desires, women were expected to become wives and mothers and therefore were
expected to make sacrifices to benefit their husband. In ‘The Bell Jar’
Plath mocks the assumption that women are inferior to men by presenting the
hypocrisy and moral weaknesses of male characters. Buddy automatically assumes
that Esther will want to marry, have children, and abandon all her personal
ambition to become a housewife, as was the norm of
1960s society. When Esther tells Buddy that she does not intend to get
married, Buddy responds as if this is something impossible and that Esther is
absurd, ‘You’re crazy…you’ll change your mind,’ this
not only shows that women are expected to solely take the role of a wife and
mother but also represents how society and men in particular dictate the
choices and decisions a woman makes. Similarly, Ibsen also presents the lack of
choice for women through his exploration of sexualisation of women in ‘A Doll’s
House’, Helmer responds to Nora resisting to have sex with him as if she has
said something irrational and bizarre, ‘You’re
joking, my little Nora! You won’t-you won’t? Am I not your husband?’ this
shows that Helmer feels as if he has a right over his wife’s body, this thought
mirrors the thoughts of other men in society. The exclamation
mark here demonstrates his outburst as if what Nora had said was
extremely shocking, the repetition of ‘you
won’t’ displays Helmer’s confusion over Nora’s resistance, this represents the
values and norms of society as it is not often that a woman refuses her
husband’s desire to have sex. The fact that he asks her, ‘Am I not your husband?’ shows that it is assumed
that a marriage and the relationship between a wife and husband must consist of
sexual acts in order for it to exist and be successful.

In ‘The Bell Jar’, the social
expectation that a woman should remain virgin until marriage is heavily
stressed. Esther recognises the hypocrisy of this after discovering that
Buddy has had an affair and lost his virginity but is still expecting Esther to
retain her ‘purity’ for him. This recognises the
socially imposed sexual double standards regarding sex, virginity and purity.
Esther is unable to understand why Buddy could lose his virginity but still
live a life where he is regarded as pure and prefect, ‘I
saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who
hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one
person and another’ this symbolises how
much importance is held on virginity and purity. Esther realises the injustice
in this and so puts in all of her effort to lose her virginity simply to
relieve herself from social pressure. She eventually loses her virginity with
Irwin. This could be viewed as outrageous to
readers in the 1960s as it is behaviour that goes against norms and vales of
that time, this novel could therefore be viewed as Plath’s attempt to challenge
the injustice of unequal gender expectations. ‘A Doll’s House’ has
similar expectations of women, marriage is presented as if it is the only
option available to women, ‘All I’d heard about,
really, was how fine and clean Buddy was and how he was the kind of person a
girl should stay fine and clean for’, this represents stereotypical
ideas surrounding women, such as maintaining body, staying healthy etc. This
again ties in with the constant theme of sacrifices as this highlights the
number of sacrifices a woman has to make for men.

Ibsen uses symbolism to
present the oppression of females in ‘A Doll’s House’, Helmer repeatedly calls
Nora his ‘song bird’ and ‘his squirrel’, the lexical
verb ‘bird’ represents views of society towards women, they are seen as
being fragile and gentle, ‘Is it my little squirrel
bustling about?’ ‘And I couldn’t wish you anything but just what you are, my
sweet little lark’ Helmer dehumanises his wife and fails to treat her as
a person with her own thoughts and feelings. Helmer refers to his wife as ‘My sweet little lark’, the personal pronoun ‘my’ demonstrates
the ownership of Nora by her husband. Whenever Helmer addresses his wife, Nora,
he describes her using the pre-modifying adjective ‘little’
this symbolises Nora’s subordinate position not only in the relationship but in
society as a whole, the repetition of this
adjective represents the low status of women. In ‘The Bell Jar’ Mrs
Willard strongly believes that ‘what a man is is an
arrow into the future and a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from’ through
this quote Plath portrays men’s desires and again this links with the theme of
women sacrificing their own goals to allow men’s goals to be accomplished. This
metaphor represents the objectification and
loss of power of women. Helmer in ‘A Doll’s House’ places restrictions on Nora
which means that she is unable to live her life how she wishes to, ‘Has my little sweet tooth been indulging herself in town
today by any chance? Nora cannot eat in front of Helmer for fear of his
disapproval, her husband wants her to stay small, elegant and delicate. This is a reflection of the stereotypical image of women
in the 1870s. The objectification of women is strongly highlighted
through the presentation of relationships, ‘A
stubborn little girl like you appealing for a saviour?’ Helmer treats
Nora more like a child and a doll that needs a master, rather than his wife,
this is a reference to the title of this play, as discussed earlier.

