The first sentence of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar alerts the reader to the conflicts that will be dealt with in this semi-autobiographical novel: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York." The speaker will tell us in the next few sentences that she is "stupid" and that she feels "sick," and that she is preoccupied with death. Like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, this young, college age, girl-woman is experiencing an adolescent crisis.
Summer is usually thought of as being a happy, fun time for students. It is a time of vacation from studies, a time to travel and relax, have fun with friends. Sometimes students work, but even that is a short-term commitment, and thus more relaxed. The speaker of The Bell Jar has gone to New York City for a month, and she will relate her varied "fun" experiences to us, but she is not happy. She works, too, but not with any pleasure. Indeed, she is confused and is in conflict with all aspects of her life.
When Esther Greenwood tells us in the first sentence that this is "the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs," we get a picture not only of that summer's being nauseating, sultry, and death-oriented, but that this young girl's attitudes and life experiences are also this way. She is not a happy, carefree coed off for a summer fling, even if it appears that way. She is about to have a major nervous breakdown.
Esther Greenwood is steeped in the "mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons"; her New York world is filled with images of cadavers. For example, she says, "I knew something was wrong with me that summer" and then proceeds to tell us about how she skips the social events that she is supposed to attend, how she is called into her editor's office, and how she and her friends get violently sick from tainted food. In between her account of her job, which she "won" through a fashion magazine contest, she recounts her past and her recent college experiences. She goes into detail about her reactions to her chemistry classes, which she calls "death," and how she schemed so that she did not have to take chemistry for credit. She also tells us that her boyfriend, Buddy Willard, a pre-med student, showed her a cadaver.
She also gives us glimpses of her future; we hear, for instance that "last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with." (The case was one of the free gifts that Esther "won" with her job.) So we realize, even in Chapter 1, that Esther, the bright, clever, all-American successful girl, so immersed in death and despair, does survive her college years to go on to a life that includes a baby.
The task given to the reader is to try to figure out why Esther is so filled with conflict, so alienated. She herself says, "I was supposed to be having the time of my life." So why is she so miserable with her success? Why does she feel the need to invent another name for herself, "Elly Higginbottom"? Why does she try to be pals with Doreen? (Doreen is a glamor girl much like the wealthy Katy Gibbs girls who live at the Amazon hotel where Esther is staying.) Why does Esther avoid her magazine work if she really does like her boss, Jay Cee? Does Esther really want to be a writer? What does Esther want from life? How does she really feel about herself and her world? Does she perceive reality correctly? What kind of change is she going through?
The reader should pay close attention to the images that Esther gives us of New York; they clearly reveal that something is wrong. When Doreen and Esther find themselves in a cab in a traffic jam, they allow themselves to be picked up by a man (Lenny) in a blue lumber shirt and his short runty friend; we feel sure that other things are probably going to go wrong too. At Lenny's place, Esther starts to feel increasingly withdrawn and unattractive. Sexy Doreen is having a great time, so Esther leaves by half-sliding down a banister, and then she decides to walk back to the Amazon Hotel by following her street map. In her room, she is depressed by the silence and her bedside telephone that does not ring. She takes a long "dissolving" bath and goes to bed. When the night maid helps the drunk Doreen to her door, Esther decides that it's best to leave her on the carpet. Doreen vomits, and Esther vows to be loyal to "Betsy and her innocent friends." In the morning Doreen is gone, and the hall is empty.
If Doreen is the slinky, glamorous southern girl, whose college is very fashion conscious (the girls have pocketbook covers made to match all their dresses), Betsy is the import from Kansas who innocently tells a producer about male and female corn. Ironically, it is Betsy who has her hair cut and is made into a cover girl. She and Doreen appear headed for different kinds of success, one coming from innocence and work, the other from using her beauty to trap men, like Lenny, the disc jockey with the white bearskin rug and the apartment filled with Indian rugs. Esther/Elly represents the New England "Yankee" girl, one with extraordinary perceptions. She is also the only girl of the lot who does not seem able to fit into a glamorous role. The other girls fit some "image," but Esther, because of the insights that she is sharing with the reader, slips in and out of an ugly duckling state. She tells us she is five-foot-ten, but we never see her as a tall, attractive or sensitive contest winner because she seems to feel she is deficient — when compared to Doreen and Betsy.
Esther says that she likes "looking on at other people in crucial situations." Is she creating a crucial situation, in part, for herself so she can examine it? Or is it that since she has been "studying and reading and writing and working like mad" all her life, she doesn't know how to accept a sociable, much less a fashionable role? The successful Jay Cee tries to encourage Esther to follow her as a role model because the homely but competent editor knows all the "quality writers"; she tells Esther to "learn French and German and probably several other languages." This reminds Esther of her dilemma with physics and chemistry, and after that story, the reader wonders if Esther really does "love school." Perhaps she secretly wants to be sexy like Doreen — or perhaps naively innocent like Betsy.
At the Ladies' Day banquet, Esther gorges on caviar and chicken slices, avocado and crabmeat salad. We realize here that she does not have "perfect manners" because she tells about the time when she drank from the fingerbowl at her patron's, Mrs. Guinea's, luncheon. Here, where she gorges on caviar, she does so because her grandfather, who works for a country club, has introduced her to caviar and has given her a taste for expensive things. But if Esther seems to think that she knows how to please herself at free banquets, she does not know how to navigate the other areas of high life in New York. And when she becomes almost deathly ill from food poisoning, she does not understand what has happened. We feel full of anxiety about her ambivalence and conflicts, and we wonder if it is the food or her insights that cause Esther to be sick. Since she and Betsy become ill at a Technicolor, football-romance movie, the reader suspects that their illness might be caused by an over-indulgence in not only crabmeat, but in New York life itself.
