Summary and Analysis
The day after Esther's food poisoning experience, she is too sick to go to work, and she is resting when she receives a phone call from a man. He turns out to be Constantin, a simultaneous interpreter from the UN whom Mrs. Willard knows. Esther is excited — partly because she likes to "collect" men with unusual names. Then she is disappointed when she realizes that he is calling her as a favor to Mrs. Willard. But she does accept his invitation to visit the UN and then have a "bite to eat." Constantin's choosing of words, via Mrs. Willard, immediately causes Esther to be annoyed with him. His call reminds her of Buddy Willard's hypocrisy that she so despises. It also reminds her of all the minor problems with social manners that she finds so disconcerting — such as how much to tip. Esther seems to have a difficult time negotiating simple things such as breakfast in bed. So she decides to read; she reads a story about a fig tree, a Jewish man, and a nun. This again makes her think of Buddy and how he once told her that a poem is "just a piece of dust." She could not think of a smart reply until now — a year later.
For the next chapter and a half, we learn about Esther's recent relationship with Buddy and how she adored him from a distance for several years. Their mothers were good friends, and their fathers were both university professors. When Buddy visits her at college, she is elated until she finds out that he is there to have a date with Joan. She becomes sarcastic with him, and Buddy leaves somewhat crestfallen. When Esther opens the envelope that Buddy leaves with her, her mood turns to joy when she discovers that he has asked her to the Yale Junior Prom. What a coup for the bookworm Esther.
Again, Esther's big date with Buddy is a mixed experience. She describes Buddy as being rather cheap, and her accommodations for the prom weekend are rather meager. For the high-point of the date, Buddy takes Esther up the hill behind the chemistry lab. She admits that the view is beautiful, but she is not exactly in awe of it. When Buddy kisses her, Esther is not as enthusiastic as he is, but she says nothing to him. He proposes to see her every third weekend, and Esther, at this suggestion, is "almost fainting and dying to get back to college and tell everybody." We then learn that she apparently continues to see Buddy steadily, even after he goes to medical school, despite her lack of interest in his kisses. The irony then is that she says it took her a long time to find out what a hypocrite he was, when, in fact, she found out about his hypocrisy very early. Yet Esther too is somewhat of a hypocrite. She is not even romantically interested in Buddy, but leads him to believe that she is.
As Buddy is portrayed by Esther, the reader does not envision him as a dashing suitor. But what one cannot fathom is why Esther spent so much time with him, and so much time recounting a relationship with a boy whom she obviously did not like very much. Furthermore, she does not even seem to realize that Buddy does actually rather like her more than she likes him. Later, Buddy proudly shows her a poem of his that has been published — probably to please her, even if he does say that a poem is "just a piece of dust." Seemingly, Buddy is trying to compete with Esther in her field; but since he has no ambition to be a poet, we sense that in a simple-minded way, he is trying to draw closer to her.
Buddy takes Esther to see a baby being born, and we realize that he has attempted to involve her in his field before, with lectures on sickle-cell anemia and other "depressing diseases." He also shows her cadavers and babies preserved in bottles. We recall Esther's aversion to chemistry and physics, and we see clearly that Buddy and Esther are quite mismatched, as far as interests go. He tells Esther that there must be something in poetry if a girl like her is interested in it, and she tries to explain poems to him, but his mind does not seem to focus on the subject. After one such session, he responds by asking her if she's ever "seen a man," and he proceeds to undress in front of her. Buddy is always the clinical med student; Esther is always the sensitive, ambivalent poet. Buddy is practical and conventional; Esther is philosophical and unconventional. However, sometimes Esther has practical insights that go against the grain. For example, when she watches the birth of the baby and Buddy explains that the woman is under the influence of twilight sleep and that she won't remember a thing afterwards, Esther notes that the woman is moaning from the pain, and Esther thinks one might as well be awake and see the baby born if one is going to have the pain anyway.
