Janet Evans introduces two feminst classics: ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ and ‘The Bell Jar’
There are ways and means of learning about feminism and here are two of them. Marge Piercy’s ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ and Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’. I’ve chosen these books because they are classics, they open a discussion, and a comparison to what is being published now. Readers can compare them to more contemporary writers like Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood. Is what is being written now as radical? Both the novels use the theme of insanity in order to describe the position of women in western society. It has to be remembered that despite Plath’s own mental illness and the highly personal nature of her work, she did point out many things which relate to the position of women and feminism in general. The ending of The Bell Jar reminds us of the position of feminism now. After Esther’s bonkers alter ego Joan has been buried and she has been released from the asylum where she has expressed her dissatisfaction with the roles and futures available to her, she says:
I wonder what I thought I was burying?
This acts as a reflection of the position of second wave feminism in the 21st century. The radical aspects have been buried as an embarrassing part of the past. Feminism has shed its ‘madness’ and become a sane, productive consumable part of capitalist society through the idea of independence brought on by purse string power. So without further ado, I’ll tell you about the value of these two really important books from our past.
Woman on the Edge of Time
Piercy’s novel is an eco-feminist joy. The utopia that she creates is a beautiful picture of an equal, eco-friendly and culturally diverse society. It is starkly and shockingly compared with the horrific life of the downtrodden protagonist Connie, who is committed to an asylum for reasons I won’t explain for fear of spoiling the plot. There is also a dystopia within the text which shows the objectified position of women in an exaggeratedly capitalist society. It has a character who has had all the erogenous zones of her body enhanced in order to move up the social class system. This part of the book is so fully developed that it could have been made into a novel on its own, which shows the fantastic quality of Piercy’s writing and her skillfulness between the pages.
The book is a sledge hammer to anyone who thinks that the issues raised by feminism in the 60’s and 70’s are irrelevant now. The issues of culture, ethnicity, prostitution, mental health, the environment and social class are dealt with so eloquently that this book would even make Roy Chubby Brown think twice. This is done through the use of a plot so juicy you could call it a melon and genuinely empathetic characterisation. You can’t help but cheer at the twist at the end because Connie’s character is so well developed that you will find yourself rooting for her all the way through.
The novel is a life changer and has influenced millions of women including myself to question western society. It casts doubt over whether the system can really change, whether women are always going to be economic assets (a question particularly pertinent in our age of consumerism), whether we really can be altruistic enough to save the environment and oooh lots more. I could go on and on.
The point is that this book is a feminist classic, and what makes it a classic is it’s unique combination of roller coaster plot elements and feminist debate. The questions it raises are still relevant and it shows how little things have changed over the past twenty years. For fear of sounding a bit totalitarian, every western woman should be issued with a copy of this novel at the age of eighteen so that they can question their current position in society and also see how much they really owe to their mums, grandma’s and aunties in getting this far with the struggle for female equality.
I guarantee that whatever your politics, you have never read anything that will open your mind like Woman on the Edge of Time.
The Bell Jar
The Bell Jar Follows the story of Esther who is offered the chance to live the dream life advocated by glossy magazines. In rejecting this life and the life of a housewife, she finds herself in an undefined space represented by the Mental Hospital.
This novel was published just before Plath’s suicide in 1963. It is largely autobiographical, as is much of Plath’s work, but it stands its ground in a general context extremely well and its relevance is proven by its incredible popularity. I will also argue the relevance of the novel on the grounds that it shows how much we are still subject to the attitudes of the 1950’s and 60’s. Esther is offered two lives. If she is a clever woman then she can enter into the world of consumerism, writing articles for glossy magazines and wearing designer clothes etc. The other path that she is offered is as a housewife. Neither of these are appealing. This still reflects the position of women today. A career down the office, contributing to the economy in a girly way, or the role of the wife tied to the home (this is not an outdated argument, we still do most if not all of the housework). These are the choices available to the majority of women. It is true that consumerism still targets women in a particular way, advocating independence through spending on luxury items such as make up, perfume and clothes. We’ve all seen the Hugo Boss Deep Red advert. Sexual independence through your perfume? Of course.
The book shows representations of female stereotypes and uncovers the truly unsatisfactory nature of female existence in the late 50’s and early 60’s. It is a blunt portrait of mental illness, which is used as a metaphor to describe the situation of women. It holds a lot of black comedy and the reader is asked to decide whether Esther really is mad or whether society deems her to be mad due to her rebellion against the roles prescribed for her.
Both the novels show how little society has changed, if we look really closely at what’s going on around us, in the pub, in the house and in the workplace we can see the same old values repeating themselves. Due to the stereotyping of feminists in the media it has become unfashionable to hold the values forwarded by these texts. I’m not trying to tell people how to think. I’m just politely pointing out by reviewing these novels that we seem to have blinkered ourselves to media images that still objectify women but make us feel powerful in the role of object. These novels show a counter culture that was rare when they were written and is even rarer now.