The Bell Jar:
• The Bell Jar tells the story of a young woman’s coming-of-age, but it does not follow the
usual trajectory of adolescent development into adulthood. Instead of undergoing a
progressive education in the ways of the world, culminating in an entrance into
adulthood, Esther regresses into madness. Experiences intended to be life changing in a
positive sense—Esther’s first time in New York City, her first marriage proposal, her
success in college—are upsetting and disorienting to her. Instead of finding new
meaning in living, Esther wants to die. As she slowly recovers from her suicide attempt,
she aspires simply to survive
• Esther observes a gap between what society says she should experience and what she
does experience, and this gap intensifies her madness. Society expects women of
Esther’s age and station to act cheerful, flexible, and confident, and Esther feels she
must repress her natural gloom, cynicism, and dark humor.
• Esther feels pulled between her desire to write and the pressure she feels to settle down
and start a family.
• Esther feels anxiety about her future because she can see only mutually exclusive
choices: virgin or whore, submissive married woman or successful but lonely career
woman. She dreams of a larger life, but the stress even of dreaming such a thing
worsens her madness.
• The Bell Jar takes a critical view of the medical profession, in particular psychiatric
medicine. This critique begins with Esther’s visit to Buddy’s medical school. There,
Esther is troubled by the arrogance of the doctors and their lack of sympathy for the pain
suffered by a woman in labor. When Esther meets her first psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon, she
finds him self-satisfied and unsympathetic. He does not listen to her, and prescribes a
traumatic and unhelpful shock therapy treatment. Joan, Esther’s acquaintance in the
mental hospital, tells a similar tale of the insensitivity of male psychiatrists. Some of the
hospitals in which Esther stays are frighteningly sanitized and authoritarian.
• The three methods of 1950s psychiatric treatment—talk therapy, insulin injections, and
electroshock therapy—work for Esther under the proper and attentive care of Dr. Nolan.
• Esther increasingly struggles to keep the outward self she presents to the world united
with the inner self that she experiences. Her failure to recognize her own reflection
stands for the difficulty she has understanding herself.
• The bell jar is an inverted glass jar, generally used to display an object of scientific
curiosity, contain a certain kind of gas, or maintain a vacuum. For Esther, the bell jar
symbolizes madness. When gripped by insanity, she feels as if she is inside an airless
jar that distorts her perspective on the world and prevents her from connecting with the
people around her. At the end of the novel, the bell jar has lifted, but she can sense that
it still hovers over her, waiting to drop at any moment. • Early in the novel, Esther reads a story about a Jewish man and a nun who meet under
a fig tree. Their relationship is doomed, just as she feels her relationship with Buddy is
doomed. Later, the tree becomes a symbol of the life choices that face Esther. She
imagines that each fig represents a different life. She can only choose one fig, but
because she wants all of them, she sits paralyzed with indecision, and the figs rot and
fall to the ground.
• As the novel opens, Esther worries about the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, a
husband and wife who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and sentenced to
• She lives in the Amazon, a women’s hotel, with the other eleven girls who work as guest
editors and with upper-class girls training to work as secretaries
• Esther spends most of her time with the beautiful, sarcastic Doreen, a southerner who
shares Esther’s cynicism. Betsy, a wholesome girl from the Midwest, persistently offers
her friendship to Esther.
• Lenny Shepherd persuades his friend Frankie to keep Esther company, but she treats
Frankie coldly because he is short and she towers over him. Esther orders a vodka. She
does not know much about drinks, and orders them at random, hoping to stumble on
something she likes. She tells the men her name is Elly Higginbottom. Esther and
Doreen go to Lenny’s apartment, which is decorated like a cowboy’s ranch
• Although she is drunk, she manages to walk forty-eight blocks by five blocks home.
• Esther decides that though she will continue to spend time with and observe Doreen,
“deep down” she will have “nothing at all to do with her.” She feels that, at heart, she
resembles the wholesome Betsy more than she resembles Doreen. When Esther opens
the door the following morning, Doreen is gone.
• The beautiful and confident Doreen, whom Esther idealizes, turns herself into a helpless,
• Lenny plays a song that idealizes faithful love and marriage, but calls Doreen a “bitch”
when she bites him, the prelude to their sexual encounter
• The first two chapters contrast the ideal that life offers a talented and lucky girl like
Esther, and her actual experiences of the world.
• In the first chapter, the narrator mentions in an aside that she now has a baby. Although
we never hear about the baby or Esther’s adult life again, this remark tells us that when
she narrates them, Esther is likely a few years removed from the experiences the novel
• Esther attends a banquet luncheon given by Ladies’ Day magazine. Doreen skips the
meal in order to spend the day at Coney Island with Lenny.
• Her grandfather used to work as headwaiter at a country club, where he introduced
Esther to caviar, which became her favorite delicacy. • Betsy asks Esther why she missed the fur show earlier that day, and Esther explains that
Jay Cee, her boss, called her into her office. When Esther arrives, Jay Cee asks Esther
whether she finds her work interesting, and Esther assures her that she does. Jay Cee
asks Esther what she wants to do after she graduates, Esther says that she does not
know. She says tentatively that she might go into publishing, and Jay Cee tells her that
she must learn foreign languages in order to distinguish herself from the other women
who want to go into publishing. She thinks of a lie she once told to get out of a chemistry
course: she asked her dean to permit her to take chemistry without receiving a grade,
ostensibly to free up space in her schedule for a Shakespeare course, but actually to
avoid the dreaded chemistry class. On the strength of Esther’s impeccable grades, the
dean and the science teacher, Mr. Manzi, agreed to the plan, believing that Esther’s
willingness to take the course without credit demonstrated intellectual maturity. She
attended the chemistry course and pretended to take notes, but actually wrote poems.
• Jay Cee gives Esther some submitted stories to read and comment on, speaks to her
gently, and sends her off to the banquet after a few hours of work. Esther wishes her
mother were more like Jay Cee, wise and powerful. Her mother wants Esther to learn a
practical skill, like shorthand, because she knows how difficult it is for a woman to
support herself. Esther’s father died when Esther was nine, leaving no life insurance,
which Esther believes angered her mother.
