"Female Relationships, Motherhood, and Loss of Language in 'The Bell Jar' and 'Mothers'"

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Mariana Chaves Petersen


The Bell Jar and “Mothers” portray dissonant relationships between women and ambivalent positions in relation to language. In the novel, young Esther Greenwood struggles to appropriate a language of her own, whereas in the short story, the protagonist, also named “Esther,” types her husband’s works, with no apparent interest in writing her own words. In this essay, I analyze both narratives in terms of female relationships, motherhood, and loss of language, discussions that are grounded in the works of French philosopher Luce Irigaray. I argue that there is no possible sorority in the women’s groups presented in The Bell Jar and “Mothers” as both narratives depict female characters who, reduced to the functions of mother and wife, end up reinforcing patriarchal values. Although the novel’s Esther criticizes the hypocrisy of gender norms, especially how her writing goals are seen as incompatible with being female, her present-time situation is defined by her status as a mother. Similarly, in “Mothers,” the other Esther creates a sense of belonging in a new community based solely on her being one of its mothers. I thus argue that these two Esthers have more in common than just their names, and I investigate evidence that shows that this might be more than just a coincidence. By juxtaposing The Bell Jar’s Esther’s anxieties about writing and the fact that she is later able to narrate her breakdown to the reductive role of typist of one’s husband’s writings presented in the third-person “Mothers,” I propose that the Esther from the short story might be seen as a final figure of a loss of language originated in the novel. Finally, I claim that, by depicting this loss, Plath is providing a critique, which I approximate to Irigaray’s notion of mimesis.

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Author Biography

Mariana Chaves Petersen, University of Miami, Federal Institute of Education, Science, and Technology of Rio Grande do Sul

Mariana Chaves Petersen is a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant in the Department of English at University of Miami and an instructor of English and Portuguese at Federal Institute of Rio Grande do Sul. She was awarded her M.A. from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in 2017 for her thesis “The Loss of Language in Sylvia Plath’s Narrative: Woman’s Experience and Trauma in The Bell Jar, ‘Tongues of Stone,’ and ‘Mothers.’” She has also written on Plath’sThree Women and Christine Jeff’s Sylvia. Her work on the latter, entitled “Sylvia and the Absence of Life before Ted,” was presented at the 11th Annual Conference of the Association of Adaptation Studies and published in the journal Anuário de Literatura. Her research interests include gender and sexuality studies, queer studies, and contemporary literature and film.