In The Bell Jar and Cuckoo’s Nest, both the protagonists struggle not only with a deteriorating mental stability and oppression from those surrounding them but also with a lack of a sense of individuality. Kesey and Plath explore these personal struggles through the experiences of alienation and identity paranoia through evocative literary techniques; being overwhelmed and powerless to break free of their inner world of isolation.
Esther, in The Bell Jar, is a young, sensitive and intelligent woman who feels oppressed by the apparent social restrictions placed upon women in a pre-feminist, repressive 1950s America, and the pressure she feels regarding her future.
She struggles with individuality and is faced with many choices complying with her future, and consequently, the path for the rest of her life. Esther’s insecurity and struggle to discover her identity causes her to look to the personalities of the woman that surround her in life, but her inability to adapt to these personalities or the traditional concept of the “feminine ideal” ultimately leads her to a psychological breakdown in life.
It is not just the nature of that struggle we are presented with, but Plath’s literary techniques which help to portray this “struggle” to the reader, with the use of sibilance and repetition; “The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.” Plath’s repetition of the word “silence” reinforces the idea that Esther’s feelings and emotions are trapped inside her, and suggests that she is unable to break free of her own silence; these emotional burdens result not only in Esther’s social and intellectual isolation, but also aid the reader in believing that her mental breakdown is imminent from the beginning.
The short, simple, fragmented sentences also show us that Esther has an ability to reflect properly, and it also serves to highlight her own isolation.
While Esther feels her segregation is with society, Bromden, the narrator of Cuckoo’s Nest, and the other patients of the asylum, continuously struggle against the restrictions placed upon the ward by the tyrannical Nurse Ratched. Bromden states that the other patients in the ward think he is mute and deaf, but in reality, he chooses not to speak, primarily due to being ignored and later combined with fear for Nurse Ratched. Although Bromden is the narrator, his descriptions cannot be fully trusted. Chapter 7 serves to portray him as an “unreliable narrator”, Bromden has a nightmare and imagines the workers slicing open Blastic, one of the vegetables and states that he fears the workers will do the same to him through some ghastly experiment. There is no uncertainty as to whether there is truth in his vision; Kesey assures the reader that it is simply his imagination by having Bromden woken up by the night watchman. The exact diagnosis of his disorder is never revealed, but is possibly schizophrenia or paranoia or as he is said to have served in the army, he may be suffering from shell shock. I feel that the reason Kesey withholds the true disorder Bromden suffers from, is to successfully sustain our interest throughout the novel. Most modern day readers of Cuckoo’s Nest will have prior knowledge of the effects of war upon the individual, as will they understand the social standing of women in Esther’s situation in Bell Jar, and it is this previous awareness that enables us to further understand his, and Esther’s, behaviour and struggles, and the derivation of it.
Kesey has the protagonist Bromden, tell us initially in the novel; “… and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth!” At this point the reader is directly addressed and it is as of he is sharing his private thoughts and informing us that he has an important and shocking story to reveal and thus structures the subsequent direction of the novel. Plath uses this technique of informing the reader early with “I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel”, this suggests to us that there is, as in Cuckoo’s Nest, a sense of psychological conflict rising about in Esther’s mind, similar to a tornado and compels us to determine what this suggestion will lead to. Bromden’s silence is similar to Esther’s in Bell Jar; both of these characters are unable to communicate their ideas through speech due to the fears of those around them. Kesey, with the use of words such as “horrible” and “awful”, and a demonstrative “this”, suggests that in addition to the violent and menacing images we have seen so far, that there are still darker things to come; this encourages us to read on and discover the terrible impacting past and future events Bromden will share with us. Kesey suggests to the reader that Bromden feels dehumanised with the use of anthropomorphism; “I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me”. The animalistic action “roar”, and this powerful verb further implies to us that Bromden has a story that is bursting to get out of him, thus creating narrative tension which impels us to discover this story. Kesey uses colloquial language to suggest that due to Bromden’s inability to express his feelings, his thoughts are often unstructured and questionable, which can be seen when he states; “But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen”. However, here he asks that the reader to keep an open mind towards his hallucinations, because even though they may not have actually happened, they provide a metaphorical view of the hidden events in the hospital, as he witnesses them, despite being in a hallucinatory state.
Kesey also uses recurring motifs and strong pathetic fallacy, such as the “fog” he calls “The Combine”, to emphasise the “struggle” of the individual, for example, he describes the fog as; “snowing cold and white all over me like skim milk”. The use of the words “cold”, “white” and “like skim milk” could be Kesey suggesting that Bromden feels trapped in not only the asylum, but also ruled by a mechanical society, of which he does not conform to. By suggesting he might hide in the “snow” could indicate that Bromden might feel less oppressed if he were white, or simply that the idea of a bitter snow reflects his inner thoughts, reinforcing his insecurities within himself to the reader. His hallucinations of the fog represent Bromden’s own lack of mental clarity; it recurs whenever Chief Bromden becomes less stable and recedes whenever he becomes more coherent and in addition to this, he imagines that there are hidden fog machines controlled by the nurses, displaying his intense distrust towards those around him. The fog can be also interpreted as a powerful metaphor for an escape from truth and Chief believes it to be a shelter from reality, however frightening it might be which can be seen when Kesey writes “They start the fog machine again…so thick I might even be able to hide in it if they didn’t have a hold on me”. In addition to this, two of the chapters in Cuckoo’s Nest contain little more than a paragraph, describing his relapse into paranoia with another experience of fog, and also a disorganised game of monopoly. Kesey uses these brief chapters to show the disjointed nature of Chief Bromden’s observations and to show that the structure of the novel also reflects the content, and combined with precise, concrete language and compelling literary techniques, enables the reader to understand and believe these abstract feelings.
