PALS Note: PALS is delighted to feature guest blogger Mariko Turk and her strategies for incorporating 1950s women’s magazines into her students’ experience of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. While this approach does not entirely reject students’ desires to read into the autobiographical elements of Plath’s text, it broadens their understandings of dominant cultural ideologies.
Before reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) in my American Literature survey courses, I like to get a sense of what students already know about Plath. One or two students usually know that Plath wrote poetry. Someone might tentatively ask, “didn’t she commit suicide?” As students start reading the novel—written from the perspective of the poetic and suicidal Esther Greenwood—it is tempting for them to draw direct connections between author and character, real life and literature. The connections are not difficult to make. Just like Esther, Plath worked as a guest editor at a women’s magazine for a summer in New York City, suffered from depression, attempted suicide, and received electroshock therapy.
But the novel is much more than a fictionalized account of personal, traumatic experiences. It’s sharp, funny, and packed with crisp disavowals of the sexist assumptions of the day regarding female sexuality, intellect, and aspirations. My goal when I teach The Bell Jar to American literature survey students, then, is to examine how the novel is both an intimate account of mental illness and a critique of dominant cultural ideologies of mid-twentieth century America, especially pertaining to women.
One of my favorite ways to get students to recognize and engage with the cultural ideologies contained or challenged within a literary text is to bring historical materials into the classroom. For The Bell Jar, I use several 1950s issues of the Ladies’ Home Journal magazine that I purchased as a bundle for $20.00 on Ebay. (Much credit for this idea is due to Dr. Marsha Bryant, whose graduate seminar “Desperate Domesticity: The American 1950s” introduced me to the wonders of the mid-century women’s magazine and its value as a resource for examining the culture of domesticity.) Below, I will detail how I structured a class analysis of the magazines and how students used their findings to analyze The Bell Jar.
Small group exploration of the Ladies’ Home Journal
On the day we examine the magazines, students come to class having read the first seven chapters of The Bell Jar, which introduce Esther—a bright and cynical college girl who is working for the summer as a guest editor at a fictionalized women’s magazine called Ladies’ Day. I like students to already have a sense of the voice, characters, and narrative when they view the magazines, and these first chapters establish Esther’s relationships with several characters including her Yale boyfriend Buddy Willard and irreverent friend Doreen, and depict such vivid episodes as when Esther and the other guest editors get food poisoning from a fancy luncheon sponsored by Ladies’ Day and spend a night throwing up crab meat and caviar.
Students break into small groups of 3-4, and I give each group a magazine. I ask them to do three things:
1) Observe the contents of the magazine. What kinds of images or claims do you see over and over again?
2) Choose a specific advertisement, article, or image to close read and describe to the class.
3) Using your observations of the magazine and analysis of one particular feature as evidence, what are the ideological assumptions the magazine conveys regarding femininity? According to the magazine, what should a woman care about and aspire to be?
Class discussion of the Ladies’ Home Journal
After about 15 minutes of small group examination, I ask each group to describe their chosen feature and discuss its ideological assumptions. Many different kinds of conversations can follow, depending on what students choose to focus on in the magazines or what questions you use to guide their examination. Below, I’ll outline some of the things that students noted during my survey course this semester.
One group pointed to an ad featuring a woman in a black gown standing by a spacious, open refrigerator full of food, drinks, and a lot of meat. Students observed the contrast between the glamorous appearance of the woman and the everyday space of the kitchen and home—a juxtaposition that they noted occurs across the whole magazine. (Other groups noted images of well-dressed women dancing around washing machines or posing on top of laundry baskets.) Thinking about the ideological assumptions of these images, one student proposed that according to the magazines, women had to be both hard-working and attractive, and that part of being a good woman, a good wife, and/or a good mother was looking a certain way while performing household chores. Another student suggested that while something like the refrigerator ad is selling the refrigerator, the woman in the ad also comes across as a “piece of meat”—as something to be consumed and objectified.
Another group talked about a Community Silverware ad that read: “Ann’s a lot like you. With a head full of dreams these days, but plenty of common sense, too. That’s why she made up her mind to have all the silverware she needed, right from the start. Brides, sweethearts…yes, every woman with a home in mind has a favorite Community pattern. What’s yours?” While analyzing the ideological assumptions of this ad, students noted that women’s dreams should be combined with “common sense” and that sensible dreams for women consist of having a complete set of silverware for their home. Further, students pointed out how the ad assumes that all women “with a home in mind” are connected to a man in some romantic way, as a “bride” or a “sweetheart.”
Other groups discussed articles that further supported the assumption that women should seek romance with a man above all other pursuits. A dating advice column, for instance, warns young women not to spend too much time studying their Latin that they miss out on opportunities to go out with boys. Here, students talked about how the column assumes that romantic interests are deemed more valuable for women than intellectual or academic ones.
Connecting the Ladies’ Home Journal to The Bell Jar: Individual Writing
After discussing students’ analyses of the magazines, we put The Bell Jar into conversation with the Ladies’ Home Journal. I ask students to write their responses to a few questions individually before we discuss them as a class:
• Do any features of the magazines make you think of any passages or scenes in The Bell Jar?
• Does the novel support and/or challenge the ideologies about women presented in the magazines? How?
(A note on time: I taught this lesson in a 110 minute class period, but if you’re working within a standard 50 minute class period, you could split the lesson in half by having students write about connections between the magazines and the novel for homework, and then discuss their ideas during the next class period.)
After students finish writing, we talk about their connections as a class. I love that examining the magazines sparks recollections and re-examinations of important scenes and passages from the novel. For instance, the dating advice column reminded students of the way that the girls in Esther’s dormitory treat her like she is weird when she stays in on weekends to study, but treat her with respect when she starts dating Buddy, the good-looking Yale boy. Examining the magazines helped students to understand what fuels this shift: the cultural assumption that a woman’s value is closely connected to how desirable she is to men.
The magazines also helped students understand Esther’s fears over what was expected to follow dating: marriage and motherhood. After reading so many ads like the one for Community Silverware, students could better grasp Esther’s concerns that her dreams of travelling the world or becoming a famous poet would be impossible after becoming a wife and mother: “I…remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.” The magazines’ many images of women with beatific smiles posing beside household appliances provided students with a compelling visual of Esther’s concerns.
Finally, students interpreted the scene in which all the young women, except for the unapologetically unconventional Doreen, get food poisoning at a Ladies’ Day luncheon as a critique of the potentially toxic effects of consuming the magazines’ ideologies.
Issues of the Ladies’ Home Journal magazine prompt students to look closer at crucial scenes and passages in The Bell Jar, and to think about how the novel works to critique dominant cultural assumptions regarding gender. I’ve found that the magazines continue to inform students’ understanding of the novel as Esther moves from the Ladies’ Day offices in the city to the suburbs of Boston to various mental institutions—prompting them to examine how each of these spaces presents its own ideologies regarding femininity, domesticity, and normalcy.
Mariko Turk is a PhD candidate at the University of Florida, specializing in children’s literature and girls’ culture. Her research examines how children’s literature teaches young people to understand their individual lives in relation to larger political contexts. The connection between the personal and the political also informs her teaching. Her favorite texts to discuss with students are ones that grapple with the complex relationship between the self and the external political and cultural forces that influence how you understand who you are, your self-worth, and what you should aspire to be.