The Bell Jar
Chapter 1: I was supposed to be having the time of my life.
The novel begins with Esther Greenwood, the main character and narrator, in New York questioning the very reason she is in New York. It is disclosed that rather quickly her mental stability is cracking. There are several important sentences in the opening chapter(s) which foreshadow the entire novel and its conclusion. Esther is preoccupied with the impending electrocution of the Rosenberg's. She cannot help "wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves" (BJ 1). There is nothing normal about this character from the beginning, she's clearly unhappy and not "having the time of my [her] life" (BJ 1).
By the end of Chapter 1 we know that Esther survives New York and lives on for an unsaid amount of years. She even makes reference to her baby. We are told that she won this guest editorship to a leading women's magazine in New York City, that they stay in a women's only hotel, and that she has a rigorous schedule of events, be they article assignments or functions the magazine has prepared. This does not come close to satisfying Esther, who, in another major theme of the novel, is torn between two friend-editors.
The theme of the double, or the mirror, and the mind-boggling confusion it can create is presented full force in the opening chapters. There are twelve girls chosen to work on this special college issue and straight away, Esther mentions Betsy and Doreen, sort of her heaven and hell. Doreen is the voice of naughtiness, a carpe diem girl from the south. Betsy is very conservative and comes from Kansas and comes closer to Esther in personality and work ethic. Doreen wants to see and experience as much of New York as she can, Esther would too, but her head and thoughts interfere with letting loose her naiveté. The first time Doreen's name is mentioned, it's mentioned ominously, "I guess one of my troubles was Doreen" (BJ 1).
Esther does not end here with the doubles of herself in the novel. In the first chapter, Esther creates Elly Higginbottom from Chicago and later defines herself as an orphan. Later on we meet Buddy Willard, who in his own way is a male double, and Joan Gilling, a fellow college student turned mental breakdown & recovery patient.
Esther comes to New York with prizes and poems and stories published in several journals & magazines. She won a scholarship to her college in western Massachusetts and is supported at her school by a famous novelist, Olive Higgins-Prouty.
Chapter 2: My drink was wet and depressing.
In Chapter 2 we are introduced to Buddy as an acquaintance living in a tuberculosis asylum. Also we take a tour of Lenny Shepard's apartment, a famous DJ living in New York. Lenny courts Doreen and Esther comes along as the cool observer. This proves to be very damaging as Esther becomes the 'third-wheel' and pretty much resents it.
Chapter 3: ...I was eating pennies instead of Sunday roast.
Chapter 3 is a difficult one. Jay Cee asks Esther what she wants to do with her life & what would make her marketable in the editing world. Esther says, "All my life I'd told myself studying and reading and writing and working like mad was what I wanted to do, and it actually seemed to be true..." And later she says flatly, "I'm very interested in everything." But when asked by Jay Cee what she wants to do after college Esther draws a huge blank. We also learn something about Esther's German background and some crucial information to Esther learning fears and blockades. Esther can't comprehend German, the "dense, black, barbed-wire letters." Also Esther disagrees with sciences and in particular, with the shrinking of words into initials and formula's.
Chapter 4: "Don't let the wicked city get you down."
In chapter 4 we learn about Esther's benefactress (Higgins-Prouty) and somewhat hilariously, Esther and most of the girls get food poisoning and spend a couple days vomiting and recovering. Most of the other guest-editors are mentioned in this chapter. Doreen becomes a queen in this chapter. Having skipped the meal to be with Lenny Shepard at Coney Island, Doreen is the only healthy one of the lot. She helps feed Esther soup and appears motherly.
Chapters 5-7: I tried to jack up my morale.
We learn about Buddy Willard, about adoration and let down. It's a very good set up to learn much about Esther's (and maybe most women's) attitude about men in the 1950's. There was a double standard then, and there is still one today. Men can sleep around and it's not derogatory, whereas when a woman sleeps around, she's labeled a slut. Esther feels betrayed by man again; the first being the death of her father, which is also mentioned in this chapter. She's with Constantin, driving and he squeezed her hand, and Esther "felt happier than [she] had been since [she] was about nine and running along the hot white beaches with [her] father the summer before he died" (BJ 7).