• She remembers eating lunch with Philomena Guinea, who provides her scholarship
money for college, and, in her confusion, drinking the contents of her finger bowl. Esther
leaves the banquet to attend a movie premiere with the other girls. Midway through, she
feels ill. Betsy feels sick too, and the girls leave together. They throw up in the cab, in the
elevator at their hotel, and in the bathroom at the hotel. Esther vomits until she passes
out on the bathroom floor, waking only when someone pounds on the door. She tries to
get up and walk, but collapses in the hallway. A nurse puts her to bed and tells her that
all the girls have food poisoning. She wakes later to find Doreen trying to feed her soup.
Doreen tells her they found ptomaine in the crabmeat from the banquet.
• She has always planned on studying abroad, then becoming a professor and writing and
• She lies in bed worrying: “I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I
should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the
whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder
and more tired.” Esther feels she can be neither the perfect conscientious student, nor
the devil-may-care rebel, and her suspension between the two poles upsets her.
• The morning after her sickness, Esther receives a call from Constantin, a simultaneous
interpreter at the United Nations and an acquaintance of Mrs. Willard. Constantin invites
Esther to come see the UN and get something to eat. Esther thinks about Mrs. Willard’s
son, Buddy, who is currently in a sanitarium recovering from tuberculosis. Buddy wants
to marry Esther, and Esther thinks about how odd it is that she worshipped Buddy from
afar before they met, and now that he wants to marry her she loathes him.
• In the story, a Jewish man and a nun from an adjoining convent meet under a fig tree.
One day, as they watch a chick hatch, they touch hands. The next day, the nun does not come out, and in her place comes the kitchen maid. Esther sees parallels between this
story and her doomed relationship with Buddy. She thinks about the differences between
the two couples: she and Buddy are Unitarian, not Catholic and Jewish, and they saw a
baby being born, not a chick hatching.
• Esther thinks of Buddy’s recent letters, in which he tells her that he has found poems
written by a doctor, which encourages him to think that doctors and writers can get
along. This comment marks a change from his old way of thinking: he once told Esther
that a poem is “a piece of dust.”
• She had a crush on him for years, and one day he dropped by her home and said he
might like to see her at college. He stopped at her dorm several months later, explaining
that he was on campus to take Joan Gilling to a dance. Angry, Esther said she had a
date in a few minutes. Buddy departed, displeased, but left Esther a letter inviting her to
the Yale Junior Prom. He treated her like a friend at the prom, but afterward kissed her.
She felt little besides eagerness to tell the other girls of her adventure. She went to visit
him at Yale Medical School, and since she had been asking to see interesting sights at
the hospital, he showed her cadavers and fetuses in jars, which she viewed calmly. They
attended a lecture on diseases, and then went to see a baby being born. Buddy and his
friend Will joked that Esther should not watch the birth, or she would never want to have
a baby. Buddy told her that the woman had been given a drug, and would not remember
her pain. Esther thought the drug sounded exactly like something invented by a man.
She hated the idea that the drug tricks the woman into forgetting her pain. The woman
had to be cut in order to free the baby, and the sight of the blood and the birth upset
Esther, although she said nothing to Buddy.
• He confessed to sleeping with a waitress named Gladys at a summer job in Cape Cod.
He claimed she seduced him, and admitted that they slept together for ten weeks. Buddy
said he told his mother, “Gladys was free, white, and twenty-one.” Esther decided to
break up with Buddy, but just as she had made up her mind, Buddy called her long-
distance and told her he had TB. She did not feel sorry but relieved, because she knew
she would not have to see him very much. She decided to tell the girls in her dorm that
she and Bobby were practically engaged, and they left her alone on Saturday nights,
admiring her for studying in order to mask her pain at Buddy’s illness.
• Buddy separates the pleasures of sex from the pleasures of cozy domesticity. Because
he imagines Esther as his future wife, he does not imagine that he could have
passionate sex with her. Instead, he removes his clothes in front of her as if their sexual
encounters will be a clinical duty. Because he does not associate Esther with sex, he
feels only a twinge of guilt at sleeping with Gladys, a passionate girl he does not plan to
marry. Examining her own feelings, Esther realizes that she does not object to sex
before marriage, but she does object to Buddy’s deception. She hates the fact that he
presented himself as pure.
• Constantin picks up Esther and drives her to the UN in his convertible. They discover
that neither likes Mrs. Willard. Esther finds Constantin attractive even though he is too
short for her, and when he holds her hand she feels happier than she has since she was
nine and ran on the beach with her father the summer before his death. • She recalls a boy named Eric with whom she once discussed having sex. He lost his
virginity to a prostitute and was bored and repulsed by the experience. He decided that
he would never sleep with a woman he loved, because sex strikes him as animalistic.
Esther thought he might be a good person to have sex with because he seemed
sensible, but he wrote to tell her he had feelings for her. Because of his views on sex,
she knew this confession meant he would never sleep with her, so she wrote to tell him
she was engaged.
• Buddy showed Esther a poem he had published in an esoteric magazine. Buddy
proposed by saying, “How would you like to be Mrs. Buddy Willard?” Esther told him she
would never marry. Esther reminded him that he accused her of being neurotic because
she wanted mutually exclusive things, and said she will always want mutually exclusive
things. He said he wanted to be with her.
• Buddy decided to teach Esther to ski. Esther took the rope tow to the top of the mountain
and Buddy stood at the bottom beckoning to her to ski down. She wanted to ski down
the mountain again, but Buddy told her, with strange satisfaction, that she had broken
her leg in two places.
• The article also reinforces a sexual double standard: while it is crucial to a woman’s
happiness to stay “pure” until marriage, purity is optional for men. Esther rejects this
double standard, explaining, “I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a
single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.”
• Esther’s conversation with Eric adds a further dimension to the picture of the limiting
sexual conventions of her time. Eric, a kind and sensible person, believes that women
can be divided into two categories: virgins and whores. He thinks that sex is dirty,
something that reduces women to animals, and that nice girls should remain untainted
by nasty sexual experience.
