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Posts Tagged ‘saraswati’

How Women in Literature Have Dealt with Gender Expectations

In 2012 on March 2, 2012 at 5:01 am

The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race.”

Susan B. Anthony, a women’s rights activist said these words more than a hundred years ago. She was describing her hopes and dreams for a better world in which women had the same rights, roles, and expectations as their male counterparts did. Throughout history as well as literature, women always have had set roles directly relating to their culture and environment. Some like Saraswati in Thrity Umrigar’s Bombay Times have learned to adapt to it, while others like Esther in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar simply have not. No matter what culture, decade, or society, both of these women grew up in, they both learned their gender expected roles early on, however, one did not chose to give in and be like all the rest.
Bell Jar

In the beginning of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, a young woman who works at an internship for a magazine arrives to New York City in hopes of making something out of her life. She is not exactly sure of what she wants. However, she is sure of what she does not want. Living a life in New York City during the 1950s was every girl’s dream. Esther herself claims that she was supposed to be having the time of her life.

 “I was supposed to be the envy of other college girls just like me all over America who wanted nothing more than to be tripping about in those same size seven patent leather shoes I’d bought in Bloomingdales…drinking martinis in a skimpy, imitation, silver lame bodice stuck on to a big, fat cloud of white tulle, in the company of several anonymous young men with all American bone structures and everybody would think I must be having a real whirl.”

She is supposed to be enjoying all this, but she clearly is not. Esther knows that she lives in a culture that has clearly defined the roles of men and women. The men in this society hold all the appealing jobs, fulfilling their ambitions and dreams along the way. They get to hold the financial, physical, mental, and emotional power over women. Esther does not like that. She knows that in her society, women don’t have much choice but to stay home, cook, clean, and are definitely expected to provide their men sexual pleasure along with emotional warmth and security. Esther is simply not excited by the big city or its glamorous culture. She loathes the lifestyle girls her age are expected to worship and imitate.

Since Esther cannot bear the thought of that way of life, she decides not to marry her longtime boyfriend or fiancé Buddy Willard. Buddy Willard, in a sense, is the conventional male figure in the novel. He wants to be the provider for Esther and their family while she fulfills her role as the housewife. At one point, Buddy Willard even tells her that once she is married with his children, she wouldn’t need to worry about her independent life anymore. She wouldn’t need to write poetry or any other sort of rubbish. All of this terrifies Esther in a way because she is not so sure that she can escape this cycle. She begins to think that “maybe it is true that when you have married and have children it is like being brainwashed, and after you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.” To Esther, marriage is a sort of a death trap and that is why she is so keen to run from it. Nonetheless, this is not easy for her because everywhere she looks, she sees all the women who are caught in this trap. Esther tries her best to run away from all this. However, rejected from the writing that she once was passionate for, she has nothing to turn to. She knows no one who is living the life that she wants. The few women in her life who are close to it are either lesbians or living worse lives than her. All this makes it much more difficult for her to build herself an identity. No one supports her in this task, including her own mother. She has no successful role models in her life either.

This lifestyle causes Esther to lose her sanity in a way because she is left standing alone because she chooses to be different from the social norm. She develops an alter ego, which she names Elly Higginbottom. Elly represents everything Esther is not. Elly is the extrovert, social, cheerful personality that represents what is expected of young women in that time period. This alter ego eventually brings Esther to her downfall. Elly causes Esther to falter. As the months go by, Esther becomes more and more unstable until she eventually ends up in a mental institution. She is confused, depressed, and alone.

However, once hitting rock bottom through her various attempts of suicide, Esther eventually realizes that she needs to regain her identity again by learning to not give in to society’s demands of her. This does this by becoming sexually active. Esther knows that the one thing that her society totally divides the men and the women in is sex. Sex, which is socially unacceptable for an unmarried woman, is the path to her release from all this nonsense in her life. Esther decides not to be dependent on the societal norms anymore and thus loses her virginity on her own terms. At last, she is free from all these expectations. Free at last.

In Bombay Times, Thrity Umrigar portrays the lives of the residents of a middle class apartment building. These people are all Parsi, a small ethnic minority in India who are gathered at a wedding and are reminiscing about their past. Among them is twenty nine year old Adi, whose life has been shattered by a young girl from his past. That girl is Saraswati, a poor farm worker who lives and works on a gigantic Parsi plantation. That plantation is owned by the most powerful man in the village, Nari. Nari, often called a dirty, old man, behind his back is the kind of man who could make a woman feel naked by just looking at her. He owns every worker in the village, including their wives and daughters. Among them is Saraswati, who unlike Esther, has to learn to accept her fate as a young woman in society.

Saraswati’s role in her society is a bit more complicated than Esther’s because she has to live a double role. Externally, she is presented as a hard working laborer who during the day, works to support her family. She is a good girl who listens to what her parents say and has no say in anything whatsoever. But, at night, her parents have no say once Nari gets control of her. At night, whenever Nari chooses, he is allowed to pick any worker and use them however he wishes. Thus, at night, Saraswati is Nari’s property and he can use her for anything he chooses. At night, Saraswati becomes a sexual object who is owned by the most powerful man in town. When Nari decides that Adi is old enough to lose his virginity, he picks out Saraswati as his first victim. Saraswati is a victim because she is forced against her will to have sex with Adi. Growing up in an impoverished home, Saraswati and the girls living similar lives to her are expected to do the same. They are expected to be sexual objects at night while cooking, cleaning, and working out in the fields during the day.

Saraswati, unlike Esther, doesn’t fight back or try to change her expectations. Instead, Saraswati learns to adapt it and once her honor has been taken away from her, she deals with it in a totally different way. Saraswati decides to kill herself by lighting herself on fire. She does this to protect her family honor.

In conclusion, all women throughout literature, no matter what culture, decade, or environment they grow up in, have certain expectations because of their gender. Both Esther in Bell Jar and Saraswati in Bombay Times have certain expectations and roles. Esther deals with it by defying her odds and not meeting any of those expectations. Saraswati deals with it by meeting those expectations and adapting to her environment.