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Free Study Guide for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath BookNotes

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One Friday night Buddy showed Esther through the hospital where he was being trained. First she saw Buddy and his friends cut up cadavers. They did not look human, so Esther was not bothered at all. Then Buddy showed her glass bottles full of fetuses. She felt proud of her calmness in dealing with all of it. She heard a couple of lectures about "depressing diseases," in which patients were wheeled in as exhibits. That afternoon, they went to see a woman giving birth to a baby. Another medical student, Will, told Esther she shouldn’t watch because she might never want to have a baby after the sight of it. When they got to the room, Esther was struck dumb by the sight of the table on which the woman was forced to lie. It looked like torture with metal stirrups and wires and tubes. Buddy told Esther the woman was on a drug that would make her forget the pain. When she swore and groaned, she had no control of what she was saying. Esther thought the drug sounds like a man’s invention. The woman would be fooled into forgetting the pain, while all along it would be there ready to swallow her up again. Will urged the woman, Mrs. Tomalillo to push down and called her a "good girl." At the last minute, they had to do an episiotomy and the baby came out covered with white power-looking stuff. Buddy told her it was something that guards the baby’s skin.

Back in Buddy’s room, they lied down side by side on his bed and drank wine while she read poems. Buddy had told her there must be something in poetry if "a girl like you" spent so much time on it, so he had her read him poetry when they spent weekends together and she explained to him what she saw in it. "He always arranged our weekends so we’d never regret wasting our time in any way." After she finished the poem, Buddy asked her if she’d ever seen a man naked. She didn’t know what to say. She remembered her mother and grandmother hinting about what "a fine clean boy" Buddy was and what a good husband he would make. She agreed to look at him. Buddy stood up and took off his pants and underwear. She could think of nothing but a turkey neck and turkey gizzards. It made her feel depressed. Buddy seemed hurt that she didn’t say anything. He told her she needed to get used to seeing him like that. He next wanted to see her, but she told him she would let him some other time.

She felt better after he got his clothes on and they kissed and hugged for a while. Then she sat cross legged on his bed and brushed her hair over her face. She asked him if he had ever had an affair and was totally surprised to find out that he had. He had always acted very innocent with her as if she were the one who was experienced. He had been seduced by a waitress at a hotel he worked at one summer at Cape Cod. She figured up how many times Buddy had sex with the waitress and was shocked. Back at her college, she began to ask seniors what they would do if a man they were interested in had been with another woman. Most of them said boys were like that and you only had control over them when you were engaged to them or pinned to them. She didn’t mind so much Buddy having sex with someone. She did mind that he had acted so innocent. She asked Buddy what his mother thought about it. She knew Mrs. Willard "was a real fanatic about virginity for men and women both." The first time she went to their house for dinner, Mrs. Willard had given her a searching look and Esther knew she was trying to judge whether Esther was a virgin. Buddy always quoted his mother’s saying about gender roles. Mrs. Willard always said, "What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinite security," and "What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from." These sayings made Esther tired.

She had just decided to break up with Buddy when he called her one day to say he had TB and would have to go to a place for a cure. He asked her to visit him during her Christmas vacation. Buddy was very upset. He had always been very proud of his perfect health. He always told her that her sinus problems were psychosomatic. When she hung up, she felt great relief. She thought TB was punishment for his living such a double life and always acting superior. Now she would not have to deal with telling people she had broken up with him and she wouldn’t have to have a series of blind dates. Then, people were kind to her when she studied all the time, considering her so brave working so hard to hide a broken heart.


The norms for sexuality in Esther’s day were quite different from today’s, though there remains a minority voice which advocates abstinence from sex until marriage. At the time, the sexual life of young women and men was carefully monitored, especially that of women. Though a critic of her society, Esther is not totally outside its viewpoint. She thinks sex is not a big deal, and she thinks she does not want to get married, but she is horrified when Buddy tells her he has had sex not just once but thirty times. She has imagined Buddy in one way and he has proven to be another and she holds him responsible for her perception of him. His TB has one good effect. It frees her from the social norms of women at her college--compulsory dating.

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