Joan declares that she's going to be a psychiatrist, as she and Esther sip apple cider. Their relationship is deteriorating, and Esther is envious because Joan is going to move into an apartment with Nurse Kennedy in Cambridge. Esther is "staying on at the asylum," as Plath insists upon calling the mental institutions described in her book. Esther's doctors don't want her to live with her mother, and she has to wait for the winter term of her college to begin. During their conversation, Esther's mind drifts to her diaphram, which lies in a bottom drawer of her dresser. When Joan asks Esther if she'll come and visit, Esther lies and says, "Of course."
Actually, Esther does go visit Joan, but the visit is not like either of them would have imagined. Esther has met a man named Irwin on the library steps and decides to go to bed with him. He is a professor of mathematics, and thus, Esther reasons, he is intelligent enough to be allowed to have sex with her. In addition, one of his "ladies," as he refers to them, appears on the doorstep while he is entertaining Esther, and she sees that this woman is a sensual Slavic type, so Esther feels that Irwin is sexually qualified for the job too.
Irwin takes Esther to a French restaurant, where she is greedy for butter and wine after the dull institution food that she's been eating. When Irwin seduces her, he is very surprised to discover that Esther is a virgin. The sexual act hurts Esther, but Irwin tells her, "Sometimes it hurts." After he finishes and goes to take a shower, Esther discovers that she is bleeding profusely. To try and stop the bleeding, she wraps towels between her legs and then has Irwin drive her to Joan's apartment.
After making several confused phone calls and not knowing exactly what to do, Joan takes Esther in a taxi to the emergency room of a hospital. There, a doctor declares Esther to be "one in a million," but he assures her that he can "fix" her.
Later, back at the asylum, Dr. Quinn, Joan's psychiatrist, comes to ask Esther if she knows where Joan might be. Esther thinks about how she wants to disassociate herself from Joan, just as she earlier wanted to disassociate herself from Doreen. Esther tells the doctor that Joan should be in her room at Belsize. As it turns out, Joan has hanged herself in the woods, near a frozen pond.
Chapter 20 begins with a description of the hospital and a description of Massachusetts, "sunk in a marble calm." There has been a fresh blanket of snow, and everything looks deceptively clean. In a week, if Esther passes her interview, she will be released from the hospital and will be transported to college in Mrs. Guinea's large black car. Dr. Nolan has tried to be realistic and warn Esther that people may treat her oddly. Mrs. Greenwood has characteristically brushed off the institutionalization as merely "a bad dream." Plath writes, "To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream." And in spite of all her treatments, Esther says that she remembers everything — cadavers, Doreen, the fig tree, Marco's diamond, the sailor, Doctor Gordon's wall-eyed nurse, the thermometers, "the Negro with his two kinds of beans," the extra pounds from insulin, and "the rock that bulged between sky and sea like a gray skull." Esther says that it's all part of her, part of her landscape.
When Buddy Willard comes to visit her, Esther has to shovel his car out of a snowdrift. The sun is starting to come out from behind gray clouds, and we think that Esther may actually be getting well. Buddy reveals his fears to us when he asks Esther if she thinks that he drives women crazy. Since he had also dated Joan, he is worried, but Esther assures him that he had nothing to do with Joan's suicide. He is relieved; he asks Esther with his characteristic insensitivity, who'll marry her now?
In the next scene, Esther calls Irwin to remind him of the emergency room bill that he neglected to pay. When he asks her when she'll see him again, she answers "Never" and hangs up. She says that his voice means nothing to her and now she feels "perfectly free."
We see Esther at Joan's funeral, wondering what she is burying. "I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am."
In the last scene of the book, we see Esther leafing through an old National Geographic magazine, waiting for her interview. She is dressed correctly — in a red wool suit; her stocking seams are straight, but she has on her old, cracked patent leather shoes. She sees the silver-haired doctor who talked to her about pilgrims on her first day there, plus all the other faces, now without their masks. "The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room."
So Esther leaves the mental institution, we assume, although we are never told that for certain. And certainly we never know if she was able to completely leave her bell jar. In fact, the room which she has just stepped into may be only another bell jar. The novel does not end with Esther's stepping into clear, clean air. Nor do we see her emerging with a new set of values for herself. Dr. Nolan has just guided her into another room.
When Esther steps into "the room" for her interview, hoping to be released from the mental hospital, the reader is reminded of Virginia Woolf's idea of "a room of one's own." It is odd that Esther has been studying James Joyce's works, but that Virginia Woolf's novels are never mentioned. Of all the women who might have helped Esther, Woolf is one whom we think of first. Woolf understood all that Esther is faced with, and she wrote brilliantly on so many aspects of being female in modern society, as well as confronting madness.
But more than just a mentor, even the idea of "a room of her own" has not occurred to Esther Greenwood, and we wonder if, indeed, it occurred to Plath. Esther goes from room to room, rooms prepared for her by others, all geared to others' and the world's expectations. And all these places have been inadequate, and they have often been very cold. Esther's mother's house, Esther's father's academic life, her schools, New York City, and Ladies' Day magazine, and the hospitals — these have all been "rooms." Now, at the end of the novel, a board room will judge Esther's mental health.
Esther says that after hanging up on Irwin, she feels "perfectly free." But free of what? Her virginity? Men? Irwin? Her past? Remember that when her mother tells her, again denying any unplesantness in life, that they will put "all this" behind them, Esther knows that all these experiences are part of her, "part of [her] landscape," she calls it. Yet where is the landscape of escape? Where is solace?
Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, has said that the Ariel poems that Plath wrote during the last two years of her life have an authentic voice and reveal "a real self." We cannot doubt this. Even The Bell Jar proves this. But this real self, revealed in the novel as evidence of some very good writing, was written by a woman who never found a real life, who was never able to sustain herself in the real world.
Part of the answer to this tragedy lies in Esther's experiences and observations. She talks about Dr. Quinn, Joan's psychiatrist, as being too abstract. Yet Esther, in characteristic style, having the same defects as those whom she so bitterly criticizes, is certainly very abstract about the big event of her coming to womanhood — the loss of her virginity. She abstractly chooses the man who will go to bed with her — not for emotional reasons, but for made-up, clever, bright-girl reasons. And her desire to never see him again is quite abstract. Why? If Esther's mother wants to treat all experiences as though they were only "bad dreams," Esther also tries to brush aside that which was a mistake, that which she finds distasteful.
Clearly, Esther feels renewed at the end of the novel, for she wishes there were a ritual for being born twice. But she thinks of this in terms of marriage. She is not on new ground yet. Furthermore, in feeling so renewed, she seems to have accepted society's notion that she has been cured. Esther is still so young, so lacking in wisdom, so immersed in abstract ideas. She is still clever, still well-dressed, but not much more prepared for her future than she was at the beginning of the book.