ING 633 GENDER STUDIES, DOCTORATE
Assist. Prof. Dr. Gillian M.E Alban Reem Abusamra
The Damaging effects of Gender Roles in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar
Society has dealt with gender in a way that harms women in which men are brought up to believe that they are superior to women and it is their right to punish, discipline or intimidate women. Sylvia Plath’s only novel The Bell Jar (1963 (depicts the story of a woman and her struggle in the oppressive male dominant society of the 1950s. In that sense, Linda W. Wagner calls the novel a “testimony to the repressive cultural mold that trapped many mid-century women” (67). In this paper, I will be discussing the damaging effects of traditional gender roles in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar by focusing on the female protagonist Esther and her reactions towards such roles. These effects of traditional gender roles are exposed through Esther’s journey toward self-realization and many attempts to break out of this kind of life that revolves around males and leaves women on the margins. In her attempt to realize her independent identity as a woman, Esther is subjected to different forms of pressure and oppression exercised upon her by society where she is unable to assimilate. Her mental illness and the suicide attempts will be the milestone of this discussion.
Feminist Theory and Traditional Gender Roles
Feminist theory looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal or male dominated and so feminism tries to reexamine literature and culture from a female point of view. Many scholars deal with the way in which women are exposed to traditional gender roles and the patriarchal assumption of a male dominant society which has a negative effect on women in general. Calling herself a patriarchal woman who is oppressed and socially programmed by patriarchal or traditional gender roles, Tyson (2006) explains how “Traditional Gender Roles cast men as rational, strong protective, and decisive; they cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing, and submissive” (p.85). Patriarchy and such gender roles exclude women from equal rights and prevent them from taking central decisions in their lives. Tyson discusses how patriarchy is sexist; it promotes the belief that women are innately inferior to men and this belief is called “biological essentialism” because it is based on biological differences between the sexes. For example, patriarchal ideologies suggest that there are only two identities a woman can have. If she accepts her traditional gender role and obeys the patriarchal rules, she is a “good girl”; modest, self-sacrificing, has no need of herself, completely satisfied by serving her family. For Victorian culture, she was the” angel of the house”; she made the home a safe haven for her husband. If she doesn’t, she is a “bad girl “who violates patriarchal sexual norms in some way, and is not good enough to bear a man’s name. Another patriarchal assumption that shows how women have been given the position of the inferiority in the patriarchal societies is that the hysterical behavior has been considered solely to be a female disease or problem and if a man suffers from the same behavior he would be described by using a less damaging name such as shortness of temper.
bell hooks in her book Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000) proposes a positive representation of feminist movement by stating that this movement is for everyone. She notes that feminist movement is not about women being against men, it is all about rights and how women fight in order to gain equal rights as men. The thing that makes men practice patriarchy is the assumption that they are superior to women and their belief that the only way to maintain this patriarchy is by dominating, exploiting and oppressing women. Apparently, men do not understand what feminism actually is all about or what it means because they treat women in a way that reveals how much they are afraid of losing control or losing the benefit of being superior.
Ferguson (2015) explains identity and how it is shaped and affected by different aspects, such as gender, race, and class. As for gender identity, it refers to one’s inner sense of oneself as female or male and gender refers to the behaviors and personality characteristics that are produced culturally. When it comes to gender, this means that females are the essence of the identity crisis and what creates this kind of crisis is the fact that we live in a patriarchal society where male is the superior and dominant subject, while female is the marginalized and oppressed object.
The Bell Jar (1963)
The Bell Jar takes place in New York City during the early fifties. It portrays the life of the middle class girl Esther Greenwood, and her breakdown, suicide attempts and mental illness. Through the character of Esther, we can sense the depiction of the restricted role of women in the fifties when women are supposed to submit to the social norms and act in accordance to the traditional gender roles. Friedan (1963) expresses how the United states in the fifties and after the Second World War consider the ideal image of a woman at that time is for her to be “healthy, beautiful, educated, and concerned only about her husband, her children, and her home” (18). These assumptions are what causes Esther’s suffering, since she is unable to choose the submissive role that other women around her chose. On the other hand, she chooses to go on a long and difficult journey toward a true self.
