Madness need not be all break-down

One of the most important aspects of the relationship between gender and madness is dominantly displayed in both texts, examining issues of the nature versus nurture debate and flaws in personal identity, as well as the misogyny of dominant ideals in a patriarchal society. ‘What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from… ‘ [1] states Buddy’s mother, confirming her submissive role as ‘housewife’ and dependency on men. Gender and madness are used to define both protagonists’ identity; through the use of binary opposition they are able to identify themselves against ‘the other’.

Bank’s The Wasp Factory focuses predominantly on the power of gender, associating masculine power and feminine weakness. According to Frances, women are weak and stupid consequently they will always be inferior. ‘His’ views of women are that they posses no power of identity, building their identities on that of the men they are with, and although Frances is female she believes and desires to be male.

A common Freudian concept that the more something is hated, for example homophobia being a symptom of repressed homo desire, we then express as our own desire. Plath’s The Bell Jar indicates patriarchal society’s effects on women in both socio-economic values as well as sexual stereotypes ultimately leading to Esther’s realisation of oppression and eventual madness. Plath describes how females are seen as a subservient gender, reliant on men “hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other” [3] and with no real purpose in life, “These girls looked awfully bored to me…. hey seemed bored as hell. “[4]

Binary oppositions prevail as the foreground for Esther and Frank’s demise; Esther’s liminality creates an ambiguity as to when her madness truly begins. Meanwhile Frank’s identity is born about what he is not; a woman, only to be disclosed that the foundation of his identity is in fact a fallacy. Transcendence contributes to Esther’s madness from her disgust of anything impure “I am very pure” stated Esther [5] while Frank tends to thrive on the likes of blood, dirt and grime such as the “small heads and bodies” [6] of deceased animals on the ” sacrifice poles” [7] .

Sexual Purity is paramount to Esther’s being while Frank’s purity is not due to moral issues; his concerns are more to do with embarrassment of ‘his’ body due to “the accident” [8] he had as a child. Transparency in The Bell Jar again connotes to the symbolism of purity and oppositional to death, on the other hand Frank does not see death as a taboo subject and although it is seen as one of the greatest ‘others’ he takes control, brings forth the repressed unconscious to ‘the social’ “you’d never guess I’d killed three people” [9].

The prospect of doomed youth from adolescence with blurred boundaries incorporates death, with violence, from The Bell Jar’s attempted rape by Marco to the excessive deaths of animals and people carried out by Frank himself. However Frank’s killings are seen as part of an obsessive strategy for him to remain in control of his life. Both Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ian Bank’s The Wasp Factory explore the complexity of madness within gender. Plath investigates the realms of the conscious and the unconscious, and sometimes it is not possible for the reader to tell the distinction between fantasy and reality.

She denotes Esther’s madness as a rapid deterioration from her ‘normal’ state to that of madness leading to electro shock treatments firstly by psychiatrist, Doctor Gordon [10] and later on in the asylum [10]. Banks presents Frank as showing stereotypical signs of madness and ‘abnormality’ throughout, from the offset with the ‘sacrifice poles’ [11] nevertheless the revelation of ‘his’ delusion of gender confusion declares ‘his’ true signs of madness, as well as that of his father, refusing to accept and identify Franks biological gender “dousing (him) with male hormones” [12].

Frank’s father experiments with the nature versus nurture concept, producing an identity that can never truly be stable as Frank is never a conventional boy or girl thus creating a violent disruption of gender, as Freud notes, the exploration of how we relate to the body we are born with is paramount to our identity. Eric is used as a distractive devise being displayed as ‘the mad one,’ unstable by Banks using language such as “Eric escaped” (from the psychiatric home,) [13] while Frank’s destabilisation of identity is more subtly presented.

As well as the excessive destabilisation of subjectivity, and its casual approach to ritualistic violence, presented in such a matter of fact manner. Bank’s depiction of Frank’s violence represents what it means to be a normal boy. Using Black humour “I wanted to get up in time for the ceremony… what a loony” [14]in contrast to Eric’s madness Frank could be read as an uncomfortable parody of normal masculinity, playing out to excess rituals around animals and the limerick “slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails” is what Frank aspires to be made from.

Plath displaces Esther’s stability by integrating social categories she believes should be kept separate, thus destabilising her through the use of dichotomy of innocence and gender roles. Doreen negotiates her position, as a female in patriarchal society making Esther feel uncomfortable, she is both mixed race, and promiscuous, brash and free willed; this comfort Doreen had with liminality compromised Esther’s clear cut view of social boundaries and after a while she “made a decision about Doreen” “that night…. eep down (I decided) I would have nothing to do with her” [15]. Although Esther would like to think of herself as an independent intellectual woman “I was perfectly free” [16] and hates the idea of ending up like Buddy Willard’s mother, a “door matt”, she still conforms to the ideals of the dominance of men “The next step was to find the proper sort of man”. [17] Bank’s Frank, although comfortable with forms of hybridism such as life and death, madness and sanity, still dislikes the amalgamation of masculinity with femininity.

