17 February 2013

I’ve just finished reading Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. For dealing with similar subject matter, the books are remarkably different. Both books are about college aged (and college educated) young women with artistic inclinations. When we meet Esther Greenwood, the main character of The Bell Jar, she is in New York City working as a literary intern for a fashion magazine. Esther wants to be a writer, and when she leaves her internship, she hopes to take a writing class that is taught by a very famous writer. Sally Jay Gorce of The Dud Avocado is in the midst of a two year long all expenses paid (by her wealthy uncle) trip in Europe. Throughout the novel we see Sally Jay engaged in various acting jobs, but she doesn’t have the singular focus that Esther has.

Both books came out around the same time (The Bell Jar in 1963 and The Dud Avocado in 1958). Both deal with the difficulties of women’s new found freedoms. These protagonists deal with the issue very differently. Esther struggles with depression, and makes a suicide attempt that lands her in a mental hospital. Sally Jay seems to be fancy free, flitting from one romance to the next. The shifting role for women presses hard on Esther. While she works hard at her writing, her mother encourages her to take up shorthand so that she can support herself. The problem for Esther, though, is that she doesn’t want to write notes for men. She wants to writer her own notes. She also feels the burden of sexual freedom. After professing an intense fear of becoming pregnant, the psychologist in her mental hospital has her sent to be fitted for a diaphragm, and she quickly loses her virginity in a most unromantic way. Esther is keen to lose her virginity, because she wants to get even with her beau Buddy Willard. Buddy is a boy from her hometown, and would be an excellent candidate for marriage. Esther loses interest in him when she finds out that he had an affair. She can’t stand the hypocrisy of Buddy being seen as an upstanding citizen, while he actually has loose morals.

The psychological portrait of Sally Jay Gorce is not nearly as probing as that of Esther Greenwood. The novel is light hearted. While The Bell Jar is nearly a memoir for Sylvia Plath, The Dud Avocado reads more like a book about a generation than a single person. Sally Jay is a character whom we might meet in a novel, while Esther is someone you might have gone to college with.

These differences mean that gender issues are dealt with very differently in The Dud Avocado. Sally Jay’s troubles arise from trusting a man she shouldn’t have. She falls in love with a man who turns out to be a pimp, and who has stolen her passport to use for his “business”.
Sally Jay navigates the world through intuition, while Esther navigates it through intellect. Though both women are protagonists of certifiably Serious and Important Literature, The Bell Jar is massively more popular. The Bell Jar success has elements of a cult phenomenon (the book is often compared to The Cather in the Rye). Readers (especially females) relate to Esther in a way that no one could possibly relate to Sally Jay. Dundy has written a book that tries to be at once transgressive (frank discussions of female sexuality) and palatable (use of humor and typically feminine protagonist). Her book is a delightful and important read, but it will never have the staying power of The Bell Jar.

I’ve written elsewhere about how The Dud Avocado has not been given its due as a serious work of literature. I suggested that perhaps it was because it was written by a woman that it has been written off as chick-lit. Reading it back to back with The Bell Jar, however, has led me to believe that perhaps Dundy was not courageous enough or about the right things to make her novel a classic in the sense that Plath’s work is.

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