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The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar Summary


Here you will find a The Bell Jar summary (Sylvia Plath's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

The Bell Jar Summary Overview

A university student from Massachusetts, Esther Greenwood, takes a trip to New York to work as a guest editor for a magazine. Her employer, Jay Cee, is a stern yet kind-hearted woman. Esther, along with eleven other female students, reside in a ladies' hostel, pampered with luxuries. However, she feels despondent and becomes concerned about the impending execution of the Rosenbergs. After a grand banquet leaves her and the other girls with food poisoning, Esther attempts to lose her virginity to a UN interpreter, only to be ignored. As her days in New York come to an end, she has a traumatic blind date with a man named Marco, who attempts to assault her. Esther ponders upon her life choices, deciding between becoming a traditional housewife or fulfilling her own ambitions. Her beau Buddy Willard, a bright and good-looking man, is in a sanitarium for tuberculosis treatment and plans to marry Esther once he recovers. Despite his seemingly perfect attributes, Buddy fails to understand Esther's passion for writing and his infidelity makes her see him as a hypocrite, leading her to dismiss any thoughts of marrying him. She determines to lose her virginity as if seeking an answer to a crucial mystery. On returning to her Boston home, Esther feels depressed after not getting into the writing class she had hoped to take, and her feelings of unreality intensify. Unable to read, write or sleep, Esther's mental health deteriorates and she falls into a suicidal spiral, making several unsuccessful attempts to take her own life. After her final attempt involving an overdose of sleeping pills, she wakes up in a hospital. Eventually, she is transferred to a private psychiatry ward sponsored by a famous novelist, Philomena Guinea. Here, under the care of a psychiatrist Dr. Nolan, she gradually starts to improve through a combination of therapy, insulin injections, and properly administered electric shock treatment. She develops a friendship with Joan, a woman from her college but is taken aback when Joan makes a sexual pass at her. Over time, Esther is permitted to leave the hospital occasionally. During one such outing, she loses her virginity to a math professor named Irwin. However, the experience leads to a medical scare, and she has to rush to the emergency room. When Joan commits suicide, Esther realizes her relationship with Buddy is over. As she prepares to leave the hospital and return to college for the winter semester, she knows her sanity hangs by a thread and the specter of insanity could return at any moment.

chapter 1

Esther Greenwood, a college girl, has a summer job in New York as a guest editor for a fashion magazine in 1953. She is troubled by the execution of the Rosenbergs, convicted spies for the Soviet Union. Esther struggles to enjoy her privileged lifestyle, feeling detached and believing something is wrong with her. At the Amazon, a female hotel, she lives with eleven fellow guest editors and young women training for secretarial work. Esther often hangs out with the attractive, sarcastic Doreen, who mirrors Esther's cynicism. Betsy, a down-to-earth Midwesterner, consistently tries to befriend Esther. Betsy invites Esther to share a cab to a magazine party, but Esther chooses to ride with Doreen instead. A man, Lenny Shepherd, convinces them to join him at a bar while they're stuck in traffic. Lenny shows interest in Doreen and introduces his friend Frankie to Esther. She is standoffish towards Frankie due to his height. Esther, unfamiliar with alcoholic beverages, orders a vodka. She lies about her name, introducing herself as Elly Higginbottom. Frankie departs alone, and Esther and Doreen leave with Lenny.

chapter 2

Esther and Doreen find themselves in Lenny's apartment, which resembles a cowboy ranch. Lenny plays a recording of his own radio show while serving drinks. He suggests calling a friend for Esther, but she declines. Doreen and Lenny kick off a dance, which Esther observes from a distance, feeling alienated. As the pair descends into playful bickering and physical tussling, Doreen's dress slips, revealing her chest. Esther decides it's time to leave. Tipsy but determined, she embarks on a long walk home, which spans forty-eight blocks by five. Arriving home sober, she feels detached from both New York City and life in general. She draws a hot bath, finding the experience somewhat cleansing. Sleep claims her, only to be disrupted by Doreen's drunken arrival, accompanied by the night maid. Upon opening the door, the maid exits, leaving a blabbering Doreen. Esther chooses to leave Doreen in the hallway. As she places her on the carpet, Doreen throws up and faints. Despite the incident, Esther resolves to continue observing Doreen from a distance, however, she states “deep down” she wants “nothing at all to do with her.” She feels a stronger kinship with the virtuous Betsy than Doreen. The following morning, Doreen is nowhere to be found.