Like Kesey’s use of the fog, Plath also uses metaphorical ideas to symbolise the anxieties in Esther, and her struggle to fit into a society she fears. “The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.” The title and idea of a “Bell Jar” in itself gives an image of being trapped repressed and restricted. It is obvious that she is being limited in some way or another, destroyed due to her inability to express herself. The analogy of the Bell Jar is crucial; ‘I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air’. Plath uses sibilant words ‘stewing’ and ‘sour’ to evoke strong sensual reactions in the reader as if they were hit by a pungent sickly smell. This gives us the idea that Esther is slowly driving herself crazy as she cannot break free of the forces around her, and in Plath presenting this idea; she is deriving and understanding from the reader. In addition to the concrete language used, the bell jar represents the entrapment Esther feels at the hands of men, children and society and its expectations of women, and the reappearance of this symbol informs the reader of Esther’s particularly traumatic and suffocating mood slips. She is gradually driven insane by the gender stereotypical restrictions of her social world and these burdens cause not only her social and intellectual deterioration, but also her mental destruction. Although a modern day female reader of the novel may not be able to fully empathise with this idea of the “submissive female”, certain sexist aspects remain nowadays which help the women readers understand the extent of Esther’s struggle, whilst the universal theme of repression ensures the male audience are not excluded.
To extend the theme of repression, Plath uses the idea of presenting the central character as a pariah and disconnection from oneself, to show the struggle of isolation from society; “(Her hand) retreated and fell limp…as if it had collided with a pane of glass.” This reemphasises Esther’s feelings of not belonging to society and her struggle to fit in. It once again refers to the image of being trapped in a bell jar away from the world and feeling, and it is this recurrence of the bell jar that gives the novel unity of structure. “It was the sleeve of my own bathroom and my left hand lay pale as a cod at the end of it.” She detaches herself from her body and does not associate it with herself, as if she is watching herself as another person and this shows the reader the extremity of her disconnection to herself and enables us to gain a greater understanding of her troubled emotions.
Kesey also uses the idea of disconnection from oneself as another technique to reinforce the theme of struggle within the individual, an example of this is when Bromden is hiding in the latrine from the black boys; “I’d take a look at my own self in the mirror and wonder how it was possible that anybody could manage such an enormous thing as being what he was.” Bromden is six feet seven inches tall, but confesses that he in fact feels much smaller and weaker than this. He tells McMurphy, “I used to be big, but not no more.” Bromden describes his mother as twice the size of he and his father put together, due to her belittling them both so much. By referring to himself in third person when he sees himself in the mirror, suggests to us that he is not comfortable in his body and feels abnormal, and insinuates to the reader that his self-esteem and individuality is lost when he implies that his body is not his, but perhaps part of a machine.
Kesey continues and extends this technical imagery with the idea of a mechanical society, weaving in childhood recollections, to show the reader that Bromden’s struggle leads back to adolescence; “…on these three strangers… I can see the . . . seams where they’re put together. And…the apparatus inside them take the words I just said and try to fit the words in here and there… the machinery disposes of the words like they weren’t even spoken.” Here he recounts the experience that scarred him as child, and which subsequently lead to him regarding himself as a part of mechanism; three government officials came to speak to his father about buying the tribe’s land to build a hydroelectric dam and when Bromden tried to speak to them, he noticed that “not a one of the three acts like they heard a thing I said.” He begins to see the world differently, believing that he can see the seams on people, as though they were inhuman or machine-like and begins to get used to being ignored, I believe this has the effect of creating a sinister tone in the novel and shows the root of Bromden’s distrust towards society. Along with his silence at the beginning of the novel, Kesey is showing Bromden to represent the more passive elements of society that submit to authority, such as the government and Nurse Ratched, thus reaching out to the reader and appealing to their sympathetic nature, as most people have, at some point in their lives felt dominated by, or struggled against seemingly authoritative figures.
