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ENGA11H3 Final: The Bell Jar

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University of Toronto Scarborough
Garry Leonard

The Bell Jar PLOT OVERVIEW Esther Greenwood, a college student from Massachusetts, travels to New York to work on a magazine for a month as a guest editor. She works for Jay Cee, a sympathetic but demanding woman. Esther and eleven other college girls live in a women’s hotel. The sponsors of their trip wine and dine them and shower them with presents. Esther knows she should be having the time of her life, but she feels deadened. The execution of the Rosenbergs worries her, and she can embrace neither the rebellious attitude of her friend Doreen nor the perky conformism of her friend Betsy. Esther and the other girls suffer food poisoning after a fancy banquet. Esther attempts to lose her virginity with a UN interpreter, but he seems uninterested. She questions her abilities and worries about what she will do after college. On her last night in the city, she goes on a disastrous blind date with a man named Marco, who tries to rape her. Esther wonders if she should marry and live a conventional domestic life, or attempt to satisfy her ambition. Buddy Willard, her college boyfriend, is recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitarium, and wants to marry Esther when he regains his health. To an outside observer, Buddy appears to be the ideal mate: he is handsome, gentle, intelligent, and ambitious. But he does not understand Esther’s desire to write poetry, and when he confesses that he slept with a waitress while dating Esther, Esther thinks him a hypocrite and decides she cannot marry him. She sets out to lose her virginity as though in pursuit of the answer to an important mystery. Esther returns to the Boston suburbs and discovers that she has not been accepted to a writing class she had planned to take. She will spend the summer with her mother instead. She makes vague plans to write a novel, learn shorthand, and start her senior thesis. Soon she finds the feelings of unreality she experienced in New York taking over her life. She is unable to read, write, or sleep, and she stops bathing. Her mother takes her to Dr. Gordon, a psychiatrist who prescribes electric shock therapy for Esther. Esther becomes more unstable than ever after this terrifying treatment, and decides to kill herself. She tries to slit her wrists, but can only bring herself to slash her calf. She tries to hang herself, but cannot find a place to tie the rope in her low-ceilinged house. At the beach with friends, she attempts to drown herself, but she keeps floating to the surface of the water. Finally, she hides in a basement crawl space and takes a large quantity of sleeping pills. Esther awakens to find herself in the hospital. She has survived her suicide attempt with no permanent physical injuries. Once her body heals, she is sent to the psychological ward in the city hospital, where she is uncooperative, paranoid, and determined to end her life. Eventually, Philomena Guinea, a famous novelist who sponsors Esther’s college scholarship, pays to move her to a private hospital. In this more enlightened environment, Esther comes to trust her new psychiatrist, a woman named Dr. Nolan. She slowly begins to improve with a combination of talk therapy, insulin injections, and properly administered electric shock therapy. She becomes friends with Joan, a woman from her hometown and college who has had experiences similar to Esther’s. She is repulsed, however, when Joan makes a sexual advance toward her. As Esther improves, the hospital officials grant her permission to leave the hospital from time to time. During one of these excursions, she finally loses her virginity with a math professor named Irwin. She begins bleeding profusely and has to go to the emergency room. One morning, Joan, who seemed to be improving, hangs herself. Buddy comes to visit Esther, and both understand that their relationship is over. Esther will leave the mental hospital in time to start winter semester at college. She believes that she has regained a tenuous grasp on sanity, but knows that the bell jar of her madness could descend again at any time. CHARACTER LIST Esther Greenwood - The protagonist and narrator of the novel, she has just finished her junior year of college. Esther grew up in the Boston suburbs with her mother and brother. Her father died when she was nine years old. Esther is attractive, talented, and lucky, but uncertainty plagues her, and she feels a disturbing sense of unreality. Esther Greenwood is the protagonist and narrator of The Bell Jar. The plot of the novel follows her descent into and return from -madness. The Bell Jar tells an atypical coming-of-age story: instead of undergoing a positive, progressive education in the ways of the world, culminating in a graduation into adulthood, Esther learns from madness, and graduates not from school but from a mental institution. Esther behaves unconventionally in reaction to the society in which she lives. Society expects Esther to be constantly cheerful and peppy, but her dark, melancholy nature resists perkiness. She becomes preoccupied with the execution of the Rosenbergs and the cadavers and pickled fetuses she sees at Buddy’s medical school, because her brooding nature can find no acceptable means of expression. Society expects Esther to remain a virgin until her marriage to a nice boy, but Esther sees the