In her paper Seeing Through the Bell Jar: Distorted Female Identity in Cold War America (2008), Rosi Smith discusses the struggle of middle-class women in the 1950s and how it is very hard for them to assimilate and find their new identity within the traditional roles of women at that time. She argues how Esther’s shock treatment is parallel to the Rosenberg’s electrocution and how it portrays Esther’s rebellion against the society’s constraining gender roles and her mental illness as well. Esther loathes this electrocution the same way she loathes the shock treatment. After the first shock treatment she says: I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done” (Plath 152)
Considered as a major work of feminist fiction, The Bell Jar (1963) is the only novel written by the American writer and poet Sylvia Plath. This novel is semi-autobiographical for which it resembles the life of Plath herself and the progression of her mental illness and suicidal depression. It is based on real events, people, and places with changes in the names. Therefore, the novel is written using the first person narrator, Esther Greenwood, who is the fictional counterpart of Plath herself. Born in 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts. Plath suffered a depression and committed suicide by gassing herself in a stove in 1963. Her depression was a reaction toward her husband, Ted Hughes, leaving her for another woman. Likewise, Esther fills into depression and mental breakdown and the reason of the depression for both Esther and Plath is the same; the oppression of the male dominant society of the 1950s. Ames (1971) notes the similarities between Plath and Esther. Plath lives in a seaside town close to Boston and Esther lives in a suburb near Boston. Plath’s father was interested in bees and insects just like Esther’s father:” I thought that if my father hadn’t died, he would have taught me all about insects, which was his specialty at the university” (Plath 174).
Drawing on this resemblance between Plath and Esther and in relation to the novel, Hilleque (2012) states that Esther’s jealousy and her reaction to Buddy’s relationship with the waitress reflects Plath’s jealousy too, when Hughes returned from an interview and finds out that she has destroyed all of his work because of the woman who was interviewing him. In addition, one time she ripped the phone because she suspected he was talking with another woman. Esther does not love Buddy the way that Plath loves Hughes, that’s why they express jealousy differently. Hilleque elaborates by saying that Esther’s jealousy is not out of love but as a reaction against these double standards that allow men to have affairs while women should remain virgin. To quote Esther:
What I couldn’t stand was Buddy’s pretending I was so sexy and he was so pure, when all the time he’d been having an affair with that tarty waitress and must have felt like laughing in my face. (Plath 75)
Esther believes that men are living a double life; one is pure and one is not, and she hates the double standards of this male dominant society where a man can do whatever he wants while women can’t. She comments on an article called “In Defense of Chastity” by a married lawyer woman with children. This article shows how a man, being pure or not, wants a pure girl with no previous experiences. Here where she thinks that her being pure is what stands on the way of being independent and free from the male society:
Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry somebody who wasn’t pure either. Then when he started to make my life miserable I could make his miserable as well…. I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line. (Plath 6)
As a reaction, Esther tries throughout the whole novel to create a new sexual identity as an attempt to break out of the gender roles, Smith (1975) states that Esther, as a way to escape gender roles that are imposed upon her, she chooses to create “a surrogate identity” of her own in which she can gain control and have authority over her life (250).
Working in a fashion magazine in New York, Esther doesn’t accept the role of the typical college girl of the 1950s whose life revolves around getting married and being a mother. Esther is eager to escape the confinement of this male society and draw different female stereotypical roles, but she finds out that it’s very hard to do so. As a result of this struggle, she goes through a deep depression and mental illness as well as an identity crisis. (Bloom 18). Perloff (1972) discusses that Esther’s big problem is a result of “being a woman in a society whose guidelines for women she can neither accept nor reject” (511).
Plath sheds lights on the causes of Esther dissatisfaction. The first cause is the social environment she lives in; she is a modest middle class girl surrounded by rich well fashionably girls. She is a girl with many goals but unable to focus on just one, and that what causes her breakdown. When Jay Cee asks her what she wants to do after graduation, she replies that she doesn’t know exactly and one time she says that she wants everything. Her being unable to speak it out can be considered as some sort of a breakdown. Esther is willing to find what is in fact will bring her to adulthood and will be considered as the rite of passage, whether it is marriage, being a mother, finding a job or being a writer. Esther’s anxiety and indecisive personality is pictured in the fig tree where each branch represents a choice in her life; husband and children, a famous poet, amazing editor etc. Esther says:
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. (Plath, 81)
Solenne Lestienne (2011) in her essay argues that all of what Esther feels is the cause of pressure, it is a pressure of choice; she is torn between being a mother and someone’s wife or choose to be an independent female (347). Lestienne also states that all of this leads to Esther’s schizophrenia and mental illness.