Esther then sinks deep into what she cannot do in spite of achieving so much. She cannot cook, did not know shorthand, could not dance, carry a tune, had no sense of balance and could not ski or ride a horse. The list continues, but you get the idea. In one of the best metaphors in the novel, she compares her life to a fig tree she read about in a story ("The Fugue of the Fig Tree" by Stanley Sultan published in The Best American Short Stories 1953, ed. Martha Foley, Houghton Mifflin, 1953). There are so many choices in life, and for Esther, choosing one meant losing all the others. This was terrible. She "saw [her]self sitting there in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because [she] couldn't make up [her] mind which of the figs [she] would choose" (BJ 7).
Esther learns about Buddy's summer affair and thinks she should try to even the score. She was going to let Constantin seduce her, but in the end, they simply fell asleep. It was the first time Esther had fallen asleep next to a man. Buddy had taken Esther to the hospital (Boston Lying-In Hospital) to see a live birth and they had attended lectures on diseases such as sickle-cell anemia. Buddy went to Smith to have a date with the quirky Joan, and invited Esther to the Yale Junior Prom, a date which changed her status in the residence house she was living.
In Chapter 6 Buddy shows 'himself' to Esther. In a funny scene Buddy asks "Esther, have you ever seen a man?" (BJ 6) Followed by "Well, don't you think you would like to see me?" (BJ 6) Esther agrees and comments on his nylon fishnet underpants, and then coolly she thinks Buddy's penis looks like "turkey neck and turkey gizzards" and she feels depressed. Buddy asks to 'see' Esther but she opts to pass it on for another time. That is when she asks if Buddy ever had an affair, and when her dreams of a life and future with him became null and void.
Chapter 8: I could tell he was going to say something serious...
We learn about Esther's accident in the Adirondacks in which she ends up with a broken leg. She visits Buddy at a TB sanatorium (Ray Brook, NY) during Christmas; he's fat and quiet. Esther quickly becomes more disappointed in the Willard family finding flaws in everything. Mr. Willard leaves Esther there because he doesn't like the sight of illness. Buddy proudly shows Esther a poem he wrote that had been published and she found it horrible. In another great passage, Esther tells Buddy she's 'neurotic as hell.' Buddy wants to marry Esther when he's released and she tells Buddy she's never getting married. Buddy calls her crazy and she agrees, telling Buddy, "If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then [she's] neurotic as hell. [She'll] be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of [her] days" (BJ 8). Then she breaks her leg.
Chapter 9: ...pretend you are drowning...
Esther continues to break down even more, her sensitivities battered from every angle. She bursts into tears when having her photograph taken for the magazine. (This photograph eventually graced the dust jacket of The Bell Jar; the rose, in particular, is very recognizable.) She doesn't know what best will describe her life's aspiration. In the end, she simply holds a rose, end of the stem in her fingers, the bud out, drooping down. Esther's last night in New York happens in this chapter, and Doreen has arranged a blind date with Marco, the Peruvian woman-hater.
Marco dazzles Esther with a diamond, immediately Esther can sense the doom. Marco says to Esther, "Perhaps I shall perform some small service worthy of a diamond" (BJ 9). Esther is then grabbed on the arm and bruised. Marco and Esther tango, and eventually he attempts to force her into having sex. Plath returns to her hotel and goes to the roof and throws her expensive clothes into the dark dirty New York night, wondering "on what street or rooftop it would come to rest" (BJ 9).
Chapter 10: Plenty of people looked queerer than I did.
The long, dark and sad ride home Esther has on someone else's clothes, a green dirndl skirt and blouse, as she threw all her clothes off the roof. She has a bloodstain on her cheek from Marco's attempted rape. She arrives at her terminus train stop (Route 128 in Westwood, Mass.) and finds her mother there. The bearer of bad news never wins, and Esther's mother has bad news enough! Esther had banked on being admitted to a selective Harvard Summer school course, taught by a famous short story writer. Esther thinks, "I felt it was very important not to be recognized" (BJ 10), as she sees familiar house after house glide passed.
We are now going into Esther's house in Wellesley. Before this scene, we had not been permitted to know many or any details of her home. We learn that there are neighbors walking babies outside her window. We are told that Esther and her mother share a room, with twin beds. Close quarters choke Esther. The kitchen is loud and the car crunches gravel as it goes away. These little things will get to Esther severely. She does not want to admit she is there; it would be the first summer she had spent at home.
Esther spends several pages talking about the Catholic Dodo Conway and her swelling family. Dodo pushes a carriage outside Esther's window as Esther spies. Esther also begins to have sleeping problems; stemming from the failure to make the Harvard class, spending the summer at home and writers block, to name a few. She learns that Buddy is falling in love with a nurse at his TB sanatorium and then realizes that she has no experience in the world on which to write. This pushes the dooming edges of the bell jar tight against the ground.
(In a witty line Esther writes, "I decided to put off the novel until I had gone to Europe and had a lover..." (BJ 10). Plath was writing this novel at the time when her marriage to Ted Hughes was collapsing.)
At the end of Chapter 10 Esther goes to the pharmacist to increase her dosage of sleeping pills. This continues her downward spiral, which goes farther down in Chapters 11, 12 and 13. We are left with Esther being recommended to a psychiatrist.
Chapter 11: Suppose you try and tell me what you think is wrong
Esther hasn't slept now for seven nights and hasn't washed her hair for three weeks. She hadn't changed out of the loaner clothes from New York, the green skirt and white blouse. On Dr. Gordon, Esther writes, "I hated him the minute I walked through the door" (BJ 11). She found Dr. Gordon to be severely deficient in helpful words and gestures. He did not say much and is drawn as a sort of arrogant pig. Esther hides things from Dr. Gordon too, like a letter she had written to Doreen that she had torn to pieces. She didn't trust him to immediately you must expect the worst; Esther will get no better.
Esther's double, Elly Higginbottom from Chicago, makes a brief re-appearance on Boston Common. She meets a sailor boy and creates a completely new identity for herself, the orphan. It is probably how she really does feel. She thinks about moving to Chicago because "people would take me for what I was" (BJ 11).
In a series of three quick scenes we go back to Esther and Dr. Gordon, Esther in the park reading the scandals sheets, and Esther's poor attempt to flee Boston for Chicago. Esther tells Dr. Gordon she feels the same at which point Dr. Gordon speaks to her mother privately and recommends electroshock therapy. Mrs. Greenwood reappears in tears and tells Esther. She sits eating peanuts and reading about suicides in the park and decides then, the day before her first shock treatment, to run away to Chicago. She couldn't hitchhike, as she doesn't know directions. In the end she becomes paranoid about taking money out from the bank because the banks might have heard about her situation and put a block on her account; an absurd thought. She then just takes the next bus back home to where her problems are.
Chapter 12: I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done
Esther enters the private hospital of Dr. Gordon (Valleyhead Hospital, Carlisle, Mass.) with a wise apprehension, almost telling that in the end, she'd not end up like the crazy people already there. She says, "What bothered me was that everything about the house seemed normal, although I knew it must be chock-full of crazy people" (BJ 12). She then walks passed several of the crazies and she calls them "shop dummies."
A nurse leads her into a 'bare room at the back of the house,' and preps her for the treatment, removing her belongings: watch, hairpins, etc. The nurse also greases her temples, all to have her ready for the nightmarish ride of her life. In a very awful scene, only a few paragraphs in length, Esther bits down on the wire. "Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant" (BJ 12). (This scene reminds me of "The Hanging Man", a poem Plath wrote in 1960, about a year before she drafted The Bell Jar.)
Esther feels terrible and is told she would have a few more treatments. She then tells her mother she is not going back to that place for anymore treatments and Mrs. Greenwood, relieved, says, "I knew my baby wasn't like that.... I knew you'd decide to be all right again" (BJ 12).
Esther really starts to crack from this point on in the novel. Her mind will only tolerate the scandal sheets in the daily newspapers; she begins remembering the words of people from the previous weeks that say she'll not amount to anything.
"Doesn't your work interest you, Esther?
You know, Esther, you've got the perfect setup for a true neurotic.
You'll never get anywhere like that, you'll never get anywhere like that, you'll never get anywhere like that."
She even thinks that the "most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow" (BJ 12). She is now more than ready to try suicide. She had nineteen Gillette blades ready to cut wrists open. She had tried to cut herself while preparing for a bath, but she wasted so much time she only practiced by letting the blade fall, on its own force, onto her calf. She watches eagerly for the blood to gather at the point of cut, calling it a "deep thrill."
Chapter 13: I am going for a long walk.
Esther begins Chapter 13 talking about Ibsen's Ghosts, a play where a boy has a brain disease on the count of his father's messing with dirty women. In the end of the play you are left to guess where or not the mother kills the son. She is at the beach (Nahant Beach, Nahant, Mass.) with several friends and she is supposed to be paired with Cal. (Coincidentally, they called Robert Lowell 'Cal.') Esther, being the excellent conversationalist, asks Cal how he would kill himself. Shotgun, he says. This disappoints Esther very much and she decides to swim out to a rock (Egg Rock) jutting out from the sea, a mile or so from the shore. Cal starts out with her, but turns back. And as she is trying to sink & drown herself then and there, her good old heart beats out its wonderful, "I am I am I am" (BJ 13).
In a flashback, now, she talks about reading Freud's book on Abnormal Psychology, & diagnoses herself with all the worst, incurable diseases and resolves that she must die, and soon. She had tried to hang herself that morning but ha nothing to tie the rope around. The next scene has Esther delivering flowers in a maternity ward, taking her mothers sound advice that "the cure for thinking too much about yourself was helping somebody who was worse off than you..." (BJ 13). But this only deflates her more as most of the flowers were dead or drooping.
In a moving final scene before the suicide attempt, Esther thinks about becoming a Catholic in hopes it would rid her of suicidal thoughts & she visits her father's grave for the first time. (Note: this is one of a number of scenes that does not happen chronologically in the life of Sylvia Plath, this visit actually took place in March 1959. See her Journals.) Disappointingly, her father's gravestone was "crowded right up by another gravestone, head to head, the way people are crowded in a charity ward when there isn't enough space. The stone was of a mottled pink marble, like canned salmon, and all there was on it was my father's name and, under it, two dates, separated by a little dash" (BJ 13).
Esther's mother has just driven away (to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II...a rather ironic day & event as it was Queen Elizabeth II who appointed Ted Hughes as Poet Laureate of England thirty-two years later!). She breaks in a box, takes the sleeping pills, makes a glass of water and goes into the basement, having left a note on a blue envelope reading, "I am going for a long walk" (BJ 13). (The real note tells also that she'd return, 'tomorrow.')
The chapter ends with beautiful writing...certainly among Plath's finest prose
"A dim, undersea light filtered through the slits of the cellar windows. Behind the oil burner, a dark gap showed in the wall at about shoulder height and ran back under the breezeway, out of sight. The breezeway had been added to the house after the cellar was dug, and built out over this secret, earth-bottomed crevice.
A few old, rotting fireplace logs blocked the hole mouth. I shoved them back a bit. Then I set the glass of water and the bottle of pills side by side on the flat surface of one of the logs and started to heave myself up.
It took me a good while to heft my body into the gap, but at last, after many tries, I managed it, and crouched at the mouth of the darkness, like a troll.
The earth seemed friendly under my bare feet, but cold. I wondered how long it had been since this particular square of soil had seen the sun.
Then, one after the other, I lugged the heavy, dust-covered logs across the hole mouth. The dark felt thick as velvet. I reached for the glass and bottle, and carefully, on my knees, with bent head, crawled to the farthest wall.
The cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths. Wrapping my black coat round me like my own sweet shadow, I unscrewed the bottle of pills and started taking them swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one.
At first nothing happened, but as I approached the bottom of the bottle, red and blue lights began to flash before my eyes. The bottle slid from my fingers and I lay down.
The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep."
Chapter 14: I tried to kill myself.
Esther wakes in darkness. She feels breeze and the cut her eye would sustain. There are several little scenes here, all dealing with Esther's initial discovery and recovery. Esther wakes and cannot see. A snarky nurse tells her she will meet a nice blind man one day. She endures a series of visitors, mother, brother and then some asylum doctors. She also breaks a mirror and is transferred to another hospital. Esther now meets and speaks to some of the other patients. She is 'inspected' by doctors and tells them she still feels 'lousy.' She tells the doctors that she can't sleep, can't read, can't eat, etc. But the doctors tell her that she has indeed been sleeping and Esther herself realizes that she had "been eating ravenously ever since I came to" (BJ 14).
Esther's mother comes for another visit, and is mocked by another patient. When Esther informs her mother that she is being mocked, Mrs. Greenwood pleads with her daughter to co-operate and try. She also kicks a Negro at dinner for serving two types of beans in the same meal (green string beans & baked beans). The final scene in Chapter 14 is of Esther breaking a thermometer and collecting for herself a tiny ball of mercury. In an elegant passage she talks about the cracking of the ball of mercury..."If I dropped it, it would break into a million little replicas of itself, and if I pushed them near each other, they would fuse, without a crack, into one whole again" (BJ 14). I have no doubt this is a metaphor for her breakdown. Only her breakdown seems more complicated than just being dropped and being able to be put back together again by being pushed.
Chapter 15: I thought if Doctor Nolan smoked, she might stay longer.
Esther's benefactress, famous novelist Philomena Guinea (in real life Olive Higgins-Prouty, author of Stella Dallas and other novels), is moving Esther to a private hospital (McLean Hospital, Belmont, Mass.). In a reference to the bell jar she was under, Esther talks about her gratitude for the extra help. She says, "....wherever I sat--on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok--I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air" (BJ 15). As she arrived at this new hospital, Caplan, she would have her own room and more importantly, a female doctor. This immediately affects Esther positively as any male would have reminded her of Dr. Gordon and his poorly administered electro-shock treatments. She is introduced to several staff, they make small conversation about the Pilgrims and the Indians who once lived in the area, and she's taken to her room. Esther takes a walk around the building and isn't stopped, and this freedom and trust also affects her for the better. Ester's treatment has begun and she receives injections in her bum three times daily. She meets two patients, the silent Ms Norris and the lobotomized Valerie. At the end of the chapter Esther moves to the sunnier front of the building (in real life, North Belknap House) and also meets her double (of some sort) Joan Gilling.
Chapter 16: That afternoon my mother had come to visit me.
Esther tells us a description of Joan's room..."its closet and bureau and table and chair and white blanket with the big blue C on it, was a mirror image of my own" (BJ 16) (italics mine). Joan had read about Esther's disappearance and recovery and had decided to go to New York to kill herself. Joan also tells about her breakdown, about foot problems, wearing a fur coat in August, etc. Joan presents to Esther all the newspaper clippings and lets her keep them. Captions read, "SCHOLARSHIP GIRL MISSING. MOTHER WORRIED," and "SLEEPING PILLS FEARED MISSING WITH GIRL," and "GIRL FOUND ALIVE!" There were photographs and interviews and rewards announced as well. Esther also has a 'reaction,' in this chapter. When asked about the reaction, Esther tells us she feels, "Funny. Sort of light and airy" (BJ 16). To which the nurse replies, "You'll be better now. You'll be better in no time" (BJ 16). Esther's mother has made another visit as it was Esther's birthday. A very horrible portrait is painted of Esther's mother in this chapter and we are told of Esther's hatred. But Dr. Nolan tells Esther in a triumphant scene that she is not going to have any more visitors for some time. In another great dialogue Esther tells Dr. Nolan that she does "hate her." Dr. Nolan responds not with disagreement, but with "I suppose you do" (BJ 16).