• Remembering her skiing experience, Esther implies that she liked the thought of killing
herself. Moving toward death made Esther happy, and she became distressed only
when the ordinary world began reforming itself in her perception. She understands her
near-death experience as a rite of purification rather than as self-injury.
• The day of the Rosenbergs’ execution, Esther speaks with Hilda, another guest editor,
who is glad the Rosenbergs will die. In a photo shoot for the magazine, Esther holds a
paper rose meant to represent the inspiration for her poems. When the photographer
commands her to smile, she begins to sob uncontrollably.
• On Esther’s last night in New York, Doreen persuades her to come to a country club
dance with Lenny and a blind date, a friend of Lenny’s. When the girls arrive for the
dance, Esther immediately identifies her date, a Peruvian named Marco, as a “woman-
hater.” When she first meets him, he gives her a diamond pin that she admires, and tells
her he will perform something worthy of a diamond. As he speaks, he grips her arm so
hard that he leaves four bruises. At the country club, Esther does not want to dance, but
Marco tosses her drink into a plant and forces her to tango.
• Marco takes her outside, and Esther asks him whom he loves. He tells her that he is in
love with his cousin, but she is going to be a nun. Angered, he pushes Esther into the mud and climbs on top of her, ripping off her dress. She tells herself that if she just lies
there and does nothing, “it” will happen. After he calls her a slut, however, she begins to
fight him. When she punches him in the nose, Marco relents. He is about to let her leave
when he remembers his diamond. He smears Esther’s cheeks with the blood from his
nose, but she refuses to tell him where the diamond is until he threatens to break her
neck if she does not tell him. She leaves him searching in the mud for her purse and his
diamond. Esther cannot find Doreen, but manages to find a ride home to Manhattan.
She climbs to the roof of her hotel, perches precariously on its edge, and throws her
entire wardrobe off the roof, piece by piece.
• Esther takes the train back to Massachusetts, wearing Betsy’s clothes and still streaked
in Marco’s blood. Her mother meets her at the train, and tells her she did not get into the
writing course she planned on taking. The prospect of a summer in the suburbs
distresses Esther. She thinks about her neighbors: Mrs. Ockenden, a nosy woman she
dislikes, and Dodo Conway, a Catholic woman with six children and a seventh on the
way. Mrs. Conway has a messy house and feeds her children junk food, and everyone
loves her. Esther’s friend Jody calls, and Esther tells her she will not be living with her in
Cambridge, as planned, because she has been rejected from her writing course. Jody
tells her to come anyway and take another course. Esther considers going to
Cambridge, but hears a “hollow voice,” her own, tell Jody she will not come. She opens
a letter from Buddy, which says he thinks he is falling in love with a nurse, but if Esther
comes with his mother to visit him in July, she may win back his affections. Esther
crosses out his letter, writes on the opposite side that she is engaged to a simultaneous
interpreter and never wants to see Buddy again, and mails the letter back to Buddy.
• Esther decides to write a novel, but as she begins to type she becomes frustrated by her
lack of life experiences. She agrees to let her mother teach her shorthand, but realizes
that she does not want a job that requires shorthand.
• Lying in bed unable to sleep, she considers using the summer to write her thesis, put off
college, or go to Germany. She discards all of these plans as soon as she thinks of
them. Her mother, who sleeps in the same room with Esther, begins to snore, and Esther
thinks of strangling her. The next day she tries to read Finnegans Wake, but the words
seem to slide and dance all over the page. When she asks the family doctor, Teresa, for
more sleeping pills, Teresa refers her to a psychiatrist.
• She does not grasp that she is taking a risk by putting herself in the hands of this man,
instead musing calmly on Marco’s likeness to a snake she remembers from the Bronx
• Esther visits Dr. Gordon, a psychiatrist. She has not changed clothes or washed her hair
for three weeks, having decided such chores are silly, and she says she has not slept for
• On his desk he keeps a picture of his attractive family, which makes Esther furious. She
thinks he keeps the picture there to ward off her advances, and assumes such a
handsome man with such a lovely family could never help her. Esther tells Dr. Gordon
that she cannot sleep, eat, or read, though she does not tell him of her difficulty writing. That morning, she had attempted to write a letter to Doreen, but could not write legibly.
Dr. Gordon charges twenty-five dollars an hour.
• Esther flirts with a sailor on the Boston Common, pretending she is Elly Higginbottom, an
orphan from Chicago. She thinks she sees Mrs. Willard approaching, but is wrong.
When the sailor asks what has upset her, she says she thought the woman was from her
orphanage in Chicago.
• During her second visit to Dr. Gordon, Esther tells him that she feels the same and
shows him the torn-up letter she tried to write to Doreen. Esther needs shock treatments
at his hospital in Walton. Esther starts thinking about suicide while reading a tabloid
account of a man prevented from jumping off a ledge. The next day Dodo Conway will
drive Esther and her mother to the hospital for the shock treatment.
• Esther goes to Dr. Gordon’s hospital for her shock treatment. The hospital waiting room
looks like part of a summer hotel, but the inhabitants sit listlessly. They remind Esther of
store mannequins. On the way to her treatment, Esther encounters a woman who
threatens to jump out of the window, which she cannot do because bars across the
windows would prevent her. The treatment reminds her of the time she accidentally
electrocuted herself with her father’s lamp.
• Later, Esther sits in the park, comparing a picture of herself to a newspaper picture of a
starlet who has just died after lingering in a coma. She decides to sit on the park bench
for five more minutes, and then go and kill herself. That morning, she had tried to slit her
wrists, but could not bring herself to harm the fragile skin of her wrist and practiced on
her calf instead. After failing to slit her wrists, she took a bus to Deer Island Prison, near
her childhood home. She talked with a guard and imagined that if she had met him
earlier and married him, she could have been living happily with children. She went to
the beach and again considered slitting her wrists, but realized she did not have a warm
bath to sit in afterward. She sat on the beach until a small boy told her she should move
because the tide was coming in. She considered letting herself drown, but when she put
her foot in the water, she could not bear its frigid temperature, and went home.
