The Bell Jar

by: Sylvia Plath

Chapters 7–8

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.