Human beings are often described as clays, whose lives can be easily molded into any shape or size. While one’s actions and behaviors play a key role in determining their life’s path, their surroundings also hold a crucial role. In “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath, it is very clear how Esther, the protagonist’s life is shaped due to her actions and her inability to truly understand herself as a result of social norms and different view towards the idea of womanhood. Similarly, in “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, the story of Okonkwo, the protagonist manifests the suffering one can face in their lifetime if one is living in constant fear and pressure from society.
Both stories share a clear theme of how societal pressure and expectations can not only lead into the destruction of relationships and views on marriage but also affect one’s career, as well as the loss of identity and failure. One’s identity and ability to explore their true self is undoubtedly one of the most important key to understanding life. In “The Bell jar,” Esther Greenwood, a young woman in the 1950s battles through mental instability and lacks a sense of individuality as a result of societal pressure and the expectation to fit in the standard society; in which she does not want to compel to the norm. Esther feels disappointed by society’s emphasis on the idea that young women have to stay virgins until after marriage while allowing boys sexual freedom. Many characters around her like her mother, her boyfriend Buddy, Mrs. Willard, and Betsy embrace these stereotypical social expectations and they push them on Esther. Esther longs to have adventures that society denies her, especially sexual adventures.
“Now the one thing this article didn’t seem to me to consider was how a girl felt. I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not” ( Plath 86) She also understands how the role of marriage in a woman’s life is not the best and knows that she is bound to get married and have kids someday. “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” (Plath 89) Knowing how marriage will affect her future, Esther admits to Buddy that she never wants to get married.
( Plath 98) Moreover, her mom consistently emphasizes the importance of staying virgin as it symbolizes purity, which deeply influences her perception of virginity and female sexuality.” I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another.” ( find pg no) While Esther’s idea of romantic love contrasts with the prevailing view of love around her as something exclusively between married couples, it is very evident that her idea is tremendously impacted by the norms and beliefs of the society.
Likewise, in “Things Fall Apart”, Okonkwo also faces similar problems like Esther throughout the novel. Okonkwo is widely influenced by the Igbo society, living in a male dominant society where males have control of everything. Also, their social status is weighed by the number of wives and children they have. Since a young age, Okonkwo resented his father, Unoka for being different. Unoka was seen as a failure due to his lazy, weak, and kind nature. “Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala.That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title” (Achebe 10). This resulted in Okonkwo to not only hate his father, but also pushed him to never be “feminine” like his father.
Moreover, Okonkwo cares a lot about his children, however always fails to show affection as he believes that it is not a manly characteristic. “Okonkwo was especially fond of Ezinma. She looked very much like her mother, who was once the village beauty. But his fondness only showed on very rare occasions.” Furthermore, he also kills Ikemefuna despite growing affection for him over time. While it is clear that Okonkwo indeed is very caring and kind, he is constantly driven by the fear of being women-like. “Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper and so did his children.
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear of failure and weakness.” (Achebe 9) Okonkwo finds it difficult to show any kind of love or affection and his fear of becoming like feminine like his father possibly explains why, but as a result, he instead abuses his family to show power and masculinity.Thus, societal pressure and expectations can lead to the destruction of relationships and views on marriage. Similarly, society always plays a huge role in one’s career and life.
In many cases, individuals often get influenced to choose different paths rather than what their heart desires. Both Okonkwo’s and Esther’s society imposes different expectations for male and female careers. While Okonkwo is expected to work on a farm, be a great warrior and provide for his family; Esther is expected to become a housewife and a mother, than pursuing her own dreams and goals. For example, it is very evident in “The Bell Jar” that achieving a successful career in the 1950s was very difficult for women.
It is very clear that Esther dreams of having a successful career. However, Esther has seen every female live as a submissive housewife and knows that she is bound to take the path of marriage. “This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s, but I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean was just what Buddy’s mother did, and she was the wife of a university professor and had been a private school teacher herself.” ( Plath 89).
