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The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

Chapters 9–10

Chapters 7–8

Chapters 11–12

Summary: Chapter 9

The day of the Rosenbergs’ execution, Esther speaks with Hilda, another guest editor, who is glad the Rosenbergs will die. In a photo shoot for the magazine, Esther holds a paper rose meant to represent the inspiration for her poems. When the photographer commands her to smile, she begins to sob uncontrollably. She is left alone to cry, and then Jay Cee brings her some stories to read and critique. Esther fantasizes that one day Jay Cee will accept a manuscript, only to find out it is a story of Esther’s.

On Esther’s last night in New York, Doreen persuades her to come to a country club dance with Lenny and a blind date, a friend of Lenny’s. As they talk, Esther looks around her room at the expensive clothes she bought but could never bring herself to wear. She tells Doreen she cannot face the clothes, and Doreen balls them up and stuffs them under the bed. When the girls arrive for the dance, Esther immediately identifies her date, a Peruvian named Marco, as a “woman-hater.” When she first meets him, he gives her a diamond pin that she admires, and tells her he will perform something worthy of a diamond. As he speaks, he grips her arm so hard that he leaves four bruises. At the country club, Esther does not want to dance, but Marco tosses her drink into a plant and forces her to tango. He tells her to pretend she is drowning, and Esther drapes herself against him and thinks, “It doesn’t take two to dance, it only takes one.” Marco takes her outside, and Esther asks him whom he loves. He tells her that he is in love with his cousin, but she is going to be a nun. Angered, he pushes Esther into the mud and climbs on top of her, ripping off her dress. She tells herself that if she just lies there and does nothing, “it” will happen. After he calls her a slut, however, she begins to fight him. When she punches him in the nose, Marco relents. He is about to let her leave when he remembers his diamond. He smears Esther’s cheeks with the blood from his nose, but she refuses to tell him where the diamond is until he threatens to break her neck if she does not tell him. She leaves him searching in the mud for her purse and his diamond. Esther cannot find Doreen, but manages to find a ride home to Manhattan. She climbs to the roof of her hotel, perches precariously on its edge, and throws her entire wardrobe off the roof, piece by piece.

Summary: Chapter 10

Esther takes the train back to Massachusetts, wearing Betsy’s clothes and still streaked in Marco’s blood because she thinks it looks “touching, and rather spectacular.” Her mother meets her at the train, and tells her she did not get into the writing course she planned on taking. The prospect of a summer in the suburbs distresses Esther. She thinks about her neighbors: Mrs. Ockenden, a nosy woman she dislikes, and Dodo Conway, a Catholic woman with six children and a seventh on the way. Mrs. Conway has a messy house and feeds her children junk food, and everyone loves her. Esther’s friend Jody calls, and Esther tells her she will not be living with her in Cambridge, as planned, because she has been rejected from her writing course. Jody tells her to come anyway and take another course. Esther considers going to Cambridge, but hears a “hollow voice,” her own, tell Jody she will not come. She opens a letter from Buddy, which says he thinks he is falling in love with a nurse, but if Esther comes with his mother to visit him in July, she may win back his affections. Esther crosses out his letter, writes on the opposite side that she is engaged to a simultaneous interpreter and never wants to see Buddy again, and mails the letter back to Buddy.

Esther decides to write a novel, but as she begins to type she becomes frustrated by her lack of life experiences. She agrees to let her mother teach her shorthand, but realizes that she does not want a job that requires shorthand. Lying in bed unable to sleep, she considers using the summer to write her thesis, put off college, or go to Germany. She discards all of these plans as soon as she thinks of them. Her mother, who sleeps in the same room with Esther, begins to snore, and Esther thinks of strangling her. The next day she tries to read Finnegans Wake, but the words seem to slide and dance all over the page. She considers leaving her school and going to a city college, but rejects this idea. When she asks the family doctor, Teresa, for more sleeping pills, Teresa refers her to a psychiatrist.

Analysis: Chapters 9–10

In these chapters, Esther’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and her perspective on the world increasingly skewed. Until this point, Esther has been an unconventional but fairly normal young woman: cynical, and sometimes rebellious about the conventions of society, but also eager to behave normally, and guilty about feelings she views as abnormal or ungrateful. Now, however, Esther’s healthy skepticism about the absurdities of her world becomes an inability to see the world as real, and she begins to disregard -society’s expectations.

With Esther’s slipping grasp on reality comes an inability to protect herself from danger. Marco bruises her arm within moments of meeting her, speaks to her threateningly, and rips her drink away from her, but she does not detach herself from this clearly dangerous man. She does not grasp that she is taking a risk by putting herself in the hands of this man, instead musing calmly on Marco’s likeness to a snake she remembers from the Bronx Zoo. When he throws her to the ground and rips her dress off, initially she seems to consider letting the rape occur, although eventually she reacts. When she returns to the hotel and throws her clothes off the roof, she forgets the practical consideration that she will need something to wear the next day. She throws away the expensive clothes as if throwing away the unhappy remnants of the dream job she ended up despising. While the symbolic gesture is apt, for Esther symbolism has filled the screen, leaving little room for the demands of reality.

Esther begins to disregard people’s opinions of her. She wears Marco’s blood on the train home to the suburbs as if it is a medal of honor, and cannot understand why people look at her with curiosity. At home, she does not bother to get dressed, and she has trouble sleeping. She starts to feel detached from herself, as evidenced by the fact that she listens with surprise to her own voice telling Jody she will not come to Cambridge. Her uncertainty about her future, understandably intensified after her rejection from the writing class, begins to pummel her. She frantically runs through a list of possible paths, and rejects all of them.

Plath suggests that Esther’s troubles originate in her mind, but are exacerbated by the circumstances surrounding her. Marco attempts to rape Esther, a horror she deals with on her own. She bears her pain and shock silently, which surely intensifies these feelings. She must return from New York City, a city that Esther may have found unpleasant, but that forced her to keep busy and keep the company of girls her age. She must now live in isolation in the suburbs. She does not get into her writing course, a staggering blow because writing and prizes and academic laurels have come to seem like the sole achievements defining Esther’s character. Events and brain chemistry conspire to loosen Esther’s grasp on sanity.

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