The Bell Jar

Risking It All: Rising Self-Awareness In Plath, Atwood, and Wollstonecraft College

What is “normal”? We spend enough time, collectively, trying to figure out just that, but if women think it’s complicated now, what about women making their way before us? Expectations were rigid, gender roles carefully defined, and opportunities far more limited. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman (1969), and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798), we quickly grasp how great societal pressure was on women, and how this pressure could -- and in the case of the three female protagonists examined here, did -- lead to significant emotional distress.

It’s not as if the three characters in Atwood, Plath, and Wollstonecraft aren’t aware of their struggles and the uphill battles they face, merely due to their gender -- quite the contrary. It is this awareness, paired with each character’s drive to buck gender-specific expectations, that leads to a degree of instability, whether that’s paranoia, depression, or simply heightened awareness. Each of these characters tests the boundaries, but not without consequences. As they question their roles and push for independence, their struggles result in a host of insecurities and the development of significant emotional issues.

The...

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