Free Study Guide for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath BookNotes|
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THE BELL JAR - FREE BOOK SUMMARY NOTES / LITERARY CRITICISM
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.
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.
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