The other cause is related to the sexual repression of society in which Esther is trapped. Throughout the novel, we can notice how Esther is just like a normal person, she is curious about sex; according to her, it is the gate to adulthood and womanhood. Diane Bonds (1990) characterizes Esther’s depression as an unbearable conflict in her psyche resulted from her attempting to cope with the male-dominant society (57). Perloff describes it as her “human inability to cope with an unlivable situation”(520-21)
Everything Esther experiences or witnesses about sex proves the violence of the other sex in one way or another. For instance, the sexual encounter between Lenny and Doreen and the aggressive behavior Esther witnesses makes her think of the idea of sex as something violent and harmful to women. Allison Wilkins (2011) in her essay refers to Lenny Shepherd as “the first male polluter”; from the animals on his walls we can sense how he is harmful to nature as well as to Doreen whom he treats like an object. As a way to escape all of this, she goes and takes a hot bath to clear her mind of this violence which she loathes. Lestienne (2011) refers to the hot bath as an example of how “purity violently contradicts impurity as the self needs to be sane and healthy to survive internal chaos” (340): “I never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath”; “I felt myself growing pure again” “I feel about a hot bath the way those religious people feel about holy water” (Plath 21)
Furthermore, the childbirth she witnesses makes her think to what extent giving birth is harmful to a woman and her body. Esther doesn’t accept the role of the mother imposed by the society, she refers to the birthing table as an “awful torture table” (Plath 68) after which women will go back home with the responsibility of a child and a potential of more births. Bonds (1990) states that the mother’s “decapitation” or suffering is portrayed in the scene when the mother delivers her baby; when the baby’s head is emerged (51). It is not the life she wants to live under the control of a husband.
Esther thinks that all of what a woman suffers during childbirth is man’s doing as a way to have control over her, she even refers to the drugs given to women in that case as man’s invention: “I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent” (Plath 69). Jeremy Hawthorn (1983) asserts that the drug is a symbol of men’s attempts to wipe out any experience that is important to a woman and transform her into a conformist object who does whatever men want (122). At the same time, she realizes that she can’t perform the role of a woman expected by society like cooking and dancing, which leads to a fragmentation of her identity because she doesn’t know which path to take. Esther realizes through this experience the limited choices she has if she would become a mother or a wife because of the patriarchal oppression. As Hawthorn writes in Multiple Personality and the Disintegration of Literary Character: “Esther is aware that one does not escape from one’s past, from the network of social relationships that one has experienced, that easily. Her self is not something that can be defined separately from her contacts with other people, from what they have expected of her, done to her, forced her to be” (122). As a result, the more people around Esther interfere in her life and her decisions the more damaged Esther will be.
Luce Irigaray in her essay Body Against Body: In Relation to the Mother (1980), argues that, as women, we are the guardians of our own flesh and we are mothers too only by being women. We can give birth not only to children but also to language, love, desire, social things etc. She asserts that our aim is to give life to the mother within us who was being oppressed by males and create our own self. Esther in that sense believes that giving birth to a child is not her main aim in life, she even hates what she witnesses in the childbirth process and always wants to free herself from the life that is laid down by males.
Another incident that indicates Esther’s misfortune with sex is her meeting with Marco whom she refers to as a woman hater and him trying to rape her as she pushes him away. To some extent, men always interfere in her quest for her independent self. Allison Wilkins (2011) argues that Marco’s physical violence and aggressiveness with Esther foreshadows the violence of Dr. Gordon which will have bad effects on her psyche (44). As we can see, when Esther enters the hospital, she was under the supervision of Dr. Gordon who, as a patriarch, doesn’t care about what she really feels and always takes her for granted. Dr. Gordon is the typical representation of patriarchy.