Esther is also direct (and practical) with Buddy when she asks him if he's ever had an affair. He tells her the story of his affair with Gladys, the waitress, and Esther is quite shocked at how many times Buddy slept with the waitress during the summer when he was a busboy on the Cape. Because Esther knows so little about sex, or about relationships between men and women, she asks the other girls at school about this "other woman." They all respond that "men are like that," and they imply that Esther should "just accept it." Esther can't stand the double standard of the world, and she is angry because Buddy treats her as if she is so sexy and then acts so pure himself. Significantly, Esther recounts all this to the reader before she goes out on a date with Constantin. Remember that one of her motivations for dating him is to try to have sex with someone so that she and Buddy "will be even." Yet on the other hand, after Buddy goes to the Adirondacks for the tuberculosis cure, Esther uses him as an excuse to stay in her room and study. So we see that her behavior during her summer in New York is somewhat different from her previous semester in college. Now, she seems to feel a need to grow up — to have an affair — as well as try to come to grips with the "real" professional world of the city.
On her date with Constantin, Esther again has mixed feelings. She thinks that he's too short but still "sort of handsome." She also says that he has intuition, a quality that she thinks that most American men lack. He drives her away in a green convertible, and she feels happier than when she was nine and ran with her father on the beach. It is now (Chapter 7) that we learn that Esther thinks that she was only happy until she was nine years old. She's had all kinds of lessons since then — dance, art, and music — and she's been to college, but she's never been happy, apparently, since her father died.
In addition to her thoughts of unhappiness, versus her earlier bliss, Esther starts to think of all her deficiencies. She can't cook, can't take shorthand (her mother's specialty), can't ski, or ride a horse (because they cost too much, she says). She is only good at winning scholastic and literary prizes, and she fears that these opportunities may be coming to an end. Then comes her image of the fig tree. She sees one fig (rather than a branch) as a husband, family, and children; another fig as a poet, then one as a brilliant professor, one as "Ee Gee" — a parallel to Jay Cee — one as a traveler, one as a "pack of lovers," one as an Olympic lady crew champion, and she sees many, many more figs. But Esther feels that she can — and must — choose only one fig, and she can't make up her mind which one she wants. She wants to "shoot off in all directions" and doesn't believe that is possible. Buddy, of course, has told her that after she has a baby she won't care about being a poet any more. Esther can't accept that idea. She wants all the figs, and she fears that they will wither and fall off the tree before she has made up her mind which one to pick.
When she goes to dinner with Constantin, Esther fails to realize her very real dilemma. She says that maybe she was just hungry — that's why she was thinking of the fig tree. She is unable to push forward with her vision of a diverse and interesting life for herself. Instead, she eats hungrily and decides to let Constantin seduce her. After listening to music sitting on his balcony, Esther retires to the bedroom. When she awakens, she again wonders if she's been poisoned. But no, she is physically fine, and except for her thoughts on marriage as a slave state, she is quite well. Constantin combs her hair with his fingers, which gives her an electric-like shock, but she returns to her hotel still a virgin.
At the hotel, an old leg-break injury starts to ache; the old injury throbs and reminds her of her pains from the past, pains that still seem to impede her life. She's again reminded of Buddy, the thorn in her side, and how she broke her leg skiing with him. Chapter 8 is a recall of her visit to Buddy's sanatorium, how Mr. Willard took her there and told her on the trip that he and Mrs. Willard always wanted a daughter like her. She feels dull and disappointed on this gray trip, partly because it was the day after Christmas; when she sees Buddy's liver-colored habitation, she is even more depressed. In addition, Buddy has become fat. And in this terrible setting, he asks her to marry him. No wonder she thinks American men have no intuition. Buddy is certainly a klutz. But then, the reader can see that both Buddy and Esther are very adolescent and very inexperienced. She responds by telling Buddy that she'll never marry.
They go skiing, and Buddy tries to help her, even though Esther thinks that what he suggests is foolhardy. But, having suicidal thoughts, she decides to try to go down a big hill even though she doesn't know how to zig-zag. She seems easily influenced to self-destructiveness. Thus she flies to the bottom of the hill and is "doing fine until the man stepped into her path." She breaks her leg in two places and believes that Buddy is really quite happy about it. Throughout the story, Esther is "doing fine" until something or someone — a man usually — steps in her path. Then things go awry, and she always ends up as a crumpled mess. In college, the chemistry class stepped in her path, and in New York City, violent sex stepped into the crowded streets in the guise of Lenny. Later, when Esther goes home, we discover that the letter of non-acceptance for the male instructor's writing course had arrived; this letter ruins Esther's summer plans. We recall, then, when Esther was nine: her father died unexpectedly, ruining her idyllic life. Esther seems bent on rushing towards her projected goals, and she doesn't know what to do when the plans are changed, especially when they are changed by a force outside herself, usually a man.