chapter 3

Esther is at a banquet organized by Ladies’ Day magazine, while Doreen decides to enjoy her day at Coney Island with Lenny instead. Coming from a family conscious of meal costs, Esther relishes the lavish banquet meals, especially her preferred delicacy, caviar, introduced to her by her headwaiter grandfather at a country club. She has two servings of caviar during the luncheon, along with chicken and crabmeat-stuffed avocados. Betsy questions Esther's absence from the fur show, to which Esther reveals she was called in by her boss, Jay Cee. This memory triggers tears in Esther. Esther elaborates on the circumstances that led her to the luncheon. She receives a call from Jay Cee while she's in bed listening to the other girls prepare for the day and dealing with her depression. Upon reaching the office, Jay Cee inquires if Esther finds her work interesting. Despite usually having a prepared answer about her post-graduation plans involving travel, teaching, and writing, Esther admits her lack of clarity. Her tentative response of wanting to go into publishing leads Jay Cee to advise her to learn foreign languages, which frustrates Esther, as she has no room for a language course in her senior year. She recalls a situation where she used her impressive grades as leverage to avoid a chemistry class. She had convinced the dean and science teacher, Mr. Manzi, that she wanted to take the class without credit, but in reality, she attended the class only to write poetry instead.

chapter 4

Esther harbors guilt about misleading Mr. Manzi into thinking she was passionate about chemistry. When Jay Cee, her boss, interrogates her about her future, for some reason, Mr. Manzi pops up in her mind. Jay Cee shares some stories for her to critique then sends her off to a banquet following a few hours of work. Esther wishes her mother had Jay Cee's wisdom and strength, as her mother only encourages her to learn pragmatic skills like shorthand. She believes this comes from her father's death when she was nine, which left them without life insurance and infuriated her mother. Post-dessert at the banquet, Esther uses her finger bowl. She recalls a previous lunch with her college scholarship provider, Philomena Guinea, where she mistakenly drank from the finger bowl. After leaving the banquet, she heads to a movie premiere with other girls. During the movie, she starts feeling sick, and so does Betsy, another girl. They leave the cinema, both throwing up throughout their journey back to the hotel. Esther vomits until she faints in the bathroom, only awaking when there's a knock on the door. She attempts to stand but falls in the hallway. A nurse helps her to bed and shares that all the girls have food poisoning. She later wakes to Doreen trying to feed her soup, who reveals the source of their sickness was tainted crabmeat from the banquet. Esther is suddenly ravenous.

chapter 5

After being ill, Esther gets a call from Constantin, a United Nations interpreter and a friend of Mrs. Willard, who invites her to visit the UN and have lunch. Although she thinks he invited her because of Mrs. Willard, she accepts. Esther reflects on Mrs. Willard's son, Buddy, who's recovering from tuberculosis and wants to marry her. She's struck by the irony of her initial admiration for Buddy from a distance and her current disdain for him now that he's proposed. Esther reflects on her difficulties with tipping in New York, including her failure to tip a bellhop and a cabdriver's disdain for her small tip. She then turns her attention to a book sent by the Ladies’ Day magazine team, in which a gushy get-well card falls out. Reading a story about a Jewish man and a nun meeting under a fig tree in the book, she sees similarities with her failed relationship with Buddy. However, she also recognizes the differences: she and Buddy are Unitarian, they witnessed a birth, not a chick hatching. Esther mulls over Buddy's recent letters, in which he seems to be more open to the idea of doctors and writers co-existing, a departure from his previous dismissive remark that poetry was “a piece of dust”. In the past, Esther had been unable to respond, but now she imagines scathing responses, criticizing his work and arguing that healing people is no less important than writing “poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick.” Finally, Esther looks back at the start of her relationship with Buddy. She liked him for years, until one day he visited her at college to take another girl, Joan Gilling, to a dance. Despite her anger, she pretended to have a date of her own. Buddy left her a letter inviting her to the Yale Junior Prom. She remembers him treating her as a friend and kissing her at the end of the night, an event she was eager to share with her friends.

chapter 6

Esther recalls her budding relationship with Buddy during her visit to his medical school at Yale. He presents her with a grim exhibition of medical curiosities - cadavers and fetuses in jars - which she absorbs without flinching. They attend a lecture on diseases and later witness a childbirth. Buddy and his friend Will jest about Esther potentially being deterred from motherhood by witnessing the birth. Buddy mentions the use of a drug that erases the woman's memory of her pain, a concept that Esther finds repulsive. Post the visit to the hospital, Buddy inquires if Esther has ever seen a man unclothed. Despite her lack of interest, she consents to his offer to undress. His nakedness evokes images of "turkey neck and turkey gizzards" in her mind, leaving her discomforted and depressed. When confronted about his sexual past, Buddy admits to a summer fling with a waitress named Gladys. Esther's dismay isn't about his sexual history but his hypocritical pretense of innocence. She confides in her college friends about Buddy's confession, who believe one can only be upset if engaged or pinned. When asked about his mother's opinion, Buddy replies that his mother knew that Gladys was "free, white, and twenty-one.” Esther resolves to end the relationship. However, before she could act, Buddy reveals his diagnosis of TB over a long-distance call. Far from being upset, Esther feels relief as it implied less contact with him. She misleads her dorm mates into assuming her and Buddy's engagement, which earns her their sympathy and solitude on Saturday nights under the pretense of masking her pain at Buddy's illness.

