NEA’Feminine desire opposes man’s reason’ – L,AlexanderIn light of this view discuss the idea of female power and desire thatis presented in the Bell Jar and The wife of BathThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and the wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucerboth present the theme of female power through the presentation of thecharacters, in the wife of bath Chaucer through the character of the wife showsfeminine domination and control using the reversal of traditional roles andvalues, an example of this could be the way the queen and the Ladies of thecourt establish the punishment for the Knight instead of King Arthur. Plathalso shows feminine desire using the character of Esther Greenwood, Esther isshown to have high ambition as she states she has the intention to create herown power in her life, this can be shown by simply her determination to surviveor her strong desire to achieve her dreams independently, for example shestates ‘I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directionsmyself, like the coloured arrows from a fourth of July rocket.’ This is avital quote in The Bell Jar as it shows her clear rejection of societiestraditional conformities and demand to marry, it shows her destroying typicalgender stereotypes with the desire to succeed without being defendant on a mantherefore reinforcing the idea of feminine power.Both The Wife of Bath and The Bell Jar both faced issues with thesocietal standards during the tie they were both written, although nearly 500years apart the social construct in both novels are still very similar. TheWife of Bath was written around the time 1405-1410 where the church was themain authority and institutional power, it held heavy political Power andmonitored the creative professions like authors and playwrights therefore anykind of critique of the church could lead to dangerous consequences, Thesociety functioned on a strict hierarchy where women were seen as inferior andfollowed strict traditions that made them reliant on men, these traditionalroles were mainly based on the idea that women were almost property unlike thesuperior role of men. The Wife of Bath however challenges this traditionalsocial patriarchal with her attitudes and rejects the social conformities, forexample she says ‘and someseven how that we loved best to be free, and do right as us lest, and not noman reprieve us of our vice but sees that we be wise, and nothing nyle.
‘(941-944)this suggests that the narrator is inferring women want to be liberated and donot like to be reprieved of their lives. They are deeply restricted by society’smoral code however this is not what women desire. This attitude can be seen asahead of her time as it shows her promoting the rejection of society and howshe believes women should gain back their freedom showing clear feminine power,however some critics have stated that although the novel contains many femaleaspects the wife also contradicts herself, for example when she says ‘down to a mares faste by sheran, til she cam there, her herte was a fire and as a bitore bombleth in themyre, she leyde her mouth into the water down’ (975-979) This is quitedegrading as the narrator talks about Midas’s wife’s speech and creates a comparisonbetween her and a ‘bitore’ which is the word for the bird a ‘Bittern’ this hasclear anti-feminist connotations as she continues to say the word ‘bombleth’which infers that the is gossiping and spreading secrets like a bird callrather than a human, furthermore this implies that women’s speech was seen asunintelligent and hollow which was seen as inferior to men, which links to theBible message only speak when you are spoken to. Therefore this strong femininepower and desire for freedom previously shown is immediately contradicted bythe implication that women’s speech is shallow and revolves around gossip.The Bell jar by Sylvia Plath was written in 1950s Post war America, thisperiod of time was when American society was shaped by conservative values andpatriarchic structure, this was a time when women were still fighting forequality so were oppressed and still expected to follow traditional roles andvalues much like The wife of Bath, however they were coming into an age of amore liberal America and had more freedom then previously before the war, Womenwere expected to follow this idea of being pure and chaste with the ambitionand desire to be a mother or wife rather than pursuing a career, this reflectsthe strong sexist attitudes at the time and how women were degraded and seen asnot equal in comparison to men. To the normal women who had basic desires,societies expectations could be crushing and detrimental to their mentalhealth, this powerful resentment to the societal conformities was the beginningof the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, within these women andsocietal structures Plath portrays the character of Esther Greenwood, Esther isfaced with a variety of different challenges throughout the novel including herstruggle with self-identity and desires, the novel almost shows arepresentation of American society with the character of Mrs.
Willard, hertraditional values show the typical attitude and expectation of a women in the1950s, Esther remembers Mrs. Willard’s words as she debates whether this is thelife she wants for herself, an example of this could be ‘What a man wants is a mate andwhat a woman wants is infinite security’ This suggests that for menrelationships are seen as just a means for procreation and the word Plath usesof ‘mate’ makes the action sound animalistic and like relationships between menand women do not have to be stemmed from love but just as a desire to producechildren. which implies a society where women are objectified whereas for womentheir need for a men provides them with stability inferring without that’security’ they would feel uneasy and unstable showing the conventionalattitude at the time, in addition also producing the opinion that women expectmore from a relationship than men reinforcing this double standard in society.she then continues by using an arrow as a metaphor for a relationship, she says’what a man is, is an arrow into the future and what a women is, is the placethe arrow shoots off from.’ This represents the portrayal of men and women andthe whole idea that women create a loving home for a man to come back to afterpursuing a career, they are seen as home makers whereas men are seen asambitious. Esther gives up her ambition and desires as she does not know whatshe wants so therefore, she had an idea of the career she wanted to pursue butin a male dominated world she debates the idea, an example of this could bewhen discussing a career with her mother Esther states ‘The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving menin any way, I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.