Esther's trip to the Adirondacks not only ends with a broken leg; it is another gray experience that reminds her that "promises never come to pass." It makes her think that perhaps she should become a Catholic — an idea that comes to her whenever she is in a tight spot or depressed. She fantasizes that being a Catholic would solve all her problems — if she became a really devout Catholic.
It must be noted here that it is not that Esther's experiences are so unusual, but that it is her perception of them that is so different. Millions of American girls have had mixed feelings about their virginity, about whether or not to swallow their distaste and marry a soon-to-be successful but egotistical and dull student. Even more college-age girls have had skiing accidents, probably. And many have gone off to New York City, or other cities, or exotic places to try to find their fortune and their adulthood. What makes The Bell Jar a compelling book, besides its being a truthful, if superficial, rendering of this adolescent dilemma, is that Esther Greenwood is experiencing this in 1953. Esther is obviously years ahead of the women's liberation movement of the 1970s. What makes Esther so appealing is that she is so alone. And, of course, it is her extreme alienation that leads to her suicide attempt.
One of the major themes of these four chapters is that, for Esther, life is mostly like the day after Christmas, a day when she usually feels "overstuffed and dull and disappointed." The promises of Esther's young life too often turn out to be unsatisfying. She has adored Buddy from afar, yet his kisses do not affect her when he finally shows an interest in her. In short, Esther does not seem able to find a relationship with honesty in it, and she cannot even enjoy dating in a superficial way. Yet she is driven to want to date men — perhaps mostly because of social convention, but also because she is embarrassed to study in her room on Saturday nights. When Buddy is in the TB hospital, that relieves her of an obligation to date. For a brief time, she is happy not to be bothered with social plottings.
But, if on one hand she is driven to date, Esther can't stand Buddy for his hypocrisy. Yet she needs him. This, in turn, makes her as much a hypocrite as Buddy. Esther is dishonest with Buddy about her responses to the hospital situations, and she can't even tell him her reaction to his naked body.
Esther's training in social manners contributes to her being trapped. She is rebelling from an excessive emphasis on "be nice, be nice." Thus, she mocks people even when it is not necessary. Esther is too acutely aware of manners and styles. For example, when Constantin asks her for a "bite to eat," she knows, and hates, that phrase because it belongs to Mrs. Willard. If Constantin has "intuition," as Esther thinks he has, perhaps that is why he doesn't seduce her, because in spite of the "electric shock" he gives her, she is mainly interested in "getting even" with Buddy for his "infidelities."
Torn between the "should's" of her New England upbringing and the pressures of her peers to have men in her life, Esther cannot reconcile her feelings about men — much less have warm relationships with them. She has no way to deal with her negative thoughts, which her social training tells her are, if not wrong, at least unattractive. But if Esther cannot avoid men, or be successful just using them, at least she could give them a piece of her mind occasionally. Yet she never even writes to Buddy to tell him about her insights on his poem, his "piece of dust." Surely, even for Esther, that would have been permissible. But she keeps all this inside herself, and then it comes out in peculiar ways, mostly harmful to Esther herself.
Esther says that she is not practical. But does she try to be? Why not look for a boyfriend who is suitable? Does Esther, indeed, ever ask herself what kind of man would be best for her? She has not learned to do any of the choosing. Instead, she is always too concerned about how men look. And, with her sharp scrutiny, she always finds something wrong — Constantin, for example, is too short; Buddy becomes repulsively fat when he is ill. Clearly, Esther is very dissatisfied with herself. She makes lists of all the things she can't do. Her disappointments always lead her back to her shattered visions. She decides that if she expects nothing, she will not be disappointed. Is it to be all or nothing for her? Thinking that the era of winning prizes is over for her, Esther can do nothing except focus on her social (real and imagined) failures. She is easily embarrassed. She has a "sickness of the will," because when she sees any small defect in herself, she sees it as being something monumentally wrong with her. She can be witty and clever, and insightful about her situation, but she cannot respond with real laughter or wisdom. Thus she is being driven more and more, by society and her own character and actions, into alienation, into real, physical sickness. She is letting her trivial disappointments poison her, and she is becoming duller and duller because she cannot choose, cannot say no, and cannot speak out. She is overstuffed on her successes and her dreams, and she needs the purgative of reality and humor. Instead, she will be assaulted with more of New York City and the cruel summer of 1953.