chapter 7

Esther rides with Constantin to the UN in his sports car, bonding over their mutual dislike for Mrs. Willard. She's drawn to him despite him not being quite tall enough for her liking. This interaction brings her a sense of joy she hasn't experienced since the summer before her father's death. At the UN, she's struck by the expertise of the interpreters and starts thinking about her own limited skills. She sees her aptitude for obtaining scholarships as her only merit, something she won't be able to use after graduation. Esther visualizes her life as a fig tree, with each fruit symbolizing a potential life pathway, all of which she desires, but can't decide upon, leading to the fruition rotting away. The pair go for dinner and Esther, revitalized by the meal, contemplates losing her virginity to Constantin as a means of getting back at Buddy. She remembers Eric, a boy she considered sleeping with, who had a disillusioning sexual experience and thereafter decided to refrain from sleeping with a woman he loved. When he confessed his feelings for her, she knew he wouldn't sleep with her, so she told him she was engaged. Esther is invited back to Constantin's flat to listen to music and she anticipates that this could lead to sex, a prospect her mother had warned her about. However, she dismisses her mother's advice of preserving her virginity for marriage, refuting the idea of double standards in sexual behavior for men and women. Her expectations are dashed when all Constantin does is hold her hand. Tipsy from wine, she falls asleep in his bed, awakened at three in the morning, contemplating what married life would entail. She dreads the idea of domesticity and the impediment it could be to her ambitions, as suggested by Buddy's insinuation that motherhood would stifle her literary aspirations. The chapter closes with Constantin driving a disappointed Esther home.

chapter 8

Esther recalls Mr. Willard taking her to see Buddy at the sanatorium and expressing his wish for her to be his daughter, misreading her tears as happiness. He left her alone with Buddy, who had put on weight at the sanatorium. He shared a poem he'd gotten published in an obscure magazine, which Esther found horrific, though she kept this to herself. When Buddy asked her, “How would you like to be Mrs. Buddy Willard?” she firmly responded that she'd never marry. He laughed at her declaration. She reminded him that he had called her neurotic for wanting two things that couldn't coexist, and affirmed that she would always crave such things. He expressed his desire to be with her. Buddy arranged for Esther to learn skiing, acquiring equipment for her. She took the rope tow to the peak of the mountain, with Buddy calling out to her from below. Initially, she was scared, but the idea of dying made her feel a thrill. She hurtled down the slope at full speed, feeling a surge of happiness as she felt like she was entering the past. However, she had a fall, her mouth filled with ice, and reality hit her. She desired to make another descent, but Buddy informed her, oddly pleased, that she'd broken her leg in two places.

chapter 9

Esther interacts with Hilda, a fellow guest editor, on the day the Rosenbergs are set to be executed. Hilda is unbothered by the impending deaths. During a photoshoot at the magazine, Esther's emotions overwhelm her when she's asked to smile while holding a symbolic paper rose, and she breaks down crying. Jay Cee later offers her some stories to critique, leaving Esther to dream about Jay Cee unknowingly praising her own future work. In preparation for her last evening in New York, Esther's reluctance to wear her expensive clothes leads Doreen to hide them under the bed. Doreen convinces Esther to join her, Lenny, and Lenny's friend Marco at a country club dance. Esther instantaneously perceives Marco as a misogynist. He gives her a diamond pin and promises to do something worthy of it, gripping her arm with strength that leaves bruises. Despite Esther's initial refusal to dance, Marco forces her into a tango, instructing her to pretend she's drowning. Esther conforms, thinking to herself, "It doesn’t take two to dance, it only takes one." Outside, Marco reveals his cousin, who is becoming a nun, is his love interest. In a fit of rage, he pushes Esther into the mud, tears her dress and calls her derogatory names. Esther initially remains passive, but eventually fights back and punches Marco's nose. Before letting her leave, Marco demands to know the location of his diamond pin. Despite his threats, Esther refuses to reveal its whereabouts and leaves him in the mud. Unable to locate Doreen, Esther hitchhikes back to Manhattan. Once there, she ascends to the hotel rooftop and flings her clothes off the edge, one by one.

