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The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

Chapters 3–4

Chapters 1–2

Chapters 5–6

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.

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