hypocrisy of this rule and decides that like Buddy, she wants to lose her virginity before marriage. She embarks on a loveless sexual encounter because society does not provide her with an outlet for healthy sexual experimentation. Plath distinguishes Esther’s understandably unconventional behavior from her madness. Even though society’s ills disturb Esther, they do not make her mad. Rather, madness descends on her, an illness as unpreventable and destructive as cancer. Largely because of her mental illness, Esther behaves selfishly. She does not consider the effect her suicide attempts have on her mother, or on her friends. Her own terrifying world occupies her thoughts completely. Though inexperienced, Esther is also observant, poetic, and kind. Plath feels affection toward her protagonist, but she is unswerving in depicting Esther’s self-absorption, confusion, and naïveté. Mrs. Greenwood - Esther’s mother, she has had a difficult life. Mrs. Greenwood lost her husband when her children were still young. Because her husband had inadequate life insurance, she struggles to make a living by teaching typing and shorthand. Practical and traditional, she loves Esther and worries about her future, but cannot understand her. Mrs. Greenwood remains in the background of the novel, for Esthermakes little attempt to describe her. However, despite her relative invisibility, Mrs. Greenwood’s influence pervades Esther’s mind. Mrs. Greenwood subscribes to society’s notions about women. She sends Esther an article emphasizing the importance of guarding one’s virginity, and while she encourages Esther to pursue her ambition to write, she also encourages her to learn shorthand so that she can find work as a secretary. While Esther worries that her desire to be a poet or a professor will conflict with her probable role as wife and mother, her mother hopes that Esther’s ambitions will not interfere with her domestic duties. Mrs. Greenwood clearly loves Esther and worries about her: she runs through her money paying for Esther’s stay in the hospital, and brings Esther roses on her birthday. Still, Esther partly faults her mother for her madness, and Plath represents this assigning of blame as an important breakthrough for Esther. When Esther tells Dr. Nolan that she hates her mother, Nolan reacts with satisfaction, as if this admission explains Esther’s condition and marks an important step in her recovery. The doctors decide that Esther should stay in the hospital until winter term at college begins rather than go home to live with her mother. Perhaps Esther hates her mother partly because she feels guilty about inflicting such vast pain on her. Buddy Willard - Esther’s college boyfriend, he is an athletic, intelligent, good-looking man who graduated from Yale and went to medical school. Buddy cares for Esther but has conventional ideas about women’s roles and fails to understand Esther’s interest in poetry. He represents everything that, according to society, Esther should want but does not. A contemporary reviewer of The Bell Jar once observed that Buddy Willard is a perfect specimen of the ideal 1950s American male. By the standards of the time, Buddy is nearly flawless. Handsome and athletic, he attends church, loves his parents, thrives in school, and studies to become a doctor. Esther appreciates Buddy’s near perfection, and admires him for a long time from afar. But once she gets to know him, she sees his flaws. In what was considered natural behavior in men at that time, Buddy spends a summer sleeping with a waitress while dating Esther, and does not apologize for his behavior. Esther also realizes that while Buddy is intelligent, he is not particularly thoughtful. He does not understand Esther’s desire to write poetry, telling her that poems are like dust, and that her passion for poetry will change as soon as she becomes a mother. He accepts his mother’s conventional ideas about how he should organize his domestic and emotional life. Buddy’s sexuality proves boring—Esther finds his kisses uninspiring, and when he undresses before her, he does so in a clinical way, telling her she should get used to seeing him naked, and explaining that he wears net underwear because his “mother says they wash easily.” Finally, he seems unconsciously cruel. He tells Esther he slept with the waitress because she was “free, white, and twenty-one,” acts pleased when Esther breaks her leg on a ski slope, and, in their last meeting, wonders out loud who will marry her now that she has been in a mental institution. In some ways, Buddy and Esther endure similar experiences. They both show great promise at the beginning of the novel, and at the novel’s end have become muted and worldly. Buddy’s time in the sanitarium during his bout with tuberculosis parallels Esther’s time in the mental institution. Both experiment with premarital sex. Still, they share few character traits, and Esther must reject Buddy because she rejects his way of life. She will not become a submissive wife and mother and shelve her artistic ambitions. Doctor Nolan - Esther’s psychiatrist at the private mental hospital. Esther comes to trust and love Dr. Nolan, who acts as a kind and understanding surrogate mother. Progressive and unconventional, Dr. Nolan encourages Esther’s unusual thinking. Doreen - Esther’s companion in New York, a blond, beautiful southern girl with a sharp tongue. Esther envies Doreen’s nonchalance in social situations, and the two share a witty, cynical perspective