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The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

Chapters 7–8

Chapters 5–6

Chapters 9–10

Summary: Chapter 7

I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t. . . . I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.

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Constantin picks up Esther and drives her to the UN in his convertible. They discover that neither likes Mrs. Willard. Esther finds Constantin attractive even though he is too short for her, and when he holds her hand she feels happier than she has since she was nine and ran on the beach with her father the summer before his death. While at the UN, Esther thinks it odd that she never before realized that she was only happy until the age of nine. The skills of the interpreters impress Esther, and she thinks about all of the things she cannot do: cook, write in shorthand, dance, sing, ride a horse, ski, or speak foreign languages. She feels that the one thing she is good at, winning scholarships, will end once college is over. She sees her life as a fig tree. The figs represent different life choices—a husband and children, a poet, a professor, an editor, a traveler—but she wants all of them and cannot choose, so the figs rot and drop off the tree uneaten.

Constantin takes Esther to dinner, and she feels better right away, wondering if her fig tree vision came from her empty stomach. The meal is so pleasant that she decides to let Constantin seduce her. Esther has decided she should sleep with someone so that she can get even with Buddy. She recalls a boy named Eric with whom she once discussed having sex. He lost his virginity to a prostitute and was bored and repulsed by the experience. He decided that he would never sleep with a woman he loved, because sex strikes him as animalistic. Esther thought he might be a good person to have sex with because he seemed sensible, but he wrote to tell her he had feelings for her. Because of his views on sex, she knew this confession meant he would never sleep with her, so she wrote to tell him she was engaged.

Constantin invites Esther to come to his apartment and listen to music, and she hopes, as her mother would say, that this invitation “could mean only one thing.” She remembers an article her mother sent her listing all of the reasons that a woman should save sex for marriage. She decides that virginity is impractical, because even someone as clean-cut as Buddy is not a virgin, and she rejects a double sexual standard for men and women. To Esther’s disappointment, Constantin only holds her hand. Sleepy with wine, she lays down in his bed. He joins her, but the two merely sleep. She wakes, disoriented, at three in the morning and watches Constantin sleep, thinking about what it would be like to be married. She decides marriage consists of washing and cleaning, and that it would endanger her ambitions. She remembers Buddy telling her “in a sinister, knowing way” that she will not want to write poems once she has children, and she worries that marriage brainwashes women. Constantin wakes and drives her home.

Summary: Chapter 8

Esther remembers Mr. Willard driving her to visit Buddy in the sanatorium. He stopped along the way and told her that he would like to have her for a daughter. Esther began to cry, and Mr. Willard misinterpreted her tears as tears of joy. To Esther’s dismay, Mr. Willard left her alone with Buddy. Buddy had gained weight in the sanatorium. He showed Esther a poem he had published in an esoteric magazine. She thought the poem was awful, although she expressed neutrality. Buddy proposed by saying, “How would you like to be Mrs. Buddy Willard?” Esther told him she would never marry. Buddy laughed at this notion. Esther reminded him that he accused her of being neurotic because she wanted mutually exclusive things, and said she will always want mutually exclusive things. He said he wanted to be with her.

Buddy decided to teach Esther to ski. He borrowed equipment for her from various people. Esther took the rope tow to the top of the mountain and Buddy stood at the bottom beckoning to her to ski down. At first she felt terrified, but then it occurred to her that she might kill herself. She skied straight down at top speed, utterly happy. She felt she was skiing into the past. But suddenly she fell, her mouth filled with ice, and the ordinary world returned. She wanted to ski down the mountain again, but Buddy told her, with strange satisfaction, that she had broken her leg in two places.

Analysis: Chapters 7–8

At the UN, Esther begins to doubt her own worth for the first time. Her identity depends on her success in school. She knows herself, and the world knows her, as the brilliant student who wins piles of scholarships. The end of college looms in the near future, and with it the end of scholarships and prizes, and Esther fears the end of college will erase her identity and success. She feels “like a racehorse without racetracks.” Her insecurity mounts when she visualizes her life as a fig tree, using imagery that makes her conundrum clear: she feels she can choose only one profession, only one life, to the exclusion of all others. She cannot decide to be a mother and a professor, or a wife and a poet. Esther feels enormous pressure from her family and friends to marry and have children, but she also longs to become a poet, so she feels paralyzed with indecision.

The article that Esther’s mother sends her reinforces the message she receives from Mrs. Willard and Buddy: women and men have fundamentally different needs and natures, and a woman must discipline her behavior in anticipation of pleasing her future husband. The article also reinforces a sexual double standard: while it is crucial to a woman’s happiness to stay “pure” until marriage, purity is optional for men. Esther rejects this double standard, explaining, “I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.”

Esther’s conversation with Eric adds a further dimension to the picture of the limiting sexual conventions of her time. Eric, a kind and sensible person, believes that women can be divided into two categories: virgins and whores. He thinks that sex is dirty, something that reduces women to animals, and that nice girls should remain untainted by nasty sexual experience. These categories do not work for Esther, who feels she can have sex without turning herself into an immoral animal. Though she does not explicitly reject Eric’s categories, she implicitly seeks a sexual life that will allow her to be adventurous but also to maintain her dignity and sense of self. Her quest to lose her virginity embodies these goals, though it is marked by some confusion. Esther believes that losing her virginity will transform her, because her culture continually sends the message that an immense gap exists between virginity and sexual experience. Plath also suggests that Esther feels comfortable trying to lose her virginity to Constantin partly because he makes her feel happy as her father did. When Constantin holds her hand, the platonic gesture reminds her of her father, and she begins to feel comfortable with him.

Remembering her skiing experience, Esther implies that she liked the thought of killing herself. When she considered that the trip down the mountain might kill her, the thought “formed in [her] mind coolly as a tree or a flower.” She understood her plunge down the mountain not as a relinquishment of control, but as an exercise of control. She aimed past the people and things of the ordinary world toward the white sun, “the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly.” Moving toward death made Esther happy, and she became distressed only when the ordinary world began reforming itself in her perception. She understands her near-death experience as a rite of purification rather than as self-injury.

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