Summary and Analysis
The sensitive side of Esther is aghast that Hilda, the girl who is extremely fashion conscious, is wearing lots of "bile green"; even this latest fashion color seems to say, "I'm glad they're going to die" — meaning the Rosenbergs. Esther's response to the Rosenbergs' electrocution is quite different from many of the girls' opinions, but she never voices her opinions or argues with others about their conservative or cruel opinions. As with Buddy's comment on his poem being only dust, we see that it has taken Esther years to get the courage even to consider presenting her negative views about her associates.
At the end of the Ladies' Day sojourn, all the girls are to have their pictures taken with something that symbolizes their future. Betsy is having her picture taken with corn to represent her plans to marry a farmer. No one can decide what might best represent Esther's desire to be a poet. Then Jay Cee cuts a rose off her hat, and Esther is posed for her picture; but before it can be taken, she bursts into tears and is left weeping on the pink loveseat in her editor's office.
For the finale of Esther's New York stay, Doreen has arranged a blind date for Esther with an attractive Peruvian. Before the date, Esther is plagued with indecision, especially about her clothes, so Doreen wraps Esther's clothes in a ball and throws them under the bed. The date, a rich suburban dance affair, is a young girl's classic horror date. The suave Marco gives Esther his diamond stickpin at the beginning of the date in a grand romantic gesture. Then he proceeds to order the evening for his liking. So Esther drinks daiquiris, and even though she protests that she really doesn't know how to dance, Marco forcefully sweeps her to the dance floor telling her to "pretend you are drowning." Now she learns why many women love men who are womenhaters, she tells us — from a distance, of course — for this is Esther the adult narrator speaking. The mesmerizing Marco leads Esther outside, where he throws her to the ground and rips her dress down to the waist. She kicks and hits him until he is at bay, and when he demands his stickpin back, she leaves him searching for it in her small bag in the mud. Back at her hotel, she goes onto the roof and throws her newly acquired, expensive clothes off the parapet, one by one, piece by piece. She describes these gray scraps as being like "a loved one's ashes."
On the train home, wearing Betsy's skirt and blouse that she acquired by trading her bathrobe for them, Esther sees herself as a sick Indian with pieces of dried blood on her face. Now, as Esther is becoming more and more depressed, more and more of her life is described as gray. Her suitcase, for example, is gray, filled with two dozen unripe avocados that Doreen has, quite lovingly it seems, given Esther as a farewell present. And when Esther arrives home, she crawls into her mother's gray Chevrolet. This will be Esther's first summer in the suburbs because she failed to get into the writing course she wanted so desperately to be accepted for. She says, "I had nothing to look forward to." The situation seems even bleaker when Esther awakens on her first morning home; it is unclear which of the Greenwood neighbors irritates Esther more — the busybody Mrs. Ockenden who spies on Esther when Mrs. Greenwood is at work, or "the breeder," Dodo Conway, who has six children and is expecting another, "Catholic that she is." "Children make me sick," says Esther.
When Esther's friend Jody calls from Cambridge about the room they might share for summer school, Esther knows that it is wrong to decline, but she is unable to call Jody back and, thus, Esther is stuck in the suburbs — stuck in an atmosphere that is as hateful as New York City was confusing. In her indecision about how to spend the summer, Esther vacillates — thinking that she will write a novel about a girl called Elaine, then deciding to learn shorthand from her mother in the evenings, then deciding to read Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce, and then writing her honors thesis. But, plan after plan is discarded. Esther's mother tries to reason sweetly with her, but to no avail. The shorthand lessons only give Esther a headache. She decides that she can't write a novel because she doesn't have enough experience in life yet.
She wonders if her college career would have been more successful if she had taken a stricter program rather than the liberal, unstructured program which she decided on. She wonders if she should drop out of college and work for a while; note too that she is not sleeping well, and so she gets a new, large prescription of sleeping medication.
The reader can see that Esther is burnt-out, adrift, and ripe for a major nervous breakdown. This girl is ill with indecision; she is swamped with ideas, but she cannot focus on a single idea. She cannot organize herself, or even organize a simple plan of action for her remaining summer weeks. She is drowning in her confusion, and there is no one there to lead her — not even a Fascist-type person like Marco. She has no disciplinarian, absolutely no one, and not a soul who she feels understands her. She has returned Buddy's letter with only a catty scrawled note written in the margin. She is convinced that she has no friends — except her sleeping pills.
If a tissue of lies and disappointments surrounds Esther, then, the one defect in herself that she keeps focusing on is her unpreparedness for her future. She realizes that she doesn't know the poem Beowulf as well as most English majors do, and she wonders if her special scholastic privileges were what she really needed. Thus, it is not just indecision about what to do with her summer, or with her life, that is affecting Esther. She is starting to question every path and every experience of her life. She has skipped the regular scholastic requirements, and especially the courses in eighteenth-century literature, with "all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason." Now she wonders if she should have had the requirements, and the reader, at this point, surely wonders if Esther herself couldn't do with a bit of reason.
Esther saw a play in New York City, near the end of her stay, and its main character was a girl who was possessed by a dybbuk, or wandering soul. After Esther's date with Marco, we wonder what it is that "possesses" Esther — because Esther does not seem to use even the modicum of sense and wit that she had previously. As she tosses her fashionable wardrobe off the parapet, into the darkness of New York City, Esther also, besides freeing herself from "fashion," allows pieces of her sanity to fly away too. The darkness of the metropolis has her in its grip, and Esther has fallen into despair, from the arms of a brutal womanhater into the grayness of the night of indecision and non-direction.
Concerning the many problems that have led Esther to this state of confusion and indecision, note in particular the double standard that has been bothering her for a long time. The fact that the rules are different for men than for women does not seem fair to her. Even the execution of the Rosenbergs accents that sense of how America is prejudiced and how it lacks fair play. Esther feels victimized and helpless. She sees herself as a young, sensitive, creative woman headed in directions not prescribed by society, which only mouths ideas about freedom, opportunity, and equality.
Esther has seen the dark heart of America, and now she is lost in her own dark reactions. She can find no relief in her mother's suburban house, where she is constantly being condescended to and treated like an invalid — even before she is really sick. The nosy neighbor depresses Esther with her attempts to make everyone miserable while she herself conforms to "the system." And the other neighbor, lost in a fog of childbearing, does not give Esther relief from her dilemmas either. These extreme female roles, one mean and narrow, the other expansive and warm and mothering, are two opposite kinds of prisons that women are pushed into by a society that does not allow them any human roles — only roles fit for the "weaker" sex.
If these are the choices that are offered to Esther, it is no wonder that Esther cannot make a decision. Additionally, being rejected from the writing class makes her feel even worse; the one role in which she has sought and done well in is denied her, right now in her crisis. Esther's depression worsens, and her inability to sleep has aspects of manic behavior. Soon she can't even read. So it is recommended that Esther see a psychiatrist. Her dream of "a great summer" has hit bottom.