on their position as guest editors for a fashion magazine. Doreen represents a rebellion against societal convention that Esther admires but cannot entirely embrace. Joan Gilling - Esther’s companion in the mental hospital. A large, horsy woman, Joan was a year ahead of Esther in college, and Esther envied her social and athletic success. Joan once dated Buddy, Esther’s boyfriend. In the mental ward, Esther comes to think of Joan as her double, someone with similar experiences to Esther’s whom Esther does not particularly like, but with whom she feels an affinity. Jay Cee - Esther’s boss at the magazine, an ambitious career woman who encourages Esther to be ambitious. She is physically unattractive, but moves self-confidently in her world. She treats Esther brusquely but kindly. Betsy - A pretty, wholesome girl from Kansas who becomes Esther’s friend when they both work at the magazine. Esther feels she is more like Betsy than she is like Doreen, but she cannot relate to Betsy’s cheerfulness and optimism. Constantin - A UN simultaneous interpreter who takes Esther on a date. Handsome, thoughtful, and accomplished, he seems sexually uninterested in Esther, who is willing to let him seduce her. Marco - A tall, dark, well-dressed Peruvian who takes Esther on a date to a country club. Marco expresses dashing self-confidence, but also a hatred of women. Violent and sadistic, he believes that all women are sluts. Irwin - Esther’s first lover, he is a tall, intelligent, homely math professor at Harvard. Irwin is charming and seductive but not particularly responsible or caring. Doctor Gordon - Esther’s first psychiatrist, whom she distrusts. He is good-looking and has an attractive family, and Esther thinks him conceited. He does not know how to help Esther, and ends up doing her more harm than good. Philomena Guinea - A famous, wealthy novelist who gives Esther a scholarship to attend college and pays for Esther’s stay in the private mental hospital. She is elderly, generous, and successful. Mrs. Willard - A friend of Esther’s mother and the mother of Esther’s sometime-boyfriend, Buddy Willard. Mrs. Willard, who feels protective of her son, has traditional ideas about the roles men and women should play. Lenny Shepherd - Doreen’s love interest, Lenny is a New York DJ and smooth older man. He wears cowboy- style clothes and has a cowboy-style home. Eric - A past acquaintance of Esther’s with whom she had her most open conversation about sex. He is a southern prep school boy who lost his virginity with a prostitute and now associates love with chastity and sex with behaving like an animal. Dodo Conway - The Greenwoods’ neighbor, Dodo is a Catholic woman with six children and a seventh on the way. She lives unconventionally, but everyone likes her. Jody - A friend of Esther’s, with whom she is supposed to live while she takes a summer writing course. Jody is friendly and tries to be helpful, but cannot reach Esther. Valerie - A friend of Esther’s in the private mental hospital. Valerie has had a lobotomy, and is friendly and relaxed. SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS Summary: Chapter 1 It is the summer of 1953 and Esther Greenwood, a college student, is living in New York and working at a month-long job as guest editor for a fashion magazine. 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 death. She also worries about the fact that she cannot enjoy her job, her new clothes, or the parties she attends, despite realizing that most girls would envy her. Esther feels numb and unmoored, and thinks there is something wrong with her. 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. One day, on her way to a party organized by the magazine, Betsy ask Esther if she wants to share a cab. Esther refuses, catching a cab with Doreen instead. While their cab sits in traffic, a man approaches and persuades them to join him and some friends in a bar. The man’s name is Lenny Shepherd, and he exhibits immediate interest in Doreen. He 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. Frankie leaves alone, and Esther and Doreen leave with Lenny. Summary: Chapter 2 Esther and Doreen go to Lenny’s apartment, which is decorated like a cowboy’s ranch. He puts on a tape of his own radio show, saying he enjoys the sound of his voice, and gives the girls drinks. He offers to call a friend for Esther, but Esther refuses. Doreen dances with Lenny while Esther watches, lonely and impassive, growing sleepy. The couple begins fighting playfully, biting one another and screaming, and Esther sees that Doreen’s breasts have slipped out of her strapless dress. Esther decides to leave. Although she is drunk, she manages to walk forty-eight blocks by five blocks home. She arrives home sober, her feet slightly swollen from the long walk. In her room, she stares out the window and feels her isolation from New York and from life in general. She takes a hot bath and feels purified. She falls asleep, only to be wakened by a drunken, semiconscious Doreen pounding on her door with the night maid. Once Esther opens the door, the maid leaves, and Doreen begins mumbling. Esther decides to leave Doreen in the hall. As she lowers her onto the carpet, Doreen vomits and passes out. 