- Feminine Failure and the Modern Hero:Mad Women in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays
Charles Newman points out in his perceptive essay on Sylvia Plath that she is among the few woman writers who link the grand theme of womanhood with the destiny of modern civilization and that the new persona of the new woman emerges from The Bell Jar.1 It is precisely for this reason that Sylvia Plath and her novel The Bell Jar have become such a positive source of inspiration for woman writers in the United States since the late 1960s.2 That is to say, Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of The Bell Jar, is not a heroine, but a hero, a protagonist who is a woman; this Bildingsroman not only deals with the central theme of growing up female in modern America, but also dramatizes the American tragedy, the plight of the modern person whose search for identity leads her to encounter nothingness, evil and the absurdity of existence. In her desperate search for salvation Esther recoils into herself, where she finds the same nothingness. Through her personal, female experience, she comes to perceive the decline of the whole civilization and to bear the moral and intellectual burden not only of saving her personal life but the civilization that is inseparable from it as well. In this sense she is a modern hero who, by throwing away the heroine's traditional pose and role as love-object, dramatizes the human condition.
The discovery of nothingness, evil, the absurdity of life and the sterility of civilization (its sexual failure) have been the central themes of modern literature. Modern British and American authors especially have extensively dramatized the sterility of life produced by a mechanical civilization and the self-delusive aspiration for money and success, and, in particular, the threat sensed in a hostile environment characterized by holocaust, concentration camps and ruthless monopoly enterprise. Yet it is rarely a woman protagonist that undergoes the shock of discovery of the void, combats its silence and attempts to go beyond the reality of nothingness, for rarely are women conceived of as capable intellectually and psychically of undergoing the central drama of modern life; at best they are treated as powerless victims of circumstance. [End Page 71]
It is exactly these central themes of modern literature—the encounter with existential nothingness, the struggle with "ontological insecurity," the attempt to make whole a psyche rent by despair and cruel forces, and the attempt to find a new and vital life image in a civilization at once hostile and sterile—that Sylvia Plath develops through her protagonist's experience of growing up female in modern America. While the experiences which lead Esther Greenwood to discover these are typically feminine experiences, they reveal most vividly the condition of all human beings in the latter half of twentieth century America. Thus the woman hero of The Bell Jar emerges as the archetypal hero in modern literature. A number of works have begun to follow the radically new creative path opened by Sylvia Plath; among these is Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays,3 in which the woman hero is also a universal hero.
This does not mean that woman as a hero did not exist in modern literature. As Carolyn Heilbrun observes in her essay "The Woman as Hero," the late nineteenth century and the beginning of this century produced such writers as Henry James, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and George Bernard Shaw, writers who centered their novels on female protagonists who serve as metaphors for the modern person.4 The modern hero who searches for himself, for a way to "remain sincere and true in relation to one's self" within the intellectual and moral wasteland of civilization, is indeed dramatized by such women as Isabelle Archer, Minny Temple, Adela Quested, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, Connie Chatterley and St. Joan. Heilbrun argues that the reason for which these authors chose woman heroes is the freedom of women from the social demand to display outworn military and business virtues and to pursue success in these terms...