Chapter 17: Of course, you're well enough.
Esther moves to Belsize, and Belsize "was the best house of all. From Belsize people went back to work and back to school and back to their homes" (BJ 17). Not only did Esther not think she was ready, but Joan would be at Belsize. Joan had been moved there and had been given permission to study physics & psychology. In a jealous paragraph, Esther tells of the privileges Joan has: "Joan had shopping privileges, Joan had town privileges. I gathered all my news of Joan into a little, bitter heap...Joan was the beaming double of my old best self, specially designed to follow and torment me" (BJ 17).
This is particularly telling in both Esther and Sylvia Plath. Prominent in many of Plath's poems and short stories is the double, the mirror. Whilst at Smith College, after the bell jar summer of 1953, Plath wrote her senior thesis, "The Magic Mirror", on the double in two of Dostoevsky's novels. In a late Ariel poem, 'Contusion,' Plath says, "The mirrors are sheeted." From that viewpoint, there would be an end soon to Plath. In The Bell Jar, the mirror or double is an important theme. Mentioned earlier, there are several doubles in the novel, Esther/Elly, Esther/Joan, Esther/Buddy, Esther/Mrs. Greenwood and even Esther/Esther.
Continuing, Esther was somewhat relieved to think that at Belsize shock treatments were less common. And there was a surefire way to tell if you were getting a shock treatment, you received no breakfast tray in the morning.
The next scene is Esther interacting with several other patients: DeeDee, Joan and Loubelle. They sit around piano and sing songs, and others play bridge. This sort of thing is common at Belsize. In one scene, DeeDee and Joan are convinced that Esther is a girl in one of the fashion magazines. Esther denies it is herself, but it likely was the issue she guest edited earlier in the year.
Esther wakes the next morning and does not receive a breakfast tray. She feels betrayed by Dr. Nolan for not telling her in advance, like she had promised. This is a potential setback to their relationship and to Esther's recovery, but Dr. Nolan does enter the scene and eases Esther into making a sort of peace. Esther still needs convincing though, and Dr. Nolan says, "I'm going over with you. I'll be there the whole time, so everything will happen right, the way I promised. I'll be there when you wake up, and I'll bring you back again" (BJ 17).
Chapter 18: The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head.
The chapter begins as Esther wakes from a deep sleep. Dr. Nolan immediately comes into her vision and Esther agrees that it felt the way she was told it would feel, and that she would be given treatment three times a week, depending on "you and me" (BJ 18). From this point on Esther improves rapidly and begins to notice the differences between herself and Joan, and other such doubles. Joan has received a letter from Buddy. Esther has as well. Buddy wants to visit and Joan will let him, hoping he will bring his mother. Joan dated Buddy for a while but confesses that she never really liked him, that she found Buddy's mother to be wonderful.
Esther then tells of walking into a DeeDee's room and finding Joan and DeeDee in bed together. Esther continues to meditate on Joan though,
"I looked at Joan. In spite of the creepy feeling, and in spite of my old, ingrained dislike, Joan fascinated me. It was like watching a Martian, or a particularly warty toad. Her thoughts were not my thoughts, nor her feelings my feelings, but we were close enough so that her thoughts and feelings seemed a wry, black image of my own.
"Sometimes I wondered if I had made Joan up. Other times I wondered if she would pop in at every crisis in my life to remind me of what I had been, and what I had been through, and carry on her own separate but similar crisis under my nose" (BJ 18).
Later that day she talks to Dr. Nolan about it and questions what a woman sees in another woman that cannot be found in a man. Dr. Nolan replies with, "Tenderness."
Esther now has privileges to go about town, and in the first scene we are shown, is going to be fitted for a diaphragm. She was using some money that her benefactress had sent to her, as an encouragement to get well. Esther tells us that she is buying her freedom. Esther fears pregnancy, she tells Dr. Nolan, and being under the weight of the world (and a host of other 1950s womanly concerns) where a man has no exterior worries. Dr. Nolan helps Esther by asking, "Would you act differently if you didn't have to worry about a baby?" (BJ 18) After the fitting, Esther 'grew easy,' and also concedes, "I was my own woman. The next step was to find the proper sort of man" (BJ 18).