He tries his hardest to displace himself from anything remotely feminine and the lack of a mother figure only increases his dislike for the gender. Gender is an ideological construction imposed upon us and is arbitrary as Frank depicts Eric to be sexed male yet gendered female, Eric is described as feeling guilty about his mother dying during his birth and is consequently more sensitive, seen as a weak, feminine attribute. Eric’s excess of femininity could be due to nurture as he was dressed up as a girl when very young.

Yet Banks subtley hints at characteristics usually stereotyped as female, toward Frank; he is very conscious of his body image “my body was a forlorn hope for any improvement”, “I’m too fat”, [18] “I don’t look the way I’d like to look” [19] the way Frank feels he ought to look is “dark and menacing” [20] intimidating towards other males and females. His view of an ideal man was intellectual, strong and independent. The deception his father kept up about his “little accident” is what Frank has used as scapegoat from revealing a key part of his identity, his biological gender.

Through this form of escapism he creates a new identity, a strong, powerful masculine role and attempts to be everything that a female is not. However could it be that patriarchy is a form of madness? As well as Racism, or sexism? Gender and sexual purity are key issues for Plath’s Esther as her position as a female limits many aspects of her sexual identity ‘marriage material girls’ are to remain pure for their husbands, and be submissive and ‘nice’ not necessarily clever, for example Betsy.

Esther’s ambitions to become a poet/ writer are encouraged by her mother, wanting her to learn shorthand; hitherto this encouragement is not based on developing Esther’s career, and development of personal identity, on the contrary, it is to merely get her by until she marries, providing the perspective that her chances of finding an intellectual husband will increase if she has a higher quality of life beforehand.

She can then simply fade and disintegrate into a housewife and the shadow her husband, facilitating his requirements. Esther’s educational aspirations are also belittled by her boyfriend Buddy Willard as, in his opinion, he depicts that a poem is really just “a piece of dust” to which Esther meekly responds with “I guess so”,[21] already conforming to a dull and meaningless life ahead.

Comments such as “stop rocking the boat and start rocking a cradle” [22] imply that Buddy feels it is a waste of time for Esther to pursue a career that she will have to give up; she might as well settle down and become a housewife as soon as possible, believing that once she has children she will “feel differently” and not want to write poems anymore she will become “brainwashed and as numb as a slave”! 23] Much like Buddy’s own mother who believes that “What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinite security” a man does not need a mate he simply desires one, whereas it is depicted that a woman indeed needs a man. Demonstrated by another quote from Buddy’s mother: “What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from” [24] it seems to declare correspondingly that men and women begin from the same starting point, however the man excels the woman into the future fulfilling his life and dreams through achievement and success.

While the woman is left behind, to look after the home and offspring doing menial tasks such as cleaning, sewing, cooking and should be happy enough with this and see it as an achievement in itself having ‘got a man’, a home, and kids, plus her contribution in propelling her man to his successes; what more could a woman want? This conflict of interests is what drives Esther to her eventual demise. She is unable to cope with all the things she feels she should be, and what people want her to be opposing what she herself wants in life to feel fulfilment.

Although Plath presents various female roles they are all flawed in some way or another. The trip to New York, won by the girls through their intellect was not promoted whilst they were there, instead stereotypical roles of femininity were imposed upon them, having to attend beauty parlours and fashion shows. Buddy’s mother is a mere shadow of her husband, Doreen, although attractive is simultaneously vulgar and unafraid of keeping to ‘a woman’s place in society’, which scares and repulses Esther and Betsy although pleasant is simply empty-headed.

Esther is unable to relate to any of these women yet cannot find an identity of her own. Her previous disposition was “good marks and prizes” [25] however once in New York her subjectivity is under threat and she begins to question what was the role of a woman? What did being a woman mean? From all sources around her staying “pure”, sexual repression and passivity seemed to be the key! Esther’s vision of a green fig tree illustrates her utter despair and confusion: “From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.

One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, another fig was a famous poet….. and beyond and above all these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out… I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. “[26]

This summarises Esther’s feeling of disempowerment and lack of choice knowing that she can only choose one path, and once that path has been chosen the others are no longer available, nevertheless she wants them all! She does not find the idea of childbirth appealing or fulfilling in any way and Plath offers ample negative images throughout. Dodo is represented as a slave to her children, the foetuses displayed on Buddy’s hospital ward as well as the unattractive image of Mrs Tomolillo’s birth “push down, Mrs Tomolillo…. through the split, shaven place between her legs….

I saw a dark fuzzy thing appear. ” [27]The baby is dehumanised and seen as a foreign object violating the mother’s body. The thought makes Esther feel sick and babies drive her to contemplation of suicide, as she feels her only options are to succumb to being a slave for the child, or to kill herself “I had tried to hang myself” [28] Esther projects different images of herself dependant on who she is with and what they want her to be: her mother, Mr Manzi, Buddy, Doreen, Betsy, and she finally breaks down in tears in front of the photographers on Ladies Day.

Before leaving New York she throws away the clothes provided for her by the magazine, letting them float from the top of her hotel, renouncing the standards set out for women and obliteration of the self. She then attempts suicide when she returns home swallowing sleeping pills in her basement, all the years of false identity and artificial contentment finally get too much for her.