However, her boss, Jaycee is completely opposite from what women are expected to be. She is married and has her own career at the same time. Moreover, Esther gets surprised upon finding out that her psychiatrist is also a female. In order to succeed, she creates several different personalities for herself as she is unaware of whom she wants to become. “My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. She would be called Elaine. I counted the letters on my fingers. There were six letters in Esther too.
” (Plath 128) Likewise, while Esther struggles to achieve her goals, Okonkwo easily fulfills all his dreams and goals. Being driven by the fear of being like his father, Okonkwo works hard since a young age. “As a young man of eighteen Okonkwo had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat” ( Achebe 3). Moreover, in Umuofia, a man’s possession and his ability to fight and wrestle generally determined their social status, and Okonkwo is highly respected with his wealth and three wives. “He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. And so although Okonkwo was young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time.
” ( Achebe 6) ” In order to follow his society’s path, Okonkwo actively participates in wars and wrestling. His belief that men should be strong and brave, not only results in his aggressiveness but also explains his love for wrestling and wars. His fear of being weak and showing emotions lead to him taking certain unnecessary actions resulting in failure and downfalls.
For instance, after unintentionally killing a clansman with his gun, Okonkwo is not only banished from his clan, but he also loses all his titles and hopes of being the being the highest ranking title man. It is ironic how Okonkwo followed a path to success to only get scorned by it. Thus, fear and pressure from society resulted in both Esther and Okonkwo to encounter problems and fail in their career path.Society impacts every individual’s life and their identity. Without knowing one’s identity, and the way one perceives life, it is difficult for others to understand, along with a struggle to live happily.
Esther’s life is widely impacted by the pressure from her family and friends which lead to the loss of her identity. Moreover, her lack of individuality makes her end up absorbing the different identities of the people that surround her and does not establish one for herself. In fact, Plath uses the symbol of mirrors to show the loss of Esther’s true self. Esther’s inability to recognize herself in the elevator reflection at the hotel and the compact mirror in Jay Cee’s office illustrates that Esther is losing grasp on her own identity.
In fact, every time she looks at herself in the mirror, she sees a different version of herself. “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian” (Plath 119) Furthermore, Esther’s loss of identity and depression leads to suicidal thoughts, resulting her to believe being in front of a mirror would make it easier to take her life However, despite suffering from depression and loss of her sense of identity, Esther overcomes her struggle after living in a hospital. Plath also uses the symbol of a bell jar to represent confinement and being locked in a hospital, however, it is ironic how other characters perceive hospitals as prison-like while Esther finds the place hopeful and it brings her to ease.While Esther was able to overcome her fears and issues despite all the suffering, Okonkwo was not capable to do so. Okonkwo was taught by his community to be brave and strong, and backing out from a fight meant weakness. Moreover, in his society, a man’s possession and his ability to fight and wrestle generally determined their social status, causing Okonkwo to become a very idealistic clan member. With his achievements of throwing Amalinze the Cat and having three wives, Okonkwo was viewed with great respect.
(Achebe 3) In light of this, Okonkwo believes that he knows his true self and that he was able to solve his identity crisis. However, it is very evident that Okonkwo has indeed lost his true self and has become someone he is not. But, at the end of the novel when Okonkwo kills one of the commissionaires to start a war, everyone ends up neglecting him, causing him to take his own life. “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia.
You drove him to kill himself, and now he will be buried like a dog.” (Achebe 147)”. Thus, it is clear that both Esther and Okonkwo suffer a lot due to societal pressure, although Esther overcomes it while Okonkwo fails to do so.Therefore, both novels “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath and “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe share a clear theme of how societal pressure and expectations can not only lead to the destruction of relationships and views on marriage, but also affect one’s career, as well as result in loss of identity and failure.
An individual’s actions hugely affects their lives, however social pressure undeniably impacts one’s life greatly.