‘ This showshow she does not want to give in to the desires and needs of men, for exampleshe rejects the social expectation of motherhood, this is supported by herfascination with giving birth and opinions on the matter, instead of having amaternal need she describes a birthing room as a ‘torture chamber’ This showsthe pressure she has from society and the expectation they have for women tofulfil their duty as a child bearer instead of the pursuit for a career and howshe rejects those traditional ideas, in the novel it is clear Esther feels she hasthe desire to reject societal double standards and take back her life forherself, she feels like her life is being overpowered either with her deterioratingmental health or the societal expectations it is apparent she feels like shecannot decide which path to proceed down. However because of the overshadowingmental health this makes her have a lack of motivation and decisiveness sobecause of this Esther ends up giving up her aspirations. A distinct theme throughout both the novel and the poem is the idea ofsexual double standards, this is a feminist conception that has created debatesthroughout history, and the fact that both the novel and poem were set in arepressive society makes this a more prominent idea, in the bell jar Estherconstantly deliberates the idea of her sexuality, she is a virgin for the majorityof the novel and it is clear this weighs on her mind, for example it state’When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue. Instead of the world beingdivided up into Catholics and protestants or Republicans and Democrats or whitemen and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into peoplewho had slept with somebody and people who had not and this seemed the onlyreally significant difference between one person and another. I thought aspectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.’ She was clearly brought up withthe belief that a women must still be a ‘chaste’ virgin when she got married,and automatically assumed this would be the same expectation for men, howevereven in the novel her expectations are destroyed when she discovers her oldestfriend and potential love interest has broken this standard and when expectingEsther to remain pure he has an affair with a waitress making it apparent toEsther that it would be challenging to meet this ideal of a ‘red blooded intelligent man whowas still pure by the time he was 21’ This clear revelation infuriated Esther whodid not understand how women had to have a traditional repressed life where shehad this expectation to be pure and virginal when a man was easily able to livea life with no restrictions or traditional values they were expected to live byunlike women.
Esther desires to get even on Billy and go against thisexpectation they had of women at the time.The novel the Wife of Bath similarly to The Bell jar contains prominent ideasrejecting the social standards, which it could be argued would have had agreater impact during the 1400s as it was extremely rare for a women to speakabout the sexual oppression and societal conformities they faced. the characterthe wife of bath throughout the novel uses her sexual attributes to gain power,whether for her own gain or to prove equal status, her character is portrayedas a more liberated woman, and is the prototype of the traditional femalefigure that appears inliterature. She is ascandalous character who would has controversial beliefs and goes against the roleof a woman at the time in society it was trying to promote, the wife appears asa sexualized character that goes against traditional teachings with adetermined mindset and strong willed persona. She can be seen as a characterwho overall holds sovereignty and dominance over men, an example of this couldbe the symbolism of the wives virginity it states, ‘I wol bestowe the flour of man age, in the actesand in trust of marriage’ in a way this shows attitudes ahead of her time asshe says that her virginity is hers to give when she desires, not only this butthe function of marriage she takes as her own and says she enjoys ‘the trust ofmarriage’ which suggests the act of sex.
This is a character embracingher sexuality and using it to her advantage as her attitudes makes it clear shehas no intention or desire to obtain perfect chastity rejecting socialexpectations and expressing her right to sexual liberation within her marriage.This was a rare societal view at the time as it was taught that Men were to bedominant over women in order to retain control.The Theme of authority and power is prominent in both novels in The Wifeof Bath she believes that her experience gives her the largest amount ofauthority and knowledge because of her marriages and experience, in order tosupport her attitudes she uses examples from the Bible as validation to excuseher controversial actions. as she discusses her lives with her fivehusbands she states how she had clear sovereignty over all of them by saying ‘I governed them so wel after my lawe,’ this implies that she controlledthem according to her law or desire because Chaucer uses the word ‘governed’ whichgives her more authority, as she is seen as in a position where she canimplement power on men , further on in the novel she then says ‘For God it woot, I chidde hem spitously.’Implying she is taking these actions in order to satisfy God instead ofherself . She is a woman who has an appetite for attention, not only sexually,but as a person for example it upsets her when her fifth husband, has morepassion for literature than for her.
It could be argued that thecharacter of Alison is not a woman who has a passion for changing the world forthe benefit of other women who are dominated by men. She does not fight forwomen but instead knows what pleasures men because of her multiple marriageswhich giver her more knowledge. She gives men what they desire, which is sexualpleasure that she can give them. The character is clearly using sex tomanipulate men, just as men do to women, which shows her clear rejection ofdouble standards and her opinion of sexual freedom.
However the action of Givingin to man’s desires goes against feministic beliefs. Alison’s character has achoice of not giving in to the man, but instead wants to sexually satisfy them forhis desire not hers because she has experienced sex before and she knows howmuch men enjoy it. At first the reader receives the impression that thecharacter is strong willed and is trying to win women freedom and liberation.
Howevershe herself says that women are the cause of men’s suffering, completelycontradicting this statement, her whole character focuses on her craving forsex and her urge to give men pleasure. Showing that although she has this powerover men she does executes her power through sexual attributes instead ofencouraging equality amongst the sexes, showing a non-feminist view.In conclusion it could be argued that both novels contain a clear themeof female power and desire that does oppose man’s reason, both trapped in asocietal repression the poem and the novel express apparent rejection to theseconformities and similarly take back power for themselves, whether it be bysimply not cooperating with the societal expectations of submissiveness andmotherhood and furthermore pursuing a career rather than the desire to impressa man, or the idea that a women’s sexuality is hers to give and the act of sexshould not be controlled by men, presenting an attitude ahead of her time andstill contradicting to the traditional societal roles.