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The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

Chapters 19–20

Chapters 17–18

Important Quotations Explained

Summary: Chapter 19

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. She wants to sleep with an “impersonal, priestlike official, as in the tales of tribal rites.” 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. She worries, but Irwin reassures her, and she remembers stories about virgins bleeding on their wedding night. 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. Joan does not suspect the real story, and takes her to the hospital emergency room in a taxicab. 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. Esther does not know where she is. She wakes the next morning to the news that Joan hanged herself in the woods.

Summary: Chapter 20

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Esther anticipates her return to college in a week. It is snowing, and she thinks of the familiar college landscape that awaits her. Her mother has told her that they will “take up where [they] left off” and act as if Esther’s bout with madness has been a bad dream. Esther knows she will not be able to forget what she has gone through. Buddy comes to visit, and Esther helps him dig his car out of the snow. He seems less physically and emotionally self-confident. He asks Esther if she thinks he contributed to her or Joan’s madness. Esther thinks of Dr. Nolan’s reassurance that no one is to blame for Joan’s death, least of all Esther. 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.

Analysis: Chapters 19–20

Esther finally loses her virginity, and it is not the transformation she expects. Still, the experience pleases her in some ways. Esther feels relieved to relinquish her virginity and its attendant worries; she describes her virginity as “a millstone around my neck.” Furthermore, she exercises control by choosing a man who meets her criteria of intelligence and anonymity. These criteria are not conventional. Esther wants not a relationship, but a ritualistic, formal, impersonal first sexual experience. Irwin’s involvement with Olga and his admission that he enjoys many women does not dissuade Esther but encourages her, because it suggests Irwin has the kind of experience she needs to offset her own ignorance of sex.

Esther’s mental health seems greatly improved in these final chapters. 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. She also demonstrates the maturity and strength that are the rewards of surviving such a harrowing experience. When Buddy visits, his selfish, thoughtless immaturity contrasts with her cool strength. Like someone much older, Esther assures Buddy that she is fine, and generously soothes his fears that he causes women to go mad.

Joan’s death elicits quiet reflection in Esther. This quiet suggests Esther’s unconventional way of expressing herself. It also suggests that, although Esther does not particularly like Joan, Esther and Joan are two parts of a whole. Esther does not think of Joan as her friend. As she says in Chapter 18, Joan fascinates and disgusts her, for “her thoughts and feelings seemed a wry, black image of [Esther’s] own.” 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?”

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