chapter 10

Esther returns to Massachusetts by train, wearing Betsy's clothes and still covered in Marco's blood, believing it appears "touching, and rather spectacular." Upon arrival, her mother informs her of her rejection from a writing course she'd hoped to attend. This news along with the prospect of spending the summer in the suburbs disheartens her. She reflects on her neighbors, Mrs. Ockenden who she finds nosy, and Dodo Conway, a Catholic mother of six with another on the way, who is universally adored despite her untidy house. When Esther's friend Jody calls, she reveals her writing course rejection, which also means she won't be staying with Jody in Cambridge as they'd planned. Jody suggests she attend a different course, but Esther declines. She receives a letter from Buddy, confessing he's potentially falling for a nurse but offering her a chance to reignite their romance. Esther responds by declaring she's engaged to an interpreter and doesn't wish to see him again. With the intention of writing a novel, Esther becomes disheartened by her lack of experiences. She agrees to learn shorthand from her mother, but quickly realizes it's not a skill she wants or needs. As insomnia sets in, she contemplates using the summer to write her thesis, delay college, or travel to Germany, but she dismisses these ideas. Tormented by her mother's snoring, she even contemplates murder. She attempts to read Finnegans Wake, but the words seem chaotic on the page. The idea of transferring to a city college is also dismissed. Lastly, when she requests more sleeping pills from her family doctor, Teresa, she is instead referred to a psychiatrist.

chapter 11

Esther consults with Dr. Gordon, a psychiatrist, while neglecting her personal hygiene for weeks and suffering from insomnia. She is hopeful for recovery, but his vanity and a photo of his attractive family on his desk stir resentment in her. She implies he can't help her due to his good looks and family. Esther shares her symptoms: insomnia, loss of appetite, and inability to read. She doesn't reveal her struggles with writing. After attempting to write a letter to Doreen that morning, she could not form legible words. Dr. Gordon inquires about her college and praises her for its reputation. Esther's mother is dismayed by the high cost of Dr. Gordon's sessions. Esther, under the alias Elly Higginbottom, strikes up a conversation with a sailor in Boston Common. She mistakes a passerby for Mrs. Willard and shares her fear with the sailor, claiming she is from her "orphanage" and is a cruel woman. The sailor's empathy leads Esther to blame the woman for her life's miseries. In a subsequent meeting with Dr. Gordon, Esther admits to her unchanged condition and shows him the unsuccessful letter to Doreen. He disregards the letter pieces but requests to see her mother. He advises Mrs. Greenwood that Esther should undergo electroconvulsive therapy at his Walton hospital. Esther begins contemplating suicide after reading a news story about a man dissuaded from jumping off a ledge. She enjoys tabloid papers as the brief paragraphs end before her dyslexia kicks in. Dodo Conway is set to take Esther and her mother to the hospital for treatment the following day. Esther considers escaping to Chicago but realizes she won't be able to withdraw money in time.

chapter 12

Esther attends her shock therapy session at Dr. Gordon’s hospital, an experience she describes as the "end of the world." She equates the treatment to a time when she accidentally shocked herself. Questioned again about her college by Dr. Gordon, she responds but feels disheartened and decides to discontinue treatment. Her mother supports her decision, saying she doesn't belong in the hospital and will improve on her own. Subsequently, Esther finds herself in a park, comparing her photograph with that of a recently deceased starlet. Both images, she feels, carry the same "dead, black, vacant expression." The next five minutes decide her fate: she resolves to commit suicide. She recalls comments from people like Buddy and Jay Cee, which echo in her head. Earlier, she had tried to cut her wrists, but her attempts resulted in only a small cut on her calf. At Deer Island Prison, near her old home, she fantasizes about a different life with a guard she chats with. She contemplates suicide again at the beach, but lack of a warm bath post-act dissuades her. Despite considering drowning, the cold water makes her retract her decision. A little boy's warning about the incoming tide prompts her to leave and she returns home.

chapter 13

Esther, Jody, Mark, and Cal visit the beach. A conversation with Cal about a play and suicide methods leaves Esther disappointed and contemplating drowning. She initiatively tries swimming to a distant rock, thinking she could let herself drown when fatigue sets in, with the phrase "I am I am I am" echoing in her mind. She recalls her failed suicide attempt in the morning where she couldn’t find a proper place to hang the cord from her mother’s bathrobe. Her attempts to strangle herself failed as her grip loosened each time she started to faint. Contemplating seeking medical help, she quickly dismisses the idea, fearing financial burