Free Study Guide for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath BookNotes|
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THE BELL JAR - LITERATURE SUMMARY / FREE NOTES
Constantin is too short for her, but he is handsome.
He has intuition, something Esther thinks no American man has. They both joke
about Mrs. Willard. She begins to think Constantin will see through all the exterior
things and see what she really is. He drives her to the UN and she feels happier
than she has in years. When inside the UN, she muses on the surprising thought
that she has not been happy since she was nine years old. Despite all her motherís
sacrifices to pay for activities for her, she had never been happy again. As she
watches the proceedings of the UN, she begins to add up the things she cannot
do. She cannot cook. She doesnít know shorthand. Her major is English and her
mother always tells her an English major who knows shorthand is set for life.
Esther, however, hates the idea of serving men in any way. She wants to dictate
her own thrilling letters. She cannot dance, sing, has no balance, canít ride
horses or ski, speak German, read Hebrew, write Chinese, and doesnít know geography.
She feels inadequate. She is only good at winning scholarships and prizes and
that era of her life is almost over.
She imagines her life as a big fig
tree with each fig representing a possible direction for her to take. One would
be to marry and have children, another is to be a famous poet, another is to be
a brilliant professor, and another was Ee Gee, the amazing editor. The list is
long. She imagines sitting in the tree starving but unable to decide.
Constantin takes her to an interesting restaurant. She tells him over dinner that
she plans to learn German, go to Europe, and be a war correspondent like Maggie
Higgins. By the end of dinner, she decides to have sex with himor, as she thinks
of it--"let Constantin seduce me." She has been thinking she needs to
have sex ever since Buddy told her about Gladys. She thinks of Buddy as being
ahead of her. Once, she had discussed sex with a man who had come to the campus
for a date and found his date had eloped. His name was Eric and she had gone to
a coffee shop with him to cheer him up. Eric was from a southern state. He was
disgusted with the practice of women at the college standing around outside their
dorms kissing their dates. He told her about his experience with sex. His southern
prep school specialized in producing gentlemen and by the time one graduated,
he was supposed to have had sex. Ericís classmates took him to a house of prostitution.
The woman he had sex with was fat and middle aged. She did not take off her clothes
and would not turn off the light. He thought it was as boring as going to the
toilet. Esther suggested that he might enjoy having sex with someone he loved,
but he insisted that love would be spoiled by thinking this woman was an animal
just like the rest. He told Esther if he fell in love, heíd never have sex with
her, only go to prostitutes for sex if he needed it. She had imagined that he
would be a good candidate for having sex with, but he had then written her that
he could fall in love with her, so the plan was lost. She wrote him back saying
she was marrying a childhood sweetheart.
Esther likes the idea of "being
seduced by" Constantin. He has all the right qualities: heís mature, he knows
none of her friends, and she would enjoy the irony of having sex with someone
to whom Mrs. Willard had introduced her. Constantin invites her up to his room
to hear some balalaika records and Esther immediately thinks this is merely a
ruse. Her mother had mailed her an article on the impossibility of preventing
pregnancy by 100 per cent. The article was titled, "In Defense of Chastity"and
it argued the extreme differences between women and men and proposed that only
marriage could bring the two worlds together. The article added that most men
wanted their wives to be "pure," but that they would try to convince
their girlfriends to have sex. After they had sex, however, they would never want
to marry the woman for fear that she would have sex with others as well. Esther
notices that the article never considered how the woman felt. She worries about
what would happen if the woman remained a virgin, married a man who said he was
a virgin, and only later found out that he had lied. She hates the idea of the
woman having one life--"a pure life"--while the man was able to have
a "double life, one pure and one not." She decides it would be better
to have sex now and marry a man who also had lost his virginity. Then if he tried
to make her life miserable as the article alleged he would, she could return the
favor. At nineteen, virginity is the primary dividing line categorizing people
and Constantin sit on the balcony for an hour listening to music and Constantin
makes no move to seduce her. Finally, she goes inside and lies down on his bed.
Then he comes in and lies down beside her. She peers at him from behind her hair.
She wonders if when she begins to like him he would fall into ordinariness as
Buddy had. "The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place
an arrow shoots off from." She wants "to shoot off in all directions"
She wakes up and itís raining outside. She hears Constantin breathing.
She looks at him lying there in his clothes and tries to imagine what it would
be like to be married to him. She would have to get up at 7:00 in the morning
and cook breakfast for him and then wait for him to come home from a lively and
fascinating day and cook dinner for him. She thinks this is a terrible way to
end fifteen years of straight As, but she knows itís the life of a wife because
thatís how Buddy Willardís mother lives.
She remembers seeing Mrs. Willard
braiding a rug of wool one day. It took her weeks to complete it. It was full
of beautiful colors. When she was finished, she didnít hang it on the wall as
Esther would have done. She put it on the kitchen floor where it became indistinguishable
from a dime store mat that would cost under a dollar. She thinks that no matter
how many roses and dinners a man gives a woman before marriage, after marriage
he really only wants her to flatten out under his feet like Mrs. Willardís rug.
Estherís mother had told her that when she and Estherís father left Reno on their
honeymoon, he had said, "Well, thatís a relief, now we can stop pretending
and be ourselves." After that, Estherís mother "never had a minuteís
peace." She also remembers Buddy telling her that after she has children
she wouldnít want to write poetry any more.
Constantin wakes up. Itís
three in the morning. As they get up to dress, he touches her hair. She feels
good at the touch. Then he says something mundane about it and the moment is gone.
He drives her home. In her hotel room bed she hears the rain and she feels the
dull ache of an old break in her leg. She thinks of how Buddy Willard made her
break it, then she corrects herself and tells herself that she broke it on purpose.
Her hope that Constantin will "see through
all that stuff to what I really am" indicates her need for affirmation. She
can only imagine getting affirmation about her self worth from the outside.
Esther recognizes the ideal of chastity as the patriarchal control of women. In
the older manifestations of patriarchy, womenís sexuality was stringently guarded
as a control of whose baby she had. Since patriarchy works on patrilineal lines
(the father passes on the name), the control of the womanís body had to be taken
from her to ensure that she had only her husbandís baby and his name went to the
legitimate offspring. In modern times, this patriarchal control of the womanís
body is less directly tied to patrilineal descent. It has become more diffused
in its aim so that it is a general means of social control of women. Nevertheless,
it is a clear reason why menís sexuality is never as urgently guarded as womenís.
Estherís introduction to marriage has been at the voice of Mrs. Willard,
her mother, Buddy Willard and magazine articles urging chastity. She cannot imagine
marriage as anything but domestic drudgery, the parceling out of only two roles:
one is exciting and outside the house and the other is dull and inside the house.
In light of such descriptions, itís no wonder Esther feels fearful of marriage
and imagines that it means subsuming her talents and goals for a senseless dullness,
just as Mrs. Willard wove something beautiful and then used it in a way that made
it dull and ugly when she could have just bought a rug for a dollar.
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