By Claudia Jacob
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is perhaps best known for its criticism of the societal paradigms of women, which are so insufferable that the protagonist Esther suffers a mental breakdown, triggered by her loss of touch with reality. Conversely, Meursault, the protagonist of Albert Camus’s L’étranger (The Stranger), shoots an innocent Algerian man on the beach, apparently as a result of the torrid heat. Initially, these two works don’t seem to have much in common. However, an Existentialist reading of Plath’s novel might go some way in explaining why Meursault and Esther react as they do, to a society that dictates the way they live their lives. After all, if Plath’s masterpiece tells us anything, it’s that the ever-suffocating presence of the bell jar can drop upon anyone who refuses to conform to society’s dogmas.
Existentialism is a school of thought popularized by French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. In his Existentialist manifesto, L’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness), Sartre famously determined that “man is condemned to be free”, revealing to what extent societal freedom is bound up by this law. Both Esther and Meursault find themselves condemned by a society which seems to have pre-determined their fate.
Esther appears underwhelmed by the bright lights of New York City, where she’s completing an internship in a fashion magazine, yet society’s expectations alienate her and remind her that she’s supposed to be having the time of her life. Similarly, when we consider the infamous opening line of L’étranger: ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure’, we can already see a similar, albeit more extreme, disconnect between Meursault and the world around him. The distinct lack of emotion towards the death of Meursault’s mother is designed to throw us off. We can’t help but feel shocked at Meursault’s response, because society has taught us that we should grieve when a family member passes away, but that’s exactly what Camus wants. As we go through the motions of unconsciously judging Meursault’s reaction, we realise that our response isn’t unique but rather collective because we’ve been conditioned to react this way. And this realisation is somewhat uncomfortable.
The way they respond to these unwritten societal rules seems to cause a further sense of othering. Esther appears estranged from the role of the female itself: “A man doesn’t have a worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head”. Her feminist observations echo in part a de Beauvoirian standpoint on feminism, whereby the inequality between the sexes is first biological, something distinctly lacking from Sartre’s ideologically sexist philosophy. Esther recognises that it’s the female ability to reproduce that limits her freedom, feeling indignant at the way this denies her something that the patriarchy unapologetically enjoys.
Meursault notes: “Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married.” As the bearer of the existentialist psyche, Meursault disregards preconceived notions of marriage being the ultimate measure of love. Camus problematizes existence; humanity has been conditioned to feel ratified by the way that society measures success. Indeed, it’s only when Meursault is confronted by death that he feels most free, able to ‘start life all over again’, despite being strictly atheist and therefore not believing in any form of afterlife, a key element of Existentialism. Esther also finds solace in the idea of death: “I am I am I am. That morning I had tried to hang myself.” Plath’s tone is stark, but her echoes of Cartesian ideology “I think therefore I am”, show a somewhat paradoxical resurgence of life. It appears that the prospect of death beckons life more than life itself ever could.
However, as much as these two protagonists resist civilization’s stringent code, Esther still finds herself subject to a board of doctors at the institution in which she’s been receiving her shock treatments, who will determine her future. Meursault finds himself on trial for murder, whereby the prosecutor condemns him to be publicly guillotined, after denouncing that his inability or unwillingness to cry at his mother’s funeral has made him incapable of remorse, and therefore deserving of death. Even if Esther and Meursault resist the intellectual shackles of convention, they’re still subject to the legal and social conventions of their society, and they must face the penalty for their failure to conformity. It’s a message that’s unfortunately more relevant now than it perhaps has ever been before. Both protagonists are unavoidably born into the system and are a sobering reminder that man is only as free as the system allows him to be.
Photograph: kristina via Flickr