The theme of identity in "We" and "The Bell Jar"

In We and The Bell Jar written by Yevgeny Zamyatin and Sylvia Plath respectively, individuality is portrayed as a result of the environment around the main characters, D-503 and Esther Greenwood. The theme of the transformation of identity is highlighted differently in We versus The Bell Jar with the usage of a person, an abstract essence, or an object that develops D-503’s and Esther’s character.

In We, all aspects of one’s life is controlled by the dominating government, the One State. D-503’s name is due to the overarching rule of the One State stripping individuals of their names, replacing them with numbers regarding the person’s importance to the One State. Personal value is perpetually seen and repeated in society as it would be right in everyone’s name. Each citizen has their own personalized Table of Sex Days given by the Bureau of Sex and their own schedule mandated by the One State. D-503 states that he “cannot picture a life” without the guidance of the Table, so it is apparent that D-503 appreciates, and furthermore enjoys the control that the One State has upon his day to day routines. D-503 is hopelessly under rule of the One State until he meets I-330. D-503 drinks alcohol with her, and notes “I became glass. I saw into myself, inside.” (Zamyatin 50). This is important as this is the first time that he has been not sober. He depersonalizes, seeing two versions of himself, describing it as himself crawling out of a shell; one version of himself that conforms to the authority of the One State, and one that detracts and rebels against the One State. The alcohol is symbolic of a light in the darkness for D-503, opening himself up to a different perspective of power. D-503’s characterization (and the torn sense of self that he experiences) is a direct effect of the One State’s almighty control and the abrupt realization of individualism that he experienced from I-330. Feeling ill, D-503 goes to the Bureau of Medicine and discovers that he has “developed a soul” (Zamyatin 79). D-503 is distraught. In a society where creativeness, individualism, and identity persists, developing a soul should not be a serious condition to have. Yet, the state has all power and deems that it be necessary to preserve him in alcohol to help “[avert] an epidemic” (Zamyatin 81). This reflects that these citizens are utterly sedated from free will. The doctors hint at an “epidemic” from him having a soul – but realize that his importance as a Builder of the Integral is more imperative than having his brain removed for science. D-503 is having his identity challenged by the One State for being comparatively different than most others within the society, again all from the opposing sense of self that he feels either obeying the One State or stop conforming altogether. D-503’s identity is eventually forcibly shaped by the Great Operation sponsored by the state. Afterwards, he identity is completely stripped, acting like more of a humanoid, programmable machine than a human with emotions or a soul. He questions the past 200 pages he has written – “Is it possible that I . . . felt—or imagined . . . any of this?” (Zamyatin 202). Here, D-503 feels nothing. His use of dashes, correcting himself, signify that he is questionable about his existence. No past recollection of his life, devoid of all empathy, anger, or desire, subjected to a process that eliminates what makes humans, humans. D-503’s identity was originally shaped by the One State until I-330 formed it into something that pulled at him, showing D-503’s duality, until the greatest entity, the One State, expelled it wholly.

Esther Greenwood’s identity in The Bell Jar is initially illustrated when she makes up a fake name and hometown, Elly Higgenbottom from Chicago, once she meets Lenny and Frankie in New York. She proclaims that she did not want “anything [she] said or did that night to be associated with [her real identity]” (Plath 11). Esther’s action to delineate as someone she is not is notable in the sense that she feels uncomfortable when people judge her, as her real self/identity, but if she gives fake information then she feels safe from the judgements and opinions of other people. This is as a result of the environment around Esther – a bustling New York City – and the mental illness she faces. Even when she wants to return home to Boston she still feels it necessary “not to be recognized” (Plath 114), which exemplifies the importance of others’ judgements towards Esther. Esther has a self-deprecating sense of her identity, unwilling to accept herself for who she is at the benefit of attempting to be anonymous in society. She dislikes having her name as a label to uniquely identify herself, which is why she tends to avoid tedious human interaction and becoming noticed in public. Moreover, she fails to know what she wants to do in the future as a career, and having quit her all-expense paid trip in New York to return home produces a sizeable loss in her self-confidence. Esther’s significant identity shift occurs when she obtains the shock treatments from Doctor Gordon’s private hospital. She becomes obsessed with death unlike at any level noticed before. It is said before the shock treatments that she hates the sight of blood, but afterwards carries nineteen blades to cut herself with at her convenience. Plath is portraying the medical field in a negative light through Esther. Esther’s identity is shattered as her sleepless increases and emotions become stronger. She attempts to kill herself two different times, both by drowning and hanging, but fails each time. By this point, she knows she is beaten, and details that “The more hopeless you were, the further away they hid you” (Plath 160). Esther’s interpretations become more brash after the treatments occur, wondering if she should go back to the doctors, but decides not to after prioritizing her family over the will of the doctors, characterizing the treatments as hasty, causing more problems than they would fix. She reports her heartbeat as sounding “like a dull motor in [her] ears” (Plath 158), again making herself more distinguished as a machine in this world rather than a human that has positive emotion and soul. Machines only have a certain lifespan before they need to be replaced, something that Esther relates to after the dehumanizing shock treatments from Doctor Gordon. Her identity is drawn out as being hopeless and discouraged of any cure, yet when she hemorrhages and still lives (the doctor calling her “one in a million”), then is heard of the news of Joan hanging herself, strives to continue the shock treatments. It is an interesting turn of events after she expressed how horrible the shock treatments at Doctor Gordon’s were, yet she pursues even though she had believed earlier that there is no cure for her. Plath incorporates Esther’s calming, centering statement “I am, I am, I am” (158 & 243) to seemingly allow Esther to focus her attention on the fact that she is, at any given moment in time, a living being with a heart and soul. The assurance is needed for Esther as she has many different thoughts and actions about taking her life, and she can distract herself from thinking all this by saying “I am” as a way to give herself a more pursuable, median feeling to live rather than being polarized in the feeling of wanting to commit suicide. Continuing the shock treatments, Esther herself demonstrates they are a refreshment of life by exclaiming similarities between the treatments and “a ritual for being born twice” (Plath 244). This is what exactly occurred when she first received the shock treatments from Gordon – though she spiraled into madness and a deeper, darker depression.

The sense of identity in We and The Bell Jar is established differently in the sense that both of the main characters overcome a climactic change in their sense of identity either through a person (I-330), external entity (the One State, depression), or an effect as a result of an object (alcohol, shock treatments) that ultimately define the differences in the texts. D-503 succumbs to the control of the One State through the Great Operation, losing all identity, while Esther attempts to find hers again through a round of shock treatments.


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