Similar to Kesey’s techniques, in Bell Jar, Plath mirrors the idea of the protagonist struggling to conform to society’s mechanical-like expectations. Esther is constantly pressure by her environment to marry and have children; like a robotic housewife; “What a man wants is, is an arrow into the future and what a woman is, is the place the arrow shoots off from” This is one of the many remarks Esther often receives from her medical student boyfriend, Buddy Willard, along with a suggestion that one day Esther will “stop rocking the boat and start rocking a cradle”, these sexist comments serve to enlighten the reader of the ideas that young women were steered towards an illustrious ideal of purity, subservience and modest deportment, whilst simultaneously struggling against a condemnation of sexuality, power and confidence. He also says that once she has children she will “feel differently,” and not want to write poems anymore, that she will be “brainwashed and numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”
Esther rejects Buddy Willard and his ideals as she discovers that all Buddy wants is a typical family life and wife and she does not want to suffer the loss of freedom. Buddy does not appreciate the creative process that is highly valued by Esther who wants to be a poet. Instead of telling him what she actually felt she just says, “I guess so” and leaves it at that. However, what she wanted to say was -“They’re dust as dust as dust. I reckon a good poem lasts a whole lot longer than a hundred of those people put together”. The fact that she does not speak her true feelings to Buddy depicts two sides to Esther, one that doesn’t reveal her true self and the other that accepts what she is told – “I took everything Buddy Willard told me as the honest-to-God truth”. Due to the many years she complies with this faï¿½ade of pretending to be the woman everyone wants her to be, trying to please her family and peers, her mental break down and eventual suicide attempts are inevitable. The majority of the readers of Bell Jar will have felt pressured by peers, or their family at some point in their lives, and this universal theme combined with precise and elaborate language helps relate us to the character of Esther on a strong personal level.
Esther does not have the courage to speak her mind and relieve her troubled thoughts until she is finally hospitalised. However Bromden finds a release from the struggles within himself with the arrival of McMurphy. Before his arrival to the hospital, Nurse Ratched’s routine is successful in maintaining a mechanized sense of order, as Bromden includes in his notes: “It’s for fixing up mistakes…When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes”. With this observation, Bromden reflects that as long as one conforms to society’s rules, life runs smoothly; although unless they are very strong, if one refuses to conform they will pay the price. Bromden’s father was a non-conformist, but was not strong enough; as a result, he was destroyed. McMurphy was strong enough to oppose the repression, but in the end, he still loses. Despite the needless death of McMurphy, there is still a sense of hope in the end of the novel that breaks the sadness, and that is Chief Bromden who, mimicking McMurphy’s earlier unsuccessful attempts to escape, finally manages to break free of his inner struggle towards a new life. As the reader I felt satisfied by the distinctly promising ending, and after sharing and experiencing the struggles of Bromden through the text, believe that Kesey ended the novel on a positive note to enable the reader to gain closure on his shocking story, unlike the uncertain ending to Bell Jar.
Plath also has her central character imitate the ideas of others to push aside her hidden struggles. Throughout the novel she is unsure about her future and about her self, and it may seem that Esther herself is unable to define her identity. Due to her confusion Esther adopts various parts of the personalities of the women in her life, which evidently neither fit nor reflect her true self. Firstly she feels like she wants to be like Doreen, the next she describes her disgust by her and reveals her desire to be like Betsy; “It was Betsy I resembled at heart”.
The simple fragmented sentence almost seems to the reader that she has confidence in the assertion of her character traits. However, this is contradicted with the desire to be like Jay Cee, as her balance of marriage and career impresses her. Even though Kesey in Cuckoo’s Nest has Bromden successfully be influenced by McMurphy, Esther evidently does not alleviate her struggles by longing to be someone else. By stating that she resembles Betsy, it appears to the reader that she is trying to fit in but also enables us to further observe a sense of self-destruction due to her identity confusion.
After it appears that Esther is on the road to improving her mental health, it is surprising to see that in the last chapter of the novel, we see that the bell jar parallel resurfaces, and provides the final word on Esther’s supposed recovery. “How did I know that someday . . . the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” The bell jar has lifted enough that Esther can behave relatively normally, and although it seems that she hasn’t actually freed herself, we get a sense that she obviously knows what she is doing as she has “plans”. Her suicidal desires have been abandoned, for the time being, and she begins to connect with other people and the outside world. The use of ellipsis after “someday”, suggest to the reader that Esther still feels the bell jar hovering above her, and worries that it will trap her again. The novel lapses into a linear, traditional narrative towards the end, representing sanity as a complete and significant concept, however, whilst she is relieved to be free from her madness, she does not wholly believe that this is a permanent solution from her struggles. It is this sense of ambiguity that leaves the reader to decide their own interpretation of Esther’s fate.
Both Plath and Kesey portray intense psychological “struggle” of Esther and Bromden effectively in similar ways; both novels create a sense of catharsis at the end of the novel due to the heavy, complex emotions and the distinct, visual imagery and language. I see this catharsis as alleviated in Cuckoo’s Nest with Bromden’s successful escape; conversely in Bell Jar I feel that this is not quite relieved and that I am almost sharing Esther’s constant burdens in the concluding paragraphs. The novel was described by one critic as having “…a special force, a humbling power, because it shows the vulnerability of people of hope and good will”, I see this overwhelming vulnerability we are able to share with Esther that helps The Bell Jar stand out as the most effective in conveying the struggle. I feel that Plath’s precise literary techniques, along with the obscure symbolism of the bell jar persisting to plague Esther’s mind, to the point where she is still no clearer on her uncertain fate, delineates Bell Jar as unforgettable with a lingering ambiguity that has asserted the novel as a literary classic.