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. Analysis: Chapters 1–2 Esther narrates The Bell Jar in girlish, slangy prose, sounding mature and detached mainly when speaking of her own morbidity and depression. The first sentence of the novel sets the tone: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Esther feels misplaced, sad, and removed from reality. She lacks the cheery good humor that society expects of her, and that she expects of herself. She knows that most girls long to do what she is doing, and she cannot understand her own lack of enthusiasm. It is instructive to read Plath’s own letter to her mother during her stint as a guest editor in New York, for in it she presents the chipper front that Esther struggles to maintain: “At first I was disappointed at not being Fiction Ed, but now that I see how all-inclusive my work is, I love it. . . . [A]ll is relatively un-tense now, almost homey, in fact.” Plath manages to sound appropriately cheery, flexible, and grateful in this letter, just as Esther manages to pass herself off as suitably happy in front of her employer and sponsors. Plath paints Esther as not just unhappy, but touchingly inexperienced. When Doreen says that Yale men are stupid, the easily influenced Esther instantly decides that Billy, a Yale man, suffers from stupidity. Esther knows nothing about alcohol, and says, “My dream was someday ordering a drink and finding out it tasted wonderful.” Esther has determination that counters her inexperience, however, as she proves when she grits her teeth, looks at her street map, and manages to walk the miles back to her hotel while drunk. The first two chapters contrast the ideal that life offers a talented and lucky girl like Esther, and her actual experiences of the world. She should feel thrilled by the social whirl of her charmed life in New York, but the death of the Rosenbergs obsesses her. The wealthy girls at her hotel should epitomize glamour, freedom, and happiness, but they seem spoiled and “bored as hell.” New York should set the stage for romantic, magical encounters with fascinating men, but Esther gets left with a short older man, and Doreen’s encounter with Lenny proves ugly and scary. 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 beautiful and confident Doreen, whom Esther idealizes, turns herself into a helpless, vomiting heap. The excitement of a big city, material success, romance, and love, get rewritten as an execution, boredom, selfishness, and brutality. Esther’s distaste for her life seems in part a reasonable response to her disillusionment at finding her dream summer lacking, but also a harbinger of her impending mental illness. 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 describes. Summary: Chapter 3 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. Esther enjoys the rich food at these banquets because her family worries about the cost of food, and because she had never been to a real restaurant before going to New York. Her grandfather used to work as headwaiter at a country club, where he introduced Esther to caviar, which became her favorite delicacy. Esther manages to eat two plates of caviar at the luncheon, along with chicken and avocados stuffed with crabmeat. 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. Esther quietly cries as she remembers what happened. Esther returns to the events leading up to the luncheon. As Esther lies in bed, listening to the girls get ready and feeling depressed, Jay Cee calls and requests she come into the 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, and although she always has a ready answer involving travel, teaching, and writing, Esther says that she does not know. She realizes as she speaks that she truly does not know what she wants to do. 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. Esther has no time in her senior year schedule for a language course. 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. Summary: Chapter 4 Esther feels guilty about her deception of Mr. Manzi, who thought her such a dedicated student of chemistry. Although she does not know why, she thinks of Mr. Manzi when Jay Cee talks sternly to her of her future plans. 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. Esther uses her finger bowl after eating dessert at the banquet. 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. Esther feels famished. Analysis: Chapters 3–4 In the third and fourth chapters, Esther begins to feel inadequate and directionless. She has always been a model student—intelligent, hardworking, and destined for great things—but suddenly her future seems unclear. When she admits to Jay Cee that she does not know what she want to do after college, she shocks herself, realizing that what she says is true. She has always planned on studying abroad, then becoming a professor and writing and editing. Now, however, she has lost her drive. She also worries that her high marks and string of academic honors mask the fact that she is not a good person. When Esther remembers the lie she told the dean, she recognizes that her good academic reputation made it possible for her to avoid an undesirable course. But she feels guilty that she abused her academic success in order to avoid a class, and that she tricked everyone into trusting her and even admiring her. These chapters detail the financial straits that increase Esther’s insecurity. She has grown up poor, understanding the cost of every bite of food she puts in her mouth. Working hard and doing well in school are not merely matters of personal ambition, but matters of survival. The charity of others allows Esther to go to school and to live in New York, and her mother has no money to maintain her at her expensive school should she lose her scholarship. Great pressure to do well weighs on Esther. She does not have the rich girl’s luxury of slackening her studies, or taking a few years to decide what she wants to do. Furthermore, Esther feels shaken by getting a taste of the ideal life meant to be the goal and reward of her hard work, and finding it miserable. She begins to wonder, therefore, if she does not even want what hard work will bring her. She cannot continue her hard work, but she also feels she cannot utterly rebel. 