Chapter 19: Sometimes it hurts
Joan is allowed to live away now, with a nurse. She is planning on becoming a psychiatrist. This makes Esther rage with envy. She is to live in Cambridge and asks Esther to come and visit, but thinks it is not likely.
Esther loses her virginity to a man called Irwin. She met him on the steps of the Widener Library at Harvard University. (This is another event that happened later in Plath's life. Events involving Irwin took place in the summer of 1954. Nancy Hunter-Steiner wrote about it in her memoir A Closer Look at Ariel.) She is convinced to have a cup of coffee in spite of the curfew she was given on her town privilege. She ends up calling the hospital to say she'll be staying the night with Joan, since she was in Cambridge anyway. She had previously tried to seduce Constantin and was nearly raped by Marco. With Irwin though, she was out to practice her "new, normal personality."
Irwin was a professor of Mathematics at Harvard and he looked young and boyish. They are at his apartment when a 'bosomy Slavic' lady knocks at his door. This seems to have no effect on Esther's decision to seduce Irwin. She is positive Irwin will be the one when Irwin admits, "I seem to get on with the ladies" (BJ 19). A truly humorous line. It is Esther's dream come true as she wants an intelligent person who is also experienced, whom she also does not know and would not, after the event, continue to know. She tells Irwin she is a virgin but he doesn't believe her until we are told of the "sharp, startlingly bad pain."
After intercourse, Irwin takes a shower and while Esther is on the bed, bleeding badly. She is dropped off at Joan's, still bleeding. She tells Joan she is hemorrhaging, then after calling several doctors with no help found, she is taken to a hospital. It is probably the most humorous scene in the book. It's a quite serious scene, but Esther makes light of it.
A short time has passed since the hospital scene. Joan has readmitted herself into Belsize after the ordeal. Esther is roused by a knock at the door, and Joan's doctor is wondering is Esther knew where Joan was as it was well passed curfew. No one knows where she is, neither family nor friend. In the following morning, Joan is discovered in the woods, dead. She had hanged herself.
Chapter 20: A bad dream. I remembered everything.
Snow...a snow that metaphorically covers up past traumas. But not necessarily all of them, as Esther tells us. Mrs. Greenwood says, "We'll take up where we left off, Esther. We'll act as if all this were a bad dream." But Esther has some stunning words for her mother and the reader.
"A bad dream.
"To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.
"A bad dream.
"I remembered everything.
"I remembered the cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig tree and Marco's diamond and the sailor on the Common..." (BJ 20)
Esther sums her experience up for us, and poetically accepts the events of her life and the events in this novel as her landscape.
Buddy comes to see Esther. They dig his mother's car out of a snow drift and then talk serious. Buddy asks, in a wonderfully phrased sentence, "Do you think there's something in me that drives women crazy?" (BJ 20) First Esther, then Joan. Esther tells him no.
Dr. Nolan assures Esther that Joan's suicide was completely Joan's doing, and that Esther should feel no blame/responsibility.
Esther next talks with Valerie and informs the readers she is preparing for an interview to be released and allowed back at school. In another scene with Buddy, he proves his tact and asks Esther, "I wonder who you'll marry now, Esther. Now that you've been here" (BJ 20).
Esther finishes up the affair with Irwin by demanding he pay the hospital bill for the emergency treatment. He agrees and asks when he will see her again. She says firmly 'Never' and hangs up the phone. Irwin's voice had meant nothing to her, she feels free.
At Joan's funeral Esther takes a deep breath and listens "to the old brag of my heart." The "I am, I am, I am." She questions rightfully, "...I wondered what I thought I was burying" (BJ 20).
And finally the book ends with Esther walking into the boardroom with the doctors and necessary people. She recognizes some people and thinks she recognizes some eyes that she might have seen peering out of masks.
The Bell Jar is copyrighted to Faber & Faber (UK) & HarperCollins (US)