Esther responds to the male dominance in different ways. She is in the process of female identity formation where she wants to be able to control her own self. Esther rejects lesbianism when Joan tells her that she likes her more than she likes Buddy and Esther replies that she feels that she is going to puke. De Lauretis (1967) states that:
She faces the Other in her Lesbian Friend Joan, whom she rejects and yet feels much in common with her destiny of womanhood, mortality, frustration, defeat. She faces the sexual taboo and buys her freedom from it. (179)
Esther also uses a diaphragm as a way to free herself from the confinements and dominance of males and be more independent and powerful, she refers to the examination table as if it is her way out to be free from marrying the wrong man just because of sex: “I was my own woman” (Plath 235): “What I hate is the thought of being under a man’s thumb “; “A man doesn’t have a worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line” (Plath 233). Using a diaphragm gives Esther more confidence and control over her life. Renée Dowbnia (2014) refers to the shopping privileges as a way for Esther to gain control over her own life. She states that Esther by having control over birth and pregnancy, she frees herself from the prison of domesticity (Dowbnia 586).
Esther considers the loss of her virginity as a way out of the confinements of the traditional gender roles. Therefore, we see her trying to seduce men in order to prove that she can do whatever she wants. She actually loses her virginity after she uses a diaphragm, after she gains her freedom. However, her bleeding after she has sex with Irwin, the Professor at Harvard, indicates the obstacle she faces on the journey toward a free independent female and toward womanhood too. Esther’s other reaction towards the traditional gender roles is portrayed through her several failed suicide attempts which she chooses as a way of escaping the oppression exercised upon her. On the other hand, these attempts are considered part of her journey towards recovery.
Mental illness and the suicide attempts of Esther are reactions to the traditional gender roles of that period of time, it is her way to protest against society that attempts to belittle her. Esther reaches a point where she is stuck in between unable to fulfill the gender roles as a woman and unable to write as well, especially after she was rejected for the summer writing course. In her essay Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (1993), Susan Bordo discusses the connection between traditional gender roles and mental illness in which gender roles have negative effects on women and push women to be silent and submissive. She argues that the results of this pressure would be “easy fatigability and often lack of motivation, as well as feelings of inadequacy” (Bordo 2367). She asserts that women becomes more like objects in a time where they are supposed to reject these gender roles.
It is worth mentioning the influence of other characters on Esther’s breakdown and mental illness. Esther’s father is considered to be one of the causes of her depression. In his research, Beck (1974) states that a traumatic experience such as a loss of the father causes the depressed person to overreact on other losses that he/she may experience in the future and we can notice that from Esther’s visit to her father’s graveyard and see the underlying pain that is caused by her father’s death. Esther says: “I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old” (Plath 79). According to Beck, Esther’s father’s death is not directly the cause of her depression but it contributes in making her exaggerate any loss or trauma she would experience in her whole life. Wilkins (2011) elaborates by referring to Esther’s father as the patriarchal man in the family, and Esther faces different kinds of pressure when she faces her father’s grave (50-51). Her exaggeration is obvious after she was rejected in the summer course which appears to be a loss and a main cause of her depression and her unraveling mentality. And here when she starts losing herself and attempts many times to kill herself. Esther obviously enters a state of depression after the summer course incident: “I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to” (Plath 124). Furthermore, a sign of her depression can be captured when she rejects Jody’s offer and after that when she decides to start writing a novel and it turns out that she is unable to write anymore.
Beck mentions another factor for Esther’s Breakdown and mental illness; her having high standards and being a good student who always gets high marks and win scholarships and prizes and gets an A in a physic course that she doesn’t even like makes it hard for her to accept any disappointment or failure of any kind.
