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THE BELL JAR - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS
Esther is on the train on her way home. She feels as though she looks ugly. The landscape in Connecticut reminds her of a "colossal junkyard." She had to borrow clothes from Betsy because she had forgotten to keep clothes out when she threw her clothes off the roof. As she looks out the window, a "wan reflection of herself, white wings, brown ponytail and all, ghosted over the landscape." She says, "Pollyana Cowgirl" aloud. The woman opposite stares at her. After she had bloodied Marcosís face, he had wiped stripes of blood on her cheeks. She had not washed of the dried blood from her face. She wants to keep it there as long as possible, so when she speaks, she tries not to move her face. She canít understand why people stare at her. Her suitcase is empty of anything but her short story collection, her sunglasses case, and two dozen avocado pears.
She gets off the train and smells the comfort of the suburbs. Her mother greets her with a question about her face. Esther only says she cut herself and no more questions are forthcoming. She gets into the back seat and her mother drives her home. Her mother tells her she did not get into the writing seminar as she had wanted. Esther feels devastated. She had been looking forward to it as a "safe bridge over the dull gulf of the summer." Then she realizes that she had expected this news. She slinks down into her seat hoping not to be recognized. She feels the car as a cage and she looks at the identical white clapboard houses with their identically well-groomed lawns as a "large, but escape-proof cage."
She hears carriage wheels squeaking outsider her window on the sidewalk below. She has slept for a long time, but still feels exhausted. At seven she had heard her mother leave the room, go downstairs, make a big breakfast, and then clean up and leave the house for work. Her mother was teaching shorthand and typing to city college women. She hears the carriage wheels again and creeps on the floor to look out the window so as not to be seen. The second story windows of her house are open to the street, and anybody passing can see in. A neighbor woman, Mrs. Ockenden, a retired nurse, had called Estherís mother one day and told her she could see Esther outside in a car kissing someone for an hour and had added that they should pull down the blinds because she could see Esther half-naked through the upstairs window. Esther takes great care to look out the window without being seen. She sees a pregnant woman wheeling a baby carriage with children following her. It is Dodo Conway. Hers is the only Catholic family in the neighborhood. She lives in a big house with all kinds of childís toys laying around in the yard. She has six children and is well loved in the neighborhood, though the size of her family is gossiped about. Esther doesnít like children.
She crawls back into bed because she can see no reason to get up. The telephone rings and she tries to ignore it, but finally answers it. Her friend Jody is calling from Cambridge. She and four other women from Estherís college had rented a big house and Jody is calling to see if Esther will be taking a room. Esther tells her she did not get into the course, so they should find someone else. She has an impulse to take a course in German or abnormal psychology, but does not act on it. As soon as she hangs up, she regrets her decision, but doesnít call Jody back.
On the table, she finds a letter from the school telling her that since she wasnít accepted into the course, she could call and register for some other class. She calls the admissions office and tells them she will cancel all arrangements for the summer. She feels like she is not talking, but just listening to a zombie talk. She finds a letter from Buddy Willard. He says he is probably falling in love with a nurse who has TB, but if she comes during the month of July he would probably find that it is just an infatuation. She writes back on the back of his letter that she is engaged to a simultaneous interpreter and does not want her children to have a hypocrite for a father. She puts the letter back in the used envelop and readdresses it to him.
She decides she will spend the summer writing a novel. She eats and then sits down to write in a screened in breezeway, protected from the prying eyes of Mrs. Ockenden. She counts out three hundred fifty sheets of paper and feeds the first piece into the typewriter. She decides her protagonist will be herself in disguise. Her first sentence reads: "Elaine sat on the breezeway in an old yellow nightgown of her motherís waiting for something to happen. It was a sweltering morning in July, and drops of seat curled down her back one by one, like slow insects." Sheís pleased with the sentence, but worries that she had read the metaphor of insects as sweat before. She sits for a long time. She feels like a barefoot doll.
Her mother comes in and wonders why she isnít dressed. Her mother never tells her to do anything. She "only reasons with her sweetly." Her mother tells her itís three in the afternoon. She responds that since sheís writing a novel, she has no time to change clothes. Her next sentence, "Inertia oozed like molasses through Elaineís limbs. Thatís what it must feel like to have malaria, she thought." She worries that she will only be able to write a page per day. Then she comes upon the idea that she needs experience before she can write. By the end of dinner, her mother has convinced her she should study shorthand in the evenings.
That evening, her mother gets out a blackboard and tries to teach Esther some shorthand. She doesnít do well, however. She can only think of the kind of job for which one uses shorthand and decides that if she never learns shorthand, sheíll never have to use it. She also decides to put off writing her novel until after she has gone to Europe and had a lover. She decides to spend the rest of the summer reading Finnegans Wake and writing her thesis. Then she has a succession of brainstorms about what to do with her life in the next year. The years of her life are like telephone poles lined up. After the nineteenth one, the wires dangle in the wind. Suddenly she realizes it is dawn. She acts like sheís asleep until her mother leaves for school. She cannot sleep.
She tries to read Joyceís novel, Finnegans Wake and tries to figure out the first sentence which is a fragment, beginning in the middle of a sentence. She decides not to do her thesis. Then she decides not to study in the honorís program, but to take a regular English majorís course load. When she looks at the requirements in her catalogue, she finds that there are many requirements she does not have. One of them is a course in eighteenth century literature, a period she hates, which features "all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason." She realizes she canít switch programs. The English program at the city college even had more requirements. She realizes that the "stupidest person" in her motherís college knows more that she does.
Sheís talking to Teresa, a relative of a relative, who is a doctor, asking for more sleeping pills. Teresa tells her the pills she gave Esther last week are very strong, but Esther says they donít work. Teresa recommends she go see a psychiatrist, Doctor Gordon.
An unfortunate thing about this book is Plathís unaware racism. Whenever she wants to say Esther looks ugly, she compares her to some ethnic group other than European American. For instance, she says she looks like a Chinese woman when she gets into the elevator after a drunk evening with Doreen and Lenny. She tells Doreen she doesnít want to meet Marco when she finds out heís Peruvian because they are all ugly as Aztecs. In this chapter, she says she looks like a sick Indian after she gets back from the country club.
Throwing the clothes off the roof certainly seems odd. Keeping dried blood caked on oneís cheeks is even odder. These are both indications of Estherís emotional imbalance after her New York stay. Her arrival back home is the final element in her life that makes her lose her coping abilities. She has nothing to do in the summer. She faces her last semester at college and doesnít know what to do after that. She is surrounded only by prospects of wedded dullness. Her route out of the expected role of wife and mother is her writing, but she is too depressed to write. When she begins to have insomnia, her feelings of dissociation from the world around her, alienation from herself, and her inability to act purposefully, become impossible to manage.
It is interesting how Plath presents Estherís psychological state. Since we have only Estherís point of view, we see no alarmed looks or worried questions. We experience one night of insomnia and then find Esther in the doctorís office where she has apparently previously come to get sleeping pills. The rapid passing of time and the rapid increase in symptoms are not sensed by Esther since she is so depressed. Plath thereby creates a distance between her protagonist and her reader. The reader begins to question Estherís ability to cope.