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The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

Chapters 5–6

Chapters 3–4

Chapters 7–8

Summary: Chapter 5

The morning after her sickness, Esther receives a call from Constantin, a simultaneous interpreter at the United Nations and an acquaintance of Mrs. Willard. Constantin invites Esther to come see the UN and get something to eat. Esther assumes Constantin asked her out as a favor to Mrs. Willard, but she agrees to go nonetheless. Esther thinks about Mrs. Willard’s son, Buddy, who is currently in a sanitarium recovering from tuberculosis. Buddy wants to marry Esther, and Esther thinks about how odd it is that she worshipped Buddy from afar before they met, and now that he wants to marry her she loathes him.

Esther recalls her tipping mishaps: upon her arrival in New York, she failed to tip the bellhop who brought her suitcase to her room, and the first time she rode in a cab, the cabdriver sneered at her ten percent tip. Esther opens the book sent by the Ladies’ Day magazine staff. A cloying get-well card falls out. Esther pages through the books, and finds a story about a fig tree. In the story, a Jewish man and a nun from an adjoining convent meet under a fig tree. One day, as they watch a chick hatch, they touch hands. The next day, the nun does not come out, and in her place comes the kitchen maid. Esther sees parallels between this story and her doomed relationship with Buddy. She thinks about the differences between the two couples: she and Buddy are Unitarian, not Catholic and Jewish, and they saw a baby being born, not a chick hatching.

Esther thinks of Buddy’s recent letters, in which he tells her that he has found poems written by a doctor, which encourages him to think that doctors and writers can get along. This comment marks a change from his old way of thinking: he once told Esther that a poem is “a piece of dust.” At the time, Esther could think of nothing to say in reply, and now she composes sharp speeches she could have made criticizing his work as meaningless, and his cadavers as dust. She thinks that curing people is no better than writing “poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick or couldn’t sleep.” Esther recalls the beginning of her relationship with Buddy. She had a crush on him for years, and one day he dropped by her home and said he might like to see her at college. He stopped at her dorm several months later, explaining that he was on campus to take Joan Gilling to a dance. Angry, Esther said she had a date in a few minutes. Buddy departed, displeased, but left Esther a letter inviting her to the Yale Junior Prom. He treated her like a friend at the prom, but afterward kissed her. She felt little besides eagerness to tell the other girls of her adventure.

Summary: Chapter 6

Esther continues to remember the progression of her relationship with Buddy. She went to visit him at Yale Medical School, and since she had been asking to see interesting sights at the hospital, he showed her cadavers and fetuses in jars, which she viewed calmly. They attended a lecture on diseases, and then went to see a baby being born. Buddy and his friend Will joked that Esther should not watch the birth, or she would never want to have a baby. Buddy told her that the woman had been given a drug, and would not remember her pain. Esther thought the drug sounded exactly like something invented by a man. She hated the idea that the drug tricks the woman into forgetting her pain. The woman had to be cut in order to free the baby, and the sight of the blood and the birth upset Esther, although she said nothing to Buddy.

After the birth, they went to Buddy’s room, where Buddy asked Esther if she had ever seen a naked man. She said no, and he asked if she would like to see him naked. She agreed, and he took off his pants. The sight of him naked made her think of “turkey neck and turkey gizzards,” and she felt depressed. She refused to let him see her naked, and then asked him if he had ever slept with a woman, expecting him to say that he was saving himself for marriage. He confessed to sleeping with a waitress named Gladys at a summer job in Cape Cod. He claimed she seduced him, and admitted that they slept together for ten weeks.

Esther was not bothered by the idea that Buddy slept with someone, but was angry that he hypocritically presented himself as virginal and innocent. Esther asked students at her college what they would think if a boy they had been dating confessed to sleeping with someone, and they said a woman could not be angry unless she were pinned or engaged. When she asked Buddy what his mother thought of the affair, Buddy said he told his mother, “Gladys was free, white, and twenty-one.” Esther decided to break up with Buddy, but just as she had made up her mind, Buddy called her long-distance and told her he had TB. She did not feel sorry but relieved, because she knew she would not have to see him very much. She decided to tell the girls in her dorm that she and Bobby were practically engaged, and they left her alone on Saturday nights, admiring her for studying in order to mask her pain at Buddy’s illness.

Analysis: Chapters 5–6

Society expects Esther, a well-educated middle-class girl, to find a nice, responsible young man and become his loving wife. As Mrs. Willard explains to Buddy, “What a man is is an arrow into the future, and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from.” In her conventional view, a woman must support her husband by creating an attractive and orderly home and by nurturing him and his ambitions. This vision troubles Esther, who has always nurtured ambitions of her own, and has never aspired simply to help a husband. It seems that she cannot have both marriage and a career, and that marrying someone would mean relinquishing her dreams of writing. Failing to marry Buddy would strike most people as lunacy, however. Mrs. Willard and Esther’s mother, grandmother, and classmates see Buddy as an ideal match: he is handsome, intelligent, and ambitious. Esther herself thinks him the ideal man before she gets to know him. But she soon understands Buddy’s limitations. He cares for Esther, but he cannot understand her passion for literature, he patronizes her with his supposedly superior understanding of the world, and, perhaps worst of all, he is boring. Something of a mama’s boy, he seeks a woman who shares his values and does not aspire to anything beyond wifely duties and motherhood.

Buddy separates the pleasures of sex from the pleasures of cozy domesticity. Because he imagines Esther as his future wife, he does not imagine that he could have passionate sex with her. Instead, he removes his clothes in front of her as if their sexual encounters will be a clinical duty. Because he does not associate Esther with sex, he feels only a twinge of guilt at sleeping with Gladys, a passionate girl he does not plan to marry. Examining her own feelings, Esther realizes that she does not object to sex before marriage, but she does object to Buddy’s deception. She hates the fact that he presented himself as pure.

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