Esther’s mother also contributes in the breakdown of Esther and her attempts to kill herself. With her passivity which symbolizes Esther’s struggle with the surrounding world. Macpherson (1991) stats that it is not because of Esther’s Mother conformity to womanhood but also because she is a representation of suburban domesticity (42). Mrs. Greenwood represents the societal constraints that Esther is trying to escape throughout the novel. To quote Mrs. Greenwood: “I knew my baby wasn’t like that.”(Plath 154). She obviously can’t understand the situation of her daughter. Janet McCann (2011) elaborates that Esther’s mother with her negative influence, she contributes in her therapy especially when Esther says “I hate my mother”; at this moment, Esther is able to express what she has been repressing all along, that explains her mother’s disappearance after Esther is recovered. McCann explains how all of this is Esther’s way to get her own freedom away from her mother and by losing her virginity (14). McCann declares that not only her mother causes her illness but also the generational gap between Esther and her mother. Another character who has an impact on Esther is Dr. Nolan whom her influence on Esther is positive. Perloff considers Dr. Nolan as a savior and refers to her as an “instrument” by which Esther becomes able to form her identity (521). Unlike Dr. Gordon who represents the control and oppression of the patriarchy and one of the causes of Esther being trapped.
As for the bell jar itself, it represents how Esther is imprisoned by the traditional gender roles that she loathes as well as the state of depression she goes through and its effects on her psyche. Macpherson argues that The Bell Jar is a representation of a psychological and social issues, he states that Esther’s ultimate release from the mental hospital is a proof that she is socially and psychologically mature (6). Hawthorn writes on the symbol of the bell jar: “It allows the imprisoned sufferer to see but not to connect with other people” (131).
Perloff discusses that Esther through her quest for a true independent self she was fond by variable female roles, such as, Dodo Conway and her “placid contentment”, Jay Cee’s cleverness, Betsy’s innocence, Doreen’s ability to get a man, Jody’s loyalty, Guinea’s success. However, at some point Esther realizes how each one of these women is “a flawed human being” (513-514). A true identity can’t be obtained unless one builds his/her own self away from others. Esther tries to find her true self and identity, sometimes by trying to reach womanhood, by going against the standards of the society or even by identifying herself with other characters. On the other hand, as Perloff states, the bell jar will never lift and Esther will not breath “the circulating air”, unless she reaches that level of epiphany where she realizes that she cannot be anyone but herself (521).
McCan (2011) discusses the ways in which Esther is imprisoned by her social role, she says that there are many restrictions from society and the choices of women are very limited in most of the fields in newspapers and magazines, in advertisements and in the classes. She indicates that Esther cannot be like that and Esther’s struggle to be free leads to self-destructive acts. She points out that: “Her trip to the city from the suburbs, central to the bildungsroman, does not cause her to develop new abilities and diminish old flaws. Rather, one skill after another fails her, and finally her self-image and direction are dissolved in doubt and fear” (9). McCann thinks that the ending of the novel with Esther’s restoration and hope to reenter the society is not as convincing as her breakdown throughout the whole novel, she thinks that the image of her restoration or rebirth is not positive.
As for Bonds (1990), she illustrates that the novel is a transformation from self-alienation that leads to Esther’s breakdown and suicide attempts to a symbolic rebirth by creating her a new self. She discusses the ending of the novel saying that critics consider the ending as an actual reborn although the future of Esther is not certain but at some point she succeeds in creating a positive image of Esther’s selfhood at the end. we can see Esther prepares herself as if she is getting married although she is not and some critics perceive this act as a kind of rebirth.
Having explored and investigated the damaging effects of traditional gender roles in Sylvia Plath’s The Bel Jar, we can see how Esther struggles throughout the novel in order to escape such roles and reach to a point where she can define and be herself and no one else. Her breakdown is portrayed in her indecisive personality and being unable to decide which path to take. Esther is not an ordinary girl, she doesn’t accept to be submissive and conformist like other girls of her age and to be such a girl in a patriarchal society will lead you nowhere but to a mental asylum.
Esther acknowledges the danger that might befall her and affect her independency if she someday gets married and has babies like other women around her. That does not deny the fact that Esther is just like other girls, wants to be a woman, an adult and create her own sexual identity, but she wants to make sure that she is not going down the road with an irresponsible man and a baby hanged over her head. At the end of the novel, we see her climbing to freedom by facing Buddy, rejecting Irwin, freeing herself from virginity and the double standards. In spite all of that, Esther is worried that the bell jar is going to trap her once again: “I was not sure at all. How did I know that someday- at collage, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere- the bell jar, with its stifling distortions wouldn’t descend again?” (Plath 254).
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