Thus, Chapter 4 ends with Esther's surviving a serious sickness from which she feels a certain purification. And there are some positive aspects. Esther receives many presents from the magazine, and her appetite returns as soon as Doreen visits her. "I'm starving," Esther says. Indeed, Esther is starved, but she is starved for more than just food. She lacks love, good parental guidance, affection, a meaningful friendship, and a clear sense of direction for her life. At times, she spitefully blames others for her unhappiness or points to the inadequacies and hypocrisies of the 1950s. At other times, Esther, like a Dostoevskian character, blames her own dark, perverse tendencies. She is also, it seems, starved for answers. She does not know why she feels the way she does, and at times, she does not really know how she feels. Basically, Esther is at war with herself; nature pulls her one way, and her social training pulls her another, and her unusual and perceptive insights pull her yet another way. The New York world of whirlwind fashion events and professional engagements is clearly a shock, especially for a studious girl who arrives fresh from her sheltered New England existence. No wonder Esther so easily succumbs to the poisoned city crabmeat.
Our central image of Esther, at this point, is of a starved girl. She is starved physically because of the results of food poisoning, but, more important, she has been starved psychologically from the beginning of the book. On one hand, she takes in everything about the city, all its myriad images, all its smells, sounds, and sights. But none of this nourishes her. The subway's mouth is "fusty, peanut-smelling"; the "goggle-eyed headlines" stare at her; and the "granite canyons" are "mirage-gray." Esther feels as if she is carrying around a cadaver's head. She concludes that something is wrong with her, but the reader also wonders if there is not something wrong with Esther's world. Is not the city, with all its clamor and excitement, its pollutions and stimulations, a major part of Esther's problem? Esther cannot take all this in, cannot find nourishment and refreshment, so her mind's reaction is to look harder, to try to take in more, to strain to examine all of the new images and evidence. But Esther is constantly led back to death. The city means death to her, a high-tension death like the electrocution of the Rosenbergs. Finally, even Esther's body is poisoned by the city, and she becomes thoroughly sick. In her attempt to recover, she becomes ravenous for chicken soup and other nourishment.
It is at this point, because of her unhappiness with New York, that Esther starts to relate her memories about her romance with Buddy, as well as some of her childhood and college memories, as if to try to figure out how she got to this gray world of Ladies' Day magazine, in a summer that was supposed to be a high point in her life.
One of the keys to these first chapters, to Esther's character, and perhaps even to her mental problems is the fashion theme. Fashion is everything — how a person "looks" is extremely important. Certainly the girls who work for the magazine are programmed into the newest colors and styles. They are to be the example for millions of college girls. They are to dress correctly and be photographed as "endorsing" that "certain look" to all the young, wealthy "in" college girls.
Being in fashion and looking good, dressing correctly and stylishly, are synonymous with success. This is the year that black patent leather is in style. Is it no wonder that even the fashion fun of New York City cannot make Esther forget the Rosenbergs and her own thoughts of death?
Thus, Esther starts to wear more black, more than just her black shoes and black purse. She dresses in a black shantung sheath dress for fancy occasions. In contrast, Doreen, who is smart and cynical, and whose comments at Ladies' Day functions keep Esther from being bored, wears white and lots of frothy silk lingerie. Yet even Doreen's white lace dress does not make her look innocent and pure. Esther sees Doreen as "dusky as a bleached-blonde Negress." Betsy, on the other hand, Esther's other friend on the magazine staff, the girl who is called Pollyanna Cowgirl by Doreen, is quite genuinely innocent in her Midwestern ways. She is not sophisticated enough, as the southern Doreen and the New England Esther, to really understand what is happening that summer, but the magazine's beauty editor makes a cover girl out of Betsy, and Betsy keeps on smiling her "Sweetheart of Sigma Chi smile."
Esther vacillates between wanting to be cynical like Doreen and innocent like Betsy. In some ways, Esther is like both girls, and this shows us how divided she is. It is perhaps this tendency toward a split personality that gives Esther part of her mental problems.
In addition, Esther keeps lying about things. She lies about who she is; she calls herself Elly Higgenbottom. We ask ourselves: why does Esther allow herself to be in situations in which she does not even want to admit her true identity? She seems to want these fast life experiences, such as going to the disc jockey's apartment, but she doesn't want anyone to know about it, especially these apparently contemptible New Yorkers. She worries about her manners and how she appears, yet at the Ladies' Day luncheon she kids herself that her gluttony in eating all the caviar is all right — and has to remind herself of the poet whom she met who ate his salad with his fingers and was so poised at it that it seemed the right thing to do.
Esther is plagued by the idea of doing the right thing, but she constantly wants to act otherwise. When Jay Cee calls her and tries to advise her and give her some help, however limited, Esther's response is that Jay Cee said terrible things to her. Her guilt about following the right forms even impedes her judgment. And then she has to confess and tell us how she got her chemistry credit in college from poor Mr. Manzi by fraudulent means. Finally, she and Betsy end up vomiting in the back of a taxicab, after the luncheon and the movie. This is certainly a horrible way for a fashion-conscious young girl, guilt-ridden by social manners, to behave.
Yet only two chapters earlier, when she escaped from an almost equally terrible scene in Lenny's apartment, she found her own silence depressing — just as she does now. It is Esther's inability to communicate — even with herself — that leads to these terrible scenes. And when Doreen gets drunk and lies sick outside her door, Esther just leaves her there. She is not even able to help her friend. She is seemingly devoid of human caring. But then, we cannot expect starving people, weak as they are, to be able to summon up human kindness and help others. Often, such people cannot even help themselves.