Ambiguity in American Literature Essay

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Sylvia Plath explores ambiguity from the perspective of a woman living in a man's world in The Bell Jar. Esther receives different messages about who she is and who she wants to be. Society tells her to be the good wife and mother but she never adapts well to this notion. She feels ambivalence toward most of the women she meets and ultimately feels pulled in different directions when it comes to expectations and desires. The conflict Esther experiences results from what society expects from "good girls." The article Mrs. Greenwood sends her exposes the hypocrisy she cannot ignore. The article explains how a "man's world was different than a woman's world and a man's emotions are different than a woman's emotions" (Plath 65). The notion of women being pure as the wind-driven snow and submitting to the will of their husbands becomes more of a burden than anything else to Esther. Esther knew omen could be talented and independent but they were also expected to live for their families and the lines between those two worlds was at best ambiguous for Esther.

In Richard Heller's novel, Catch 22, Heller observes ambiguity through radically different characters experiencing the same war. Ambiguity is played out through absurdity in many cases. Yossarian evolves through the novel and when he runs into the old woman, she tells him, "Catch-22 says that they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing" (Heller 416). Yossarian realizes that it makes no difference if Catch 22 actually exists or not because "everyone thought it existed" (418). He finally decides it does not exist because the authority that exists in the world does not need to prove itself. The scene in which Yossarian is searching for the young girl illustrates absurdity. As he encounters people who might commit suicide or go insane, he is arrested. The immorality that follows in the scene when Yossarian admonishes Aarfy is absurd and ambiguous as Yossarian attempts to make sense of what is happening. Things become muddled as Aarfy gets the apology he thinks he deserves. The ambiguity surrounding Yossarian's experiences are emphasized with the war and it is up to him to find a meaning he can live with for the rest of his life. He cannot go on believing what others tell him about anything; he must come to his own conclusions.

Art reflects life in many respects. It is not always appealing and it is not always apparent. The ambiguity these authors present demonstrate how individuals cope with a sense of self even when they are surrounded by people telling them how they should behave and what they should feel. A sense of self is bigger than what one person or group of people can tell you; it is found from within. Salinger, Ellison, Plath, and Heeler capture ambiguity on a personal level; their characters must look within themselves and beyond the ambiguity to discover who they are. They could easily accept what society tells them but they would be embarking on a journey of misery. They must be strong enough to resist what others tell them -- about war, themselves, and everyone else. The experiences are truly unique, even if they are painful. They reveal the journey of self.

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Signet Books. 1952.

Heller, Joseph. Catch 22. New York: Dell Publishing Co. 1961.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam Books. 1971.

Salinger,…

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