Throughout the novel Plath uses
many different elements of figurative language, such as personification,
symbolism, similes and metaphors to highlight Esther’s position in society. Conventional
expectations are represented through the life of the mothers in ‘The Bell Jar’,
‘Of course, our mothers were good friends. They had
gone to school together and then both married their professors and settled down
in the same town,’ Esther’s boyfriend’s mother is a mirror image of her
own mother because both mothers followed the conventional path of sacrificing
their careers and aspirations for their husband. The theme of sacrificing is
dominant in both texts. In ‘A Doll’s House’ Mrs. Linde found it necessary to
abandon Krogstad, her true but poor love and marry a rich man, in order to
support her mother and two brothers. As well as this, the nanny had to abandon
her own child to support herself by working as a caretaker. Similarly, in ‘The
Bell Jar’ Plath shows that regardless of talents and desires, women were
expected to become wives and spend their life confirming to their husband’s
needs and wants, ‘I remember the day Buddy smiled
at me and said, “Do you know what a poem is Esther?” “No, what?” I said. “A
piece of dust”. And he looked so proud of having thought of this that I just
stared at his blond hair and his blue eyes and his white teeth – he had very
long, strong white teeth,’ the repetition of the conjunction ‘and’ represents the
admiration of the man’s beauty and physical appearance. This quote signifies
how women’s life revolves around their husband, she believes and accepts what
he says without argument, this symbolises women
conforming to conventional ideas. However, some
could view this as insulting because he asks her a senseless question so this
could be interpreted as if he insulting the intelligence of the woman, this
could possibly symbolise men’s views on female capabilities. Similarly, in
‘A Doll’s House’ Nora describes the circumstances under which she would consider
telling Helmer about the secret loan, ‘Many years
from now, when I’ve lost my looks a little. Don’t laugh. I mean, of course, a
time will come when Torvald is not as devoted to me, not quite so happy when I
dance for him, and dress for him, and play with him,’ this shows that
Nora has an understanding of the true nature of her marriage and she recognises
that Helmer’s affection is largely based on her appearance. Ibsen uses rule of three to represent how Nora’s life
revolves and is dedicated to her husband which is expressed through the repetition of ‘for him’ this shows that everything
she does is to favour and benefit her husband. Ibsen also uses irony to portray
the values of 1870s society, the quote ‘play with
him’ refers to the title of the play ‘A Doll’s House’. In ‘A Doll’s
House’ the recurring motif of ‘being free’ also
adds to the ironic beliefs of women, ‘Free. To be free, absolutely free. To spend time playing
with the children. To have a clean, beautiful house, the way Torvald likes it,’
Nora claims to be free after she has paid off her debt to Krogstad, when
she describes her anticipated freedom, she highlights the factors that
constrain her, this is ironic because he
believes that her freedom will come from being a mother and wife but the
message in the play is that Nora cannot find true freedom in this traditional
domestic world. As the play continues, Nora becomes aware that she needs to
change her life to find true freedom, this symbolises
the evolving of the understanding of ‘free’.

The protagonists in both of these texts are in search for
their individual identity; Plath and Ibsen present this through the theme of
transformation. The play ‘A Doll’s House begins with Nora entering the stage,
bringing home a Christmas tree, this symbolises the
socially constructed view of the domestic life of women. However, the character
of Nora develops throughout the play as she experiences a life-changing event
that threatens her marriage and her relationship; this is when she realises the
importance of establishing her own identity, Ibsen uses
images of light and darkness as symbolism to represent moving from
morning to dawn which symbolises Nora’s transition
into an ‘enlightened’ state. This also links in with the theme of sacrificing.
In ‘The Bell Jar’ Plath uses the symbolism of
a fig tree to portray the conflict that Esther faces when making choices in her
life, ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the
green fig tree in the story’ the branches here represent
all the possibilities for action that she can’t gain initiative to
pursue. She imagines so many different opportunities that she feels paralyzed
about which one to choose, this suggests that she is not used to making choices
and decisions, this reflects conventional society
values and the restrictions played on her freedom, ‘I wanted each and every one of them but choosing one
meant losing all the rest,’ the fig tree is associated with Esther’s disappointment
and frustration. The different branches on the fig tree could represent being a good wife, achieving a good
career etc. Ibsen’s message is to give a picture of the conflicts brought upon
young women living in the 1950s who did not willingly decide to conform to
expectations of women in that era.

At the start of the play, Nora is an accurate representation
of women of the time as she is only concerned with her husband’s needs, ‘Yes Torvald, I can’t do anything without you to help me’
this shows that she complies with conventional ideas because she
believes that she needs a man in her life and is not capable of doing things
alone.  She is unable to understand that
she is not treated fairly by her husband, ‘You see,
Torvald’s so incredibly fond of me that he wants to keep me all to himself, as
he says,’ instead of arguing with Helmer and asking for her freedom and
rights, she sees the restrictions placed by her husband as the representation
of his love and affection towards her.