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. Esther welcomes her illness, as she enjoys allowing other people to take care of her. When her physical health fails, she no longer has to engage actively with the world, and her body mirrors her mental state. When sick, Esther welcomes Doreen’s almost maternal comfort. Doreen represents several varieties of freedom for Esther—freedom from fear of convention, from endless pursuit of achievement, and from mandates against sex. While Esther feels she can never behave as Doreen does, she finds comfort in Doreen’s freedom from worry, and her brash good humor and self-confidence. Summary: Chapter 5 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 assumes Constantin asked her out as a favor to Mrs. Willard, but she agrees to go nonetheless. 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. Esther recalls her tipping mishaps: upon her arrival in New York, she failed to tip the bellhop who brought her suitcase to her room, and the first time she rode in a cab, the cabdriver sneered at her ten percent tip. Esther opens the book sent by the Ladies’ Day magazine staff. A cloying get-well card falls out. Esther pages through the books, and finds a story about a fig tree. 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.” At the time, Esther could think of nothing to say in reply, and now she composes sharp speeches she could have made criticizing his work as meaningless, and his cadavers as dust. She thinks that curing people is no better than writing “poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick or couldn’t sleep.” Esther recalls the beginning of her relationship with Buddy. 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. Summary: Chapter 6 Esther continues to remember the progression of her relationship with Buddy. 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. After the birth, they went to Buddy’s room, where Buddy asked Esther if she had ever seen a naked man. She said no, and he asked if she would like to see him naked. She agreed, and he took off his pants. The sight of him naked made her think of “turkey neck and turkey gizzards,” and she felt depressed. She refused to let him see her naked, and then asked him if he had ever slept with a woman, expecting him to say that he was saving himself for marriage. 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. Esther was not bothered by the idea that Buddy slept with someone, but was angry that he hypocritically presented himself as virginal and innocent. Esther asked students at her college what they would think if a boy they had been dating confessed to sleeping with someone, and they said a woman could not be angry unless she were pinned or engaged. When she asked Buddy what his mother thought of the affair, 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. Analysis: Chapters 5–6 Society expects Esther, a well-educated middle-class girl, to find a nice, responsible young man and become his loving wife. As Mrs. Willard explains to Buddy, “What a man is is an arrow into the future, and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from.” In her conventional view, a woman must support her husband by creating an attractive and orderly home and by nurturing him and his ambitions. This vision troubles Esther, who has always nurtured ambitions of her own, and has never aspired simply to help a husband. It seems that she cannot have both marriage and a career, and that marrying someone would mean relinquishing her dreams of writing. Failing to marry Buddy would strike most people as lunacy, however. Mrs. Willard and Esther’s mother, grandmother, and classmates see Buddy as an ideal match: he is handsome, intelligent, and ambitious. Esther herself thinks him the ideal man before she gets to know him. But she soon understands Buddy’s limitations. He cares for Esther, but he cannot understand her passion for literature, he patronizes her with his supposedly superior understanding of the world, and, perhaps worst of all, he is boring. Something of a mama’s boy, he seeks a woman who shares his values and does not aspire to anything beyond wifely duties and motherhood. 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. Summary: Chapter 7 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. While at the UN, Esther thinks it odd that she never before realized that she was only happy until the age of nine. The skills of the interpreters impress Esther, and she thinks about all of the things she cannot do: cook, write in shorthand, dance, sing, ride a horse, ski, or speak foreign languages. She feels that the one thing she is good at, winning scholarships, will end once college is over. She sees her life as a fig tree. The figs represent different life choices—a husband and children, a poet, a professor, an editor, a traveler—but she wants all of them and cannot choose, so the figs rot and drop off the tree uneaten. Constantin takes Esther to dinner, and she feels better right away, wondering if her fig tree vision came from her empty stomach. The meal is so pleasant that she decides to let Constantin seduce her. Esther has decided she should sleep with someone so that she can get even with Buddy. 