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.
More characters from The Bell Jar