1. Look what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can’t afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car. Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.
This quotation, which concludes the first section of Chapter 1, describes the disconnect Esther feels between the way other people view her life and the way she experiences her life. By all external measures, Esther should feel happy and excited. She has overcome her middle-class, small town background with luck, talent, and hard work, and her reward is a glamorous month in New York. Although she recognizes these objective facts, Esther feels uncertain both about her own abilities and about the rewards that these abilities have garnered her. To her own puzzlement, she does not find New York thrilling and romantic. Instead, she finds it dizzying and depressing, and she finds the fashion world she inhabits superficial and disorienting. The feeling of numbness that Esther describes here is the kernel of the madness that will soon overtake her. Eventually, the gap between societal expectations and her own feelings and experiences becomes so large that she feels she can no longer survive.