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. Constantin invites Esther to come to his apartment and listen to music, and she hopes, as her mother would say, that this invitation “could mean only one thing.” She remembers an article her mother sent her listing all of the reasons that a woman should save sex for marriage. She decides that virginity is impractical, because even someone as clean-cut as Buddy is not a virgin, and she rejects a double sexual standard for men and women. To Esther’s disappointment, Constantin only holds her hand. Sleepy with wine, she lays down in his bed. He joins her, but the two merely sleep. She wakes, disoriented, at three in the morning and watches Constantin sleep, thinking about what it would be like to be married. She decides marriage consists of washing and cleaning, and that it would endanger her ambitions. She remembers Buddy telling her “in a sinister, knowing way” that she will not want to write poems once she has children, and she worries that marriage brainwashes women. Constantin wakes and drives her home. Summary: Chapter 8 Esther remembers Mr. Willard driving her to visit Buddy in the sanatorium. He stopped along the way and told her that he would like to have her for a daughter. Esther began to cry, and Mr. Willard misinterpreted her tears as tears of joy. To Esther’s dismay, Mr. Willard left her alone with Buddy. Buddy had gained weight in the sanatorium. He showed Esther a poem he had published in an esoteric magazine. She thought the poem was awful, although she expressed neutrality. Buddy proposed by saying, “How would you like to be Mrs. Buddy Willard?” Esther told him she would never marry. Buddy laughed at this notion. 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. He borrowed equipment for her from various people. Esther took the rope tow to the top of the mountain and Buddy stood at the bottom beckoning to her to ski down. At first she felt terrified, but then it occurred to her that she might kill herself. She skied straight down at top speed, utterly happy. She felt she was skiing into the past. But suddenly she fell, her mouth filled with ice, and the ordinary world returned. She wanted to ski down the mountain again, but Buddy told her, with strange satisfaction, that she had broken her leg in two places. Analysis: Chapters 7–8 At the UN, Esther begins to doubt her own worth for the first time. Her identity depends on her success in school. She knows herself, and the world knows her, as the brilliant student who wins piles of scholarships. The end of college looms in the near future, and with it the end of scholarships and prizes, and Esther fears the end of college will erase her identity and success. She feels “like a racehorse without racetracks.” Her insecurity mounts when she visualizes her life as a fig tree, using imagery that makes her conundrum clear: she feels she can choose only one profession, only one life, to the exclusion of all others. She cannot decide to be a mother and a professor, or a wife and a poet. Esther feels enormous pressure from her family and friends to marry and have children, but she also longs to become a poet, so she feels paralyzed with indecision. The article that Esther’s mother sends her reinforces the message she receives from Mrs. Willard and Buddy: women and men have fundamentally different needs and natures, and a woman must discipline her behavior in anticipation of pleasing her future husband. 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. These categories do not work for Esther, who feels she can have sex without turning herself into an immoral animal. Though she does not explicitly reject Eric’s categories, she implicitly seeks a sexual life that will allow her to be adventurous but also to maintain her dignity and sense of self. Her quest to lose her virginity embodies these goals, though it is marked by some confusion. Esther believes that losing her virginity will transform her, because her culture continually sends the message that an immense gap exists between virginity and sexual experience. Plath also suggests that Esther feels comfortable trying to lose her virginity to Constantin partly because he makes her feel happy as her father did. When Constantin holds her hand, the platonic gesture reminds her of her father, and she begins to feel comfortable with him. Remembering her skiing experience, Esther implies that she liked the thought of killing herself. When she considered that the trip down the mountain might kill her, the thought “formed in [her] mind coolly as a tree or a flower.” She understood her plunge down the mountain not as a relinquishment of control, but as an exercise of control. She aimed past the people and things of the ordinary world toward the white sun, “the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly.” 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. Summary: Chapter 9 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. She is left alone to cry, and then Jay Cee brings her some stories to read and critique. Esther fantasizes that one day Jay Cee will accept a manuscript, only to find out it is a story of Esther’s. 