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THE BELL JAR - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS
Joan announces that she plans to be a psychiatrist. She has discussed it with Doctor Quinn, her therapist, and feels it is possible. Esther doesn’t like Doctor Quinn, who she feels is cold. Joan announces that she will be living outside the asylum. Esther is ready to live outside, but until college starts, the doctors do not want her to live with her mother, so she remains at the asylum. She doesn’t like Joan beating her out of the gates. Joan will live in Cambridge with Nurse Kennedy. Joan asks Esther to come and visit her. Esther thinks it is unlikely.
Esther is having sex with a man named Irwin. It hurts, but he tells her sometimes it does hurt. She had met him at the library and had gone for a cup of coffee with him. He is a professor of mathematics. When she got to his apartment, she decided to have sex with him. They had gone to his apartment after three cups of coffee. The doorbell rang and it was a woman who was clearly an ex-lover. Irwin convinced her to leave with some difficulty. She had called Doctor Nolan from the coffee shop to ask for permission to stay overnight with Joan. She had wanted to get rid of her virginity ever since she’d found out Buddy Willard had had a sexual affair.
In Irwin’s bedroom, she tells him she’s a virgin. He clearly doesn’t believe her. Instead of feeling "the miraculous change make itself felt," Esther feels a sharp pain. After Irwin is finished, he takes a shower. She is not sure if he has finished or if her virginity has obstructed him. She feels blood between her legs. She uses a towel to staunch the flow and when she looks at it, she sees the towel is sopping with blood. Irwin seems unconcerned, telling her she’ll be all right. She remembers all the stories of blood-stained bridal beds and smiles, thinking she is part of a great tradition.
She keeps the fact that she is still bleeding from Irwin and has him drive her to Joan’s apartment. Joan takes her to the hospital where the doctor tells her she is one in a million, her case is so rare. He says there is no problem with fixing the damage.
Back at Belsize Esther is asleep one night when Doctor Quin knocks on the door looking for Joan. Joan had returned to the asylum but retained town privileges. Joan had a permit to go to the movie earlier in the day and is now missing. In the morning, Doctor Quinn returns to Esther’s room to inform her that Joan has been found. She had hung herself from a tree in the woods.
Chapter 19 ends on the shocking news of Joan’s suicide. So close to Esther in her illness and recovery, her death clearly signals Esther’s own tenuous hold on mental health. Even as she recovers so steadily, a setback is always possible. The risks are great.
Esther’s first experience with sex is colored by all the beliefs of the time. She believes the man she has sex with should be quite experienced. Irwin, a promiscuous college professor, fits that description. Instead of worrying about what kind of person her first lover is or whether he is free from sexually transmitted diseases, she thinks only of his ability with sex, as if this were a very complicated procedure. Her indoctrination into the fear of sex has clearly worked. Irwin turns out to be experienced, but certainly a far way from a tender lover. Esther isn’t even sure if she has had sex when he gets up and takes a shower. She only guesses that she is no longer a virgin when she begins to bleed. Esther’s role in the sex is purely passive. Yet, oddly, she is happy to have lost her virginity. Perhaps, having no expectations of sexual pleasure, Esther can only think of the symbolic significance of losing her virginity.