• The numb and inactive patients Esther sees at the hospital reinforce the idea that mental
illness is seen as a defect to be hidden, sanitized, and denied, not an illness to be
discussed, understood, or cured
• Her identification with the dead starlet in the picture suggests she already feels dead,
and killing herself will simply bring her body in line with her psyche.
• However, Esther realizes on some level that killing her body will not provide satisfaction.
After failing to slit her wrists, for example, she explains, “It was as if what I wanted to kill
wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere
else, deeper, more secret, a whole lot harder to get at.” Esther understands that her
body is not the enemy. The schism between her mind and the world she inhabits is the
true enemy, but it is an enemy that Esther cannot reach
• Esther goes to the beach with her friend Jody, Jody’s boyfriend Mark, and a man her age
named Cal. She and Cal talk about a play in which a mother considers killing her son
because he has gone mad. Esther asks Cal what method he would use if he were going to kill himself, and he says he would shoot himself. This answer disappoints her; she
thinks shooting oneself a typically male way of committing suicide, and decides that not
only would she have little chance of getting a gun, but she would not know where to
shoot herself even if she did get one. She decides to try to drown herself in the ocean.
Cal swims out with her, but decides he cannot make it to the rock that is their
destination. Esther continues swimming, thinking she will continue until she tires, and
then let herself drown. As she swims, the mantra “I am I am I am” thuds in her mind.
• She thinks of that morning, when she tried to hang herself. She removed the cord from
her mother’s bathrobe and walked around the house looking for a place to hang the
rope. She could not find a suitable place, however, and tried to kill herself by pulling the
rope tightly around her neck, but every time she started to feel woozy, her hands
weakened and loosened their hold on the rope.
• Esther decides not to swim to the rock, as she thinks her body will rebel and regain its
strength by resting on the rock, and she decides to drown where she is. She pushes
herself down through the water, but every time she dives, her body bobs to the surface.
• Her mother says that Esther should pull herself out of her depression by thinking of
others, so Esther volunteers at the local hospital. On her first day, she must deliver
flowers to women who have just given birth. Esther throws out the dead and dying
flowers and rearranges the bouquets, which displeases the women. They complain, and
Esther runs away from the hospital. Esther considers becoming Catholic, thinking the
Catholics could talk her out of suicide, or let her become a nun, but her mother laughs at
the idea of a conversion to Catholicism. Esther goes to visit her father’s grave for the first
time. After some effort, she finds his stone and begins to weep. She realizes she has
never cried about her father’s death; she did not see his corpse, and she was not
allowed to attend his funeral, so his death never seemed real to her. Her mother never
cried either, but smiled and said he would rather die than be crippled for life.
• Esther decides on her method of suicide. After her mother leaves for work, she writes a
note saying she has gone for a long walk. Then she retrieves her sleeping pills from her
mother’s lockbox. She hides herself in a crawl space in the cellar, takes about fifty pills,
and drifts off to sleep
• She does not realize she is in a hospital, and when she says aloud that she cannot see,
a cheerful voice tells her she can marry a blind man. Soon a doctor visits her and says
her eyesight is intact and a nurse must have been joking with her—she cannot see
because bandages cover her head. Esther’s mother and brother come to visit. She
wishes her mother would leave, and tells her brother that she feels as she did before she
tried to kill herself. She denies calling out for her mother. A young doctor who is an old
acquaintance, George Bakewell, visits Esther and she sends him away. She does not
really remember him, and thinks he only wants to see how a suicidal girl looks. She asks
to see a mirror, and when she sees her bruised face and shaved head, she drops the
mirror. The broken mirror angers the nurses, and Esther is moved to a hospital in the
• In the new hospital, Esther has a bed next to a woman she believes is named Mrs.
Tomolillo. When she tells Mrs. Tomollilo that she tried to kill herself, Mrs. Tomollilo asks the doctors to draw the curtain that separates the beds. One day during mealtime, a
woman named Mrs. Mole dumps green beans everywhere. The new attendant behaves
rudely to Esther when she tells him not to clear the plates yet. She becomes convinced
that he has served two kinds of beans in order to test their patience. When the nurse is
not watching, Esther kicks him in the calf. Another day, a nurse rests her tray of
thermometers on Esther’s bed, and Esther kicks it to the floor. The nurses move her to
Mrs. Mole’s old room, and she pockets a ball of mercury along the way.
• After her attempt, nothing changes. She feels equally despairing and begins to feel even
more paranoid, worrying that the doctors are giving out false names and recording her
• Philomena Guinea, the sponsor of Esther’s college scholarship, pays for Esther to go to
a private mental hospital. Guinea had once been in an asylum herself. In response,
Guinea flies into Boston and drives Esther to a posh hospital that resembles a country
club. At the hospital, Esther meets her new psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan. She finds herself free
to wander about the hospital, and encounters a friendly girl named Valerie. Dr. Nolan
says that the treatment was done incorrectly, and that if Esther has to go through
electroshock treatment again, it will be different. An older patient, Miss Norris, moves in
next door to Esther. Miss Norris never speaks, and Esther watches her carefully.
• Three times a day, the nurse injects Esther. Valerie explains that the injections are
insulin, and says she may have a reaction one day. Esther has had no reaction; she just
grows plump. Valerie shows Esther the scars at her temples and explains that she has
had a lobotomy. She says she used to be angry all the time, and now she feels fine.
Esther gets moved into a sunnier room, and Miss Norris gets moved to Wymark, a ward
considered a move down in the process of recovery. Then the nurse tells Esther that a
recently admitted patient knows her. Esther goes next door to investigate and sees Joan
Gilling, a college acquaintance.
• Joan says she came to the asylum after reading about Esther. Joan explains it started
with a terrible job that gave her painful bunions on her feet. She began wearing rubber
boots to work. Joan says she stopped going to work, stopped answering the phone, and
began to consider killing herself. Her doctor sent her to a psychiatrist, but the psychiatrist
kept her waiting and then decided to allow his students to observe the appointment.