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. As they talk, Esther looks around her room at the expensive clothes she bought but could never bring herself to wear. She tells Doreen she cannot face the clothes, and Doreen balls them up and stuffs them under the bed. 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. He tells her to pretend she is drowning, and Esther drapes herself against him and thinks, “It doesn’t take two to dance, it only takes one.” 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. Summary: Chapter 10 Esther takes the train back to Massachusetts, wearing Betsy’s clothes and still streaked in Marco’s blood because she thinks it looks “touching, and rather spectacular.” 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. She considers leaving her school and going to a city college, but rejects this idea. When she asks the family doctor, Teresa, for more sleeping pills, Teresa refers her to a psychiatrist. Analysis: Chapters 9–10 In these chapters, Esther’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and her perspective on the world increasingly skewed. Until this point, Esther has been an unconventional but fairly normal young woman: cynical, and sometimes rebellious about the conventions of society, but also eager to behave normally, and guilty about feelings she views as abnormal or ungrateful. Now, however, Esther’s healthy skepticism about the absurdities of her world becomes an inability to see the world as real, and she begins to disregard - society’s expectations. With Esther’s slipping grasp on reality comes an inability to protect herself from danger. Marco bruises her arm within moments of meeting her, speaks to her threateningly, and rips her drink away from her, but she does not detach herself from this clearly dangerous man. 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 Zoo. When he throws her to the ground and rips her dress off, initially she seems to consider letting the rape occur, although eventually she reacts. When she returns to the hotel and throws her clothes off the roof, she forgets the practical consideration that she will need something to wear the next day. She throws away the expensive clothes as if throwing away the unhappy remnants of the dream job she ended up despising. While the symbolic gesture is apt, for Esther symbolism has filled the screen, leaving little room for the demands of reality. Esther begins to disregard people’s opinions of her. She wears Marco’s blood on the train home to the suburbs as if it is a medal of honor, and cannot understand why people look at her with curiosity. At home, she does not bother to get dressed, and she has trouble sleeping. She starts to feel detached from herself, as evidenced by the fact that she listens with surprise to her own voice telling Jody she will not come to Cambridge. Her uncertainty about her future, understandably intensified after her rejection from the writing class, begins to pummel her. She frantically runs through a list of possible paths, and rejects all of them. Plath suggests that Esther’s troubles originate in her mind, but are exacerbated by the circumstances surrounding her. Marco attempts to rape Esther, a horror she deals with on her own. She bears her pain and shock silently, which surely intensifies these feelings. She must return from New York City, a city that Esther may have found unpleasant, but that forced her to keep busy and keep the company of girls her age. She must now live in isolation in the suburbs. She does not get into her writing course, a staggering blow because writing and prizes and academic laurels have come to seem like the sole achievements defining Esther’s character. Events and brain chemistry conspire to loosen Esther’s grasp on sanity. Summary: Chapter 11 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 seven nights. She hopes that Dr. Gordon will help bring her back to herself, but she immediately distrusts him because he is good-looking and seems conceited. 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. He asks her where she goes to college and comments on how pretty the girls were when he worked there during the war. When Esther tells her mother that Dr. Gordon expects to see her the next week, Esther’s mother sighs because 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. The sailor asks if the woman was mean to her. She says yes and cries, momentarily convinced that this horrible woman caused everything unhappy in her life. 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. He does not examine the scraps of paper, but asks to see her mother, and tells Mrs. Greenwood that 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. She finds she can read tabloid papers, because their short paragraphs end before the letters start jumping and sliding around. The next day Dodo Conway will drive Esther and her mother to the hospital for the shock treatment. Esther considers running away to Chicago, but realizes the bank will close before she can withdraw bus fare. Summary: Chapter 12 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. A nurse wearing thick glasses hooks Esther up to the shock machine, and a jolt shakes Esther “like the end of the world.” She wonders what awful thing she did to deserve this punishment. The treatment reminds her of the time she accidentally electrocuted herself with her father’s lamp. Dr. Gordon again asks her what college she attends, and again remembers the nurses who were stationed there during the war. Esther feels dreadful, and tells her
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