Sylvia Plath’s character, Esther Greenwood, in The Bell Jar is a wonderful example of genre pressure. Esther lives in the American 60’s under conventional genre expectations; she is a good student in a female college and, of course, she is supposed to marry after that. Good student, good wife and good mother is a typical sequence for a young woman in the 20th century. It is curious how it was expected from a clever woman no claim about such situation, even more curious is the fact of being surprised when it happened.
Esther lives under pressure because ‘it is expected’ from her as a woman, especially as a physical or sexualised woman. The social expectations have to do with her being married and have children, as well as with her sexual behaviour, but not with her feelings or own longings as a whole person. Esther wants to be a writer and travel all around Europe; her former concerns have nothing to do with sex or men or her social status. However, the recognised roles a woman can display in the social realm do not include her idea. She is allowed to marry or allowed to have multiple sexual partners. The two models of woman which are brought to her just enclosed her mind in an anxious representation of reality. The two possibilities represent the gaze of the other, whoever it may be, which conforms reality in such a way and imposes it upon Esther. What does it mean to marry and to live sex freely is not decided by herself: married women are X and not married women are Y. It is an institutionalised statement.Esther becomes mad because she refuses a marriage proposal and because her sexual experiences are not especially desirables. She becomes mad because she finds herself trying to fit in some of the two accepted views of what is a woman. Her obsession with losing her virginity is just an attempt of trying to avoid gender pressure. It is her rebellion against marriage which she does not want for herself. But when her first sexual act takes place, Esther cannot stop bleeding; a very rare situation, as the doctor points out, ‘you’re one in a million’. In fact, her body reacts probably in accordance to her soul. It is a very disgusting situation increased by the unknown man with whom she has the experience.
Esther is victim both of a genre-fixed perspective and of sexual thoughtless experiences. She cannot go on living as she likes, acting naturally until she realises where this pressure comes from. Just then, in the act of self-reflecting becomes free of the institutionalised society. And maybe she is indeed one in a million and that is the reason she ends in a sanatorium, but that is also the reason why Sylvia Plath never stopped writing.