Joan was forced to describe her symptoms in front of nine people. She left the room
while they discussed her case, and then the doctor informed her that she needed group
therapy. Joan left in disgust, and that day saw an article about Esther’s disappearance.
• Joan shows Esther newspaper clippings. The first one reports Esther missing. The
second reports sleeping pills missing along with Esther, and shows photos of men and
dogs searching the woods. The last article describes how Esther’s mother was doing
laundry when she heard moaning, and discovered her daughter. Esther’s case inspired
Joan to go to New York and kill herself. She stayed with her old college roommate, and
tried to slit her wrists by shoving her hands through her roommate’s window.
• One night, Esther wakes up in the middle of the night to find herself beating on her
bedpost with her hands. She has had a reaction to her insulin treatment, and feels
better. When her mother visits on Esther’s birthday she brings a dozen long-stemmed roses, which Esther throws in the trash. She tells Dr. Nolan she hates her mother, a
statement that pleases the doctor. Esther behaves cruelly to her mother, telling her to
save the roses for her funeral, and then throwing away the flowers in her mother’s
• Esther has begun to confront her feelings and acknowledge some of the things that
exacerbate her desire to kill herself. She shows healthy anger for the first time in
Chapter 16, to the delight of Dr. Nolan. Although Esther demonstrates selfishness in her
interactions with Joan, at least she finds herself able to listen to Joan’s story, and even
empathize with Joan’s feelings.
• Esther gets moved from Caplan, her current ward, to Belsize, a ward for the women
closest to release. The women at Belsize behave fairly normally, playing bridge and
gossiping. Esther sits with them, and Joan, who was moved to Belsize earlier, finds a
picture of Esther in her fashion magazine. Esther says it is not her.
• The next morning, the nurse fails to bring Esther a breakfast tray. Esther thinks a
mistake has been made, for only girls who are to have shock treatments miss their
morning tray. Dr. Nolan arrives and comforts her, saying she did not tell Esther about the
treatment the day before because she did not want her to worry all night, and she will
take Esther to the treatment herself. Miss Huey, the nurse who administers the
treatment, speaks kindly to Esther. As soon as the treatment begins, Esther falls
• Esther wakes from her shock treatment to find Dr. Nolan with her. They go outside, and
Esther notices that the metaphorical bell jar has lifted and she can breathe the open air.
Dr. Nolan tells her she will have shock treatments three times a week.
• Both Joan and Esther receive letters from Buddy Willard, who wants to come visit. Joan,
who used to date Buddy, explains that she liked Buddy’s family more than she liked him
—they seemed so normal compared to her own family. Joan wants Buddy to come visit
and bring his mother. Earlier Esther hated the idea of his visit, but now she believes that
it may allow her to close that part of her life.
• Earlier that morning, Esther had come upon Joan and DeeDee, another patient, in bed
together. She asks Dr. Nolan what women saw in each other, and Dr. Nolan responds,
“Tenderness.” Now Joan tells Esther that she likes her better than she likes Buddy.
Esther recalls other lesbians she has known, two college classmates who caused a
small scandal, and a professor. She roughly rebukes Joan and walks away.
• Esther had told Dr. Nolan that she wants the kind of freedom that men have, but she
feels that the threat of pregnancy hangs over her. She told her about the pamphlet on
chastity her mother sent her, and Dr. Nolan laughed, called it propaganda, and gave her
the name of a doctor who would help her. Esther goes to the doctor to get fitted for a
• Esther finds a mother figure in Dr. Nolan. When faced with the prospect of shock
treatment, Esther’s greatest fear is not the therapy, but the possibility that Dr. Nolan has
betrayed her. Esther’s ability to form such a loving relationship is an important sign of her
healing. • Joan tells Esther she plans to become a psychiatrist. She will be leaving Belsize to live
with a nurse in Cambridge. Even though Esther is due to leave the hospital for winter
semester at college, Joan’s eminent departure makes her jealous. While on town leave,
Esther meets a math professor named Irwin on the steps of the library at Harvard. They
have coffee together, and then she goes to his apartment for a beer. A woman named
Olga rings the bell. She seems to be a sometime lover of Irwin’s, but he sends her away.
Esther and Irwin go out for dinner, and she gets permission from Dr. Nolan to spend the
night in Cambridge by saying she plans to sleep at Joan’s apartment. Esther thinks that
Irwin would be a good person to sleep with. He is intelligent, experienced, and unknown.
When they return to Irwin’s apartment and have sex, she expects to feel transformed,
but merely feels sharp pain.
• Esther realizes that she is bleeding. The bleeding does not stop, however, and Esther
bandages herself with a towel and asks Irwin to drive her to Joan’s apartment. Esther
shows Joan her problem, telling Joan she is hemorrhaging. The doctor examines Esther
and expresses surprise, saying that such blood loss after the first sexual encounter is
extremely rare. He stops the bleeding. Several nights later, a woman named Dr. Quinn
knocks on Esther’s door. Joan, who has returned to the asylum, is missing. She wakes
the next morning to the news that Joan hanged herself in the woods.
• Esther anticipates her return to college in a week. Buddy comes to visit, and Esther
helps him dig his car out of the snow. He asks Esther if she thinks he contributed to her
or Joan’s madness. She reassures Buddy that he did not cause their problems, which
seems to hearten him greatly. Thoughtlessly, he wonders out loud who will marry Esther
now that she has been in an asylum.
• Esther says goodbye to Valerie, and calls Irwin to demand that he pay her doctor’s bill
from the night they had sex. He agrees and asks when he will see her again. She
answers, “Never,” and hangs up on him, relieved that he cannot contact or find her. She
feels free. Esther attends Joan’s funeral and listens to her heart beat its mantra: “I am, I
am, I am.” Esther waits for her final interview with her doctors. Even though Dr. Nolan
has reassured her, she is nervous. She feels ready to leave Belsize, but realizes that the
bell jar of her madness may descend again later in her life. She walks into the room of
doctors, and the novel ends.
• Whereas before she elicited no sympathy for Joan, even after learning that her own
suicide attempt inspired Joan to try to take her own life, in Chapter 20 she asks Dr.
Nolan if she should feel responsible for Joan’s death. Esther can now empathize with
others, and think of something other than her own pain
• Because Joan functions partly as Esther’s double, her burial symbolizes Esther’s burial
of the diseased, suicidal part of herself. This rebirth allows the novel to end on a hopeful
note, although the symbol of the bell jar returns when Esther asks, “How did I know that
someday . . . the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”
• Esther explains that no matter where she goes, she exists in the hell of her own mind.
She is trapped inside herself, and no external stimulation, no matter how new and
exciting, can ameliorate this condition. The bell jar of Esther’s madness separates her
from the people she should care about. Esther’s association of her illness with a bell jar suggests her feeling that madness descends on her without her control or assent—it is
as if an unseen scientist traps her. Esther’s suicidal urges come from this sense of
The Bluest Eye:
• The Bluest Eye contains a number of autobiographical elements. It is set in the town
where Morrison grew up (Lorain, Ohio), and it is told from the point of view of a nine-
year-old, the age Morrison would have been the year the novel takes place (1941).
• Nine-year-old Claudia and ten-year-old Frieda MacTeer live in Lorain, Ohio, with their
parents. The MacTeers take in a boarder, Henry Washington, and also a young girl
named Pecola. Pecola’s father has tried to burn down his family’s house, and Claudia
and Frieda feel sorry for her. Pecola loves Shirley Temple, believing that whiteness is
beautiful and that she is ugly. • Pecola moves back in with her family, and her life is difficult. Her father drinks, her
mother is distant, and the two of them often beat one another. Her brother, Sammy,
frequently runs away. Pecola believes that if she had blue eyes, she would be loved and
her life would be transformed. Meanwhile, she continually receives confirmation of her
own sense of ugliness—the grocer looks right through her when she buys candy, boys
make fun of her, and a light-skinned girl, Maureen, who temporarily befriends her makes
fun of her too. She is wrongly blamed for killing a boy’s cat and is called a “nasty little
black bitch” by his mother.
• We learn that Pecola’s parents have both had difficult lives. Pauline, her mother, has a
lame foot and has always felt isolated. She loses herself in movies, which reaffirm her
belief that she is ugly and that romantic love is reserved for the beautiful. She
encourages her husband’s violent behavior in order to reinforce her own role as a
martyr. She feels most alive when she is at work, cleaning a white woman’s home. She
loves this home and despises her own. Cholly, Pecola’s father, was abandoned by his
parents and raised by his great aunt, who died when he was a young teenager. He was
humiliated by two white men who found him having sex for the first time and made him
continue while they watched. He ran away to find his father but was rebuffed by him. By
the time he met Pauline, he was a wild and rootless man. He feels trapped in his
marriage and has lost interest in life.
• Cholly returns home one day and finds Pecola washing dishes. With mixed motives of
tenderness and hatred that are fueled by guilt, he rapes her. When Pecola’s mother finds
her unconscious on the floor, she disbelieves Pecola’s story and beats her. Pecola goes
to Soaphead Church, a sham mystic, and asks him for blue eyes. Instead of helping her,
he uses her to kill a dog he dislikes.
• Claudia and Frieda find out that Pecola has been impregnated by her father, and unlike
the rest of the neighborhood, they want the baby to live. They sacrifice the money they
have been saving for a bicycle and plant marigold seeds. They believe that if the flowers
live, so will Pecola’s baby. The flowers refuse to bloom, and Pecola’s baby dies when it
is born prematurely. Cholly, who rapes Pecola a second time and then runs away, dies in
a workhouse. Pecola goes mad, believing that her cherished wish has been fulfilled and
that she has the bluest eyes.
• Pecola Breedlove - The protagonist of the novel, an eleven-year-old black girl who
believes that she is ugly and that having blue eyes would make her beautiful. Sensitive
and delicate, she passively suffers the abuse of her mother, father, and classmates. She
is lonely and imaginative.
• Claudia MacTeer - The narrator of parts of the novel. An independent and strong-
minded nine-year-old, Claudia is a fighter and rebels against adults’ tyranny over
children and against the black community’s idealization of white beauty standards. She
has not yet learned the self-hatred that plagues her peers.
• China, Poland, Miss Marie - The local whores, Miss Marie (also known as the Maginot
Line) is fat and affectionate, China is skinny and sarcastic, and Poland is quiet. They live
above the Breedlove apartment and befriend Pecola. • Morrison explains in her novel’s afterword that she purposely tells Pecola’s story from
other points of view to keep Pecola’s dignity and, to some extent, her mystery intact. She
wishes to prevent us from labeling Pecola or prematurely believing that we understand
• Pecola is also a symbol of the black community’s self-hatred and belief in its own
ugliness. At the end of the novel, we are told that Pecola has been a scapegoat for the
entire community. Her ugliness has made them feel beautiful, her suffering has made
them feel comparatively lucky, and her silence has given them the opportunity for
speaking. But because she continues to live after she has lost her mind, Pecola’s
aimless wandering at the edge of town haunts the community, reminding them of the
ugliness and hatred that they have tried to repress.
• Like Pecola, Claudia suffers from racist beauty standards and material insecurity, but
she has a loving and stable family, which makes all the difference for her. Whereas
Pecola is passive when she is abused, Claudia is a fighter.
• Claudia’s perspective is also valuable because it melds the child’s and the adult’s points
of view. Her childish viewpoint makes her uniquely qualified to register what Pecola
experiences, but her adult viewpoint can correct the childish one when it is incomplete.
• Implicit messages that whiteness is superior are everywhere, including the white baby
doll given to Claudia, the idealization of Shirley Temple, the consensus that light-skinned
Maureen is cuter than the other black girls, the idealization of white beauty in the
movies, and Pauline Breedlove’s preference for the little white girl she works for over her
• By wishing for blue eyes rather than lighter skin, Pecola indicates that she wishes to see
things differently as much as she wishes to be seen differently.
• Soaphead Church finds physicality distasteful, and this peculiarity leads to his
preference for objects over humans and to his perverse attraction to little girls
• For example, spring, the traditional time of rebirth and renewal, reminds Claudia of being
whipped with new switches, and it is the season when Pecola’s is raped. Pecola’s baby
dies in autumn, the season of harvesting.
• The novel begins by describing a house and the family that lives in the house—Mother,
Father, Dick, and Jane. The pet cat will not play with Jane, and when Jane asks her
mother to play, she laughs. When Jane asks her father to play, he smiles, and the dog
runs away instead of playing with Jane. Then a friend comes to play with Jane. This
sequence is repeated verbatim without punctuation, and then is repeated a third time
without spaces between the words or punctuation.
• Rosemary Villanucci, a white neighbor of the MacTeer family, taunts Claudia and Frieda
MacTeer from the Villanucci’s Buick. School has started, and the sisters are expected to
help gather coal that has fallen out of the railroad cars. The children overhear their
mother explaining that Henry was living with the elderly Della Jones but that she has
grown too senile for him to stay there because her husband left her and ran off with
someone else. Henry has never married and has the reputation of being a steady worker. When Henry arrives, the children adore him because he teases them and then
does a magic trick: he offers them a penny but then makes it disappear so that the girls
must find it hidden on his person.
• Having joined the MacTeers, Pecola loves drinking milk out of their Shirley Temple cup.
Claudia explains that she has always hated Shirley Temple and also the blonde, blue-
eyed baby doll that she was given for Christmas. She is confused about why everyone
else thinks such dolls are lovable, and she pulls apart her doll trying to discover where
its “beauty” is located.
• It is a Saturday afternoon, and Mrs. MacTeer is angry because Pecola has drunk three
quarts of milk. Pecola begins bleeding from between her legs. Frieda understands that
Pecola is menstruating and attempts to attach a pad to Pecola’s dress. Meanwhile,
Rosemary, who has been watching from the bushes, yells to Mrs. MacTeer that the girls
are “playing nasty.” That night in bed, Pecola asks Frieda how babies are made. Frieda
says you have to get someone to love you. Pecola asks, “How do you get someone to
• Pecola adores Shirley Temple and loves playing with dolls. Her excessive and expensive
milk-drinking from the Shirley Temple is part of her desire to internalize the values of
• The apartment, which was formerly a store, that the Breedloves move into once Cholly
Breedlove, Pecola’s father, is out of jail. Nowadays the storefront is abandoned, and so
the narrator moves backward in time. Before it was abandoned, the storefront housed a
pizza parlor, and before that, a Hungarian bakery, and before that, a Gypsy family. The
narrator focuses on the furnishings. The furniture is aged but not by frequent use; it does
not hold any memories. The only piece of furniture that calls up any emotion is the
couch, which fills its owner with anger. Though bought new, the couch has a split down
the middle, and the store refuses to take it back.
• The action that now unfolds takes place on a Saturday morning in October. Mrs.
Breedlove wakes first and begins banging around in the kitchen. Pecola is awake in bed
and knows that her mother will pick a fight with her father, who came home drunk the
previous night. Mrs. Breedlove comes in and attempts to wake Cholly to bring her some
coal for the stove. He refuses, and she says that if she sneezes just once from fetching
the coal outside, he is in trouble. The narrator comments that Mrs. Breedlove and Cholly
need each other—she needs him to reinforce her identity as a martyr and to give shape
to an otherwise dreary life, and he needs to take out a lifetime of hurt upon her.
• Predictably, Mrs. Breedlove sneezes, and the fight begins. She douses Cholly with cold
water and he begins to beat her. She hits him with the dishpan and then a stove lid.
Sammy helps by hitting his father on the head. Once Cholly is knocked out, Sammy
urges his mother to kill him, and she quiets him.
• Pecola walks to the grocery store to buy candy. She decides to buy Mary Janes, but she
has difficulty communicating with Mr. Yacobowski, the store owner, who seems to look
right through her. He does not understand what she is pointing at and speaks harshly to
her. He does not want to touch her hand when she passes over her money. Walking home, Pecola is angry but most of all ashamed. She decides dandelions are ugly,
whereas blonde, blue-eyed Mary Jane, pictured on the candy wrapper, is beautiful.
• Pecola goes to visit the whores who live in the apartment above hers, China, Poland,
and Miss Marie. They are good-natured and affectionate with her, and they tell her about
their “boyfriends” (Pecola’s term for their clients). Miss Marie tells stories about turning
one of her boyfriends over to the FBI and about Dewey Prince, the one man she truly
• While the use of the word “master” suggests a connection to the history of slavery, the
Breedloves’ ugliness has been both foisted on them and chosen, an identity that is
destructive but that still gives a sense of meaning to their existence.
• She wants blue eyes for two reasons—so that she can change what she sees, and so
that she can change how others see her. While her brother has the option of running
away from these terrible domestic scenes, Pecola, a young girl with fewer choices,
believes she can change what she sees only by changing herself. There are moments
when she temporarily succeeds in breaking the destructive connection between what
she sees and how people see her. When she considers that dandelions might be
beautiful, she implicitly recognizes that beauty can be created by seeing rather than by
being seen. By the same logic, she could redefine herself as beautiful even without blue
eyes. But her humiliation at the grocer’s store reinforces the old idea that ugliness is
inherent and cannot be changed by a different way of perceiving the world.
• But this winter, the arrival of a new girl named Maureen Peal breaks the monotony. She
is a light-skinned, wealthy black girl who enchants the whole school. Claudia and Frieda
dislike her and search for flaws. They are relieved to discover that she has a dog tooth
and stumps where her sixth fingers were removed. She has a locker next to Claudia’s,
and one day she suggests that she walk part way home with Claudia and Frieda. Soon
the three girls come upon a circle of boys harassing Pecola. Shouting a derogatory
chant, they taunt her for her black skin and because her father sleeps naked. Frieda
comes to the rescue, hitting one boy and threatening another. Claudia joins the fray, and
it looks as if the boys will beat up the MacTeer girls, but then Maureen arrives on the
scene. The boys do not want to fight in front of Maureen and leave. Maureen takes
Pecola’s arm and talks to her about movies and gym class. She asks the girls if they
want some ice cream and treats Pecola. The girls talk about menstruation, and Maureen
asks Pecola if she has ever seen a naked man. Pecola says she has never seen her
father naked, and Maureen presses the issue. Claudia and Frieda tell Maureen to cut it
out, and Claudia remembers the shame and strange interest of seeing her own father
naked. The girls argue: Claudia accuses Maureen of being boy-crazy, and Maureen tells
the girls they are black and ugly. Pecola is pained, and Claudia secretly worries that
what Maureen has said is true.
• When the girls arrive home, only Henry is there. He gives them money for ice cream, but
they decide to buy candy instead because they do not want to run into Maureen again.
When they come home, they see Henry entertaining the prostitutes China and the
Maginot Line (Miss Marie) in the living room. Claudia and Frieda are disturbed because
they know that their mother hates these women. The girls come in after the women leave, and Frieda asks Henry about them. He lies and says they are members of his
Bible-study group. The girls decide to keep his secret.
• Claudia is perceptive enough to understand at this point that it is not Maureen she hates
and fears, but whatever it is that makes Maureen cute and the MacTeer girls ugly.
• In a revealing moment, Maureen recounts the plot of a movie she has seen in which the
light-skinned daughter of a white man rejects her black mother but then cries at her
• The black boys can taunt her for being black—“Black e mo Black e mo”—because they
hate their own blackness.
• This chapter describes in detail a particular type of black woman. She takes special care
of her body and her clothes. She marries and bears the children of a man who knows
that she will take good care of his house and his clothes. But she also is a tyrant over
her home and over her own body. She does not enjoy sex. She feels affection only for
the household cat, which is as neat and quiet as she is. She caresses and cuddles the
cat in a way that she refuses to caress or cuddle her family.
• Then such a woman enters the novel. Her name is Geraldine, she is married to a man
named Louis, and they have a son named Junior. Geraldine takes excellent physical
care of Junior, but early on, he understands that she feels real affection only for the cat.
In response, he tortures the cat and torments children who come to play at the nearby
school playground. Junior would have liked to have played with the black children, but
his mother will let him play only with upper-class “colored” people, not lower-class
• One day, a bored and isolated Junior decides to pick on Pecola, who is passing through
the playground. She tells him she does not want to play, but he lures her into his home
by promising to show her some kittens. Pecola is overwhelmed by the beauty and
cleanliness of the house. Meanwhile, Junior throws the family cat, which has black fur
and blue eyes, in her face. Scratched and shaken, Pecola tries to leave, but Junior
stands on the other side of the door and shuts her in. The cat begins to rub against
Pecola, and its friendliness distracts her from crying. She caresses the cat as Junior
opens the door. Angered that the cat is getting attention, he picks it up and swings it
around by one of its hind legs. The cat is terrified, and Pecola tries to rescue it. When
she pulls Junior down, he lets go of the cat, and it hits the radiator and collapses in a
lifeless heap. At this moment, Geraldine comes home, and Junior tells her that Pecola
has killed the cat. Geraldine calls Pecola a “nasty little black bitch” and sends her away.
• She finds her mother singing and behaving strangely, absentmindedly doing the same
chore twice. She finds Frieda upstairs crying. It turns out that Henry touched Frieda’s
breasts. Frieda ran from the house to find her parents, who were in the garden, and told
them what had happened. She returned with her parents to the house, but Henry was
gone. When he returned, Mr. and Mrs. MacTeer attacked him. A neighbor, Mr. Buford,
arrived and gave Mr. MacTeer a gun. He shot at Henry and Henry ran away. Rosemary
Villanucci came out and told Frieda that her father would go to jail, and Frieda hit her.
Then another neighbor, Miss Dunion, came in and suggested that they take Frieda to the
doctor because she might be “ruined,” a fear that now makes Frieda weep. • Frieda and Claudia are confused about what “ruined” means and worry that Frieda will
become fat like the Maginot Line. They understand that China and Poland are “ruined”
as well but think that they are not fat because they drink whiskey. Frieda and Claudia
decide to ask Pecola to get whisky from her father in order to keep Frieda from getting
fat. They go to Pecola’s house, but no one is home. The Maginot Line is upstairs on the
porch drinking root beer, and she tells the children that Pecola is helping her mother at
her workplace. She invites the girls upstairs for a soda, but Frieda tells her that they are
not allowed to visit her because she is “ruined.” The Maginot Line throws the root-beer
bottle at the girls in anger, but then she laughs.
• They find Pecola at the back of one of the prettiest houses. She is surprised to see
them, and they ask her why she is not afraid of the Maginot Line. Pecola is confused and
talks about how nice Miss Marie (that is, the Maginot Line) and her friends are. Mrs.
Breedlove sticks her head out the door, is introduced to the girls, and tells them they can
wait with Pecola for the laundry and then walk back to town with her. The inside of the
house is beautiful, and a small white girl comes in and asks for “Polly.” Claudia is furious
that the child calls Mrs. Breedlove by this name because even Pecola calls her mother
“Mrs. Breedlove.” From upstairs, the little girl calls for Polly, and Pecola accidentally pulls
a freshly baked berry cobbler off the counter. The cobbler splatters on the floor and
burns her, and her mother comes in and beats her. Furious, Mrs. Breedlove sends the
girls away and comforts the little white girl, who has begun to cry.
• Instead of worrying that her own daughter has been burned by the hot berries, she
pushes Pecola down into the pie juice. She then comforts the little white girl and begins
to clean the black stain off of her pink dress. When she speaks to Pecola and her
friends, her voice is like “rotten pieces of apple,” but when she speaks to the white girl,
her voice is like honey. Her desire to disavow her daughter is proved when the white girl
asks who the black children were and Mrs. Breedlove avoids answering her. She has
renounced her own black family for the family of her white employer.
• This chapter recounts Mrs. Breedlove’s story. She grows up in Alabama as Pauline
Williams, and when she is two years old, she impa