However, she increasingly becomes unhappy playing the
subordinate role of Helmer’s ‘doll’ that he can control and play with, rather
than an equal marriage with equal roles, ‘When I
lived at home with Papa, he used to tell me his opinion about everything, and
so I had the same opinion. If I thought differently, I had to hide it from him,
or he wouldn’t have liked it. He called me his little doll, and he used to play
with me just as I played with my dolls. Then I came to live in your house-‘ this
quote highlights the gender inequality that Ibsen was trying to address in this
play. Nora had to be a ‘doll’ not only to her husband but to her father as
well; this reflects the patriarchal society in the 1870s.
Similarly, in ‘The Bell Jar’ Esther is disgusted with the idea of
helping men, ‘The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving
men in any way, I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters,’ she
explains her resistance to learning shorthand instead of creative writing which
is a representation of her own individuality, Plath demonstrates Ether’s desire
for independence and an individualistic lifestyle where she is able to achieve her
goals instead of dedicating her life to her husband.

Nora comprehends that she needs to embrace her independence
and search for her own identity, ‘I must stand on
my own feet if I’m to get to know myself and the world outside’ Nora
defies typical stereotypes as she understands that there is a world outside the
home where she could be potentially happier and able to achieve her goals and
live for herself. Helmer claims that Nora’s ‘sacred
duties lie in her home’, this supports the view a woman’s domestic
role is religiously set, religion had large
influence in 1870s society which could be the explanation behind this
view. When Nora tells Helmer that she has other duties just as sacred as being
a mother and wife he replies with, ‘You can’t
have.’ This very short sentence shows
that Helmer simply cannot believe that his wife could have other duty; this again reflects 1870s society as women were not
seen to have any other duties apart from raising a family. Nora refuses
the simply conform to her husband’s expectations because she no longer believes
she can be controlled by him, It’s no good your
forbidding me anything any longer’ this quote reflects the transformation
that Ibsen presents of Nora’s character from a conventional woman to a
strong-minded woman. Ibsen is challenging society’s
expectations of women, audiences in the
1870s would have found this very shocking. Similarly, Ibsen also gives
the readers an insight into the views and opinions of women, which were not given much importance in the 1950s, ‘The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to
be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to
shoot off in all directions myself,’ Ibsen uses metaphorical
language to represent the desires of women, this defies the stereotype
that women need a man to protect them.

In ‘The Bell Jar’ Esther is retelling the story, this allows
the readers to fully develop their understanding of the novel. Plath writes
this novel like a journey, the readers follow Esther’s struggles and get an
insight of how she’s grown up, through the journey, readers learn the history
needed in order to understand her inner struggles. Plath uses many flashbacks which
helps the reader to understand the relationships and conflicts that Esther had,
this evokes sympathy for her character. The basic form of ‘A Doll’s House’ is
from a French style called ‘piece bien faite’ which means ‘a well-made play’; Ibsen
is famous for producing these types of texts. These types of plays usually
consist of the same group of characters: A dominant father, suffering and
innocent women, jealous husband, loyal friend and an evil villain. It usually
includes a predictable crisis involving the loss of something important, guilty
secrets and mistaken identity. Ibsen’s characters often express their feeling through
coded speech, silence or actions. In Ibsen’s play, the audience are often
ignored, the staging of ‘A Doll’s House’ is like a real doll’s house with the
wall cut away from the rest of the house, this allows the audience to watch the
dolls on stage and identify manipulative behaviours themselves.

‘A Doll’s House’ was first
performed in 1878 and is set in the home of the Helmer family in Norwegian town
in 1879 and ‘The Bell Jar’ was first published in 1963. Ibsen attempts to
reveal society’s immoralities associated with female rights, in 1870’s society,
women were expected to be submissive and dependent in their husband however
Ibsen felt that husband and wife should live as equals, rather than just live together.
Critics attacked him for failing to respect
the institution of marriage. His play is
referred to as ‘A revolutionary action, a daring defiance of the cultural norms
of the time’ by a critic from the late 19th century. Nora’s statement
that she also had a ‘duty to herself’ shocked audiences of the time, women were not allowed to borrow money without their
husband’s consent in the 1870s therefore Nora not only goes against
social norms but also the law. Similarly, American
society is mainly shaped by conservative values and patriarchal structures in
the 1950s. Society placed restrictions on women as they expected them to adopt
traditional ideas of purity and chastity, many women therefore felt mortified
by expectations of 1950s society, the resentment of these pressures was the
motivating force that inspired the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Although
Plath and Ibsen write in different times and places, as well as different
literary genres, the main protagonists, Esther and Nora experience similar
fates in refusing to conform to society’s expectations of a woman. It can
therefore be argued that male dominated cultures still exist where women are
victims of oppression and experience lack of freedom. For instance, in ‘The
Bell Jar’ although the bell jar has lifted, Esther can still sense that it’s
hovering over her, waiting to drop any moment, this shows that women are still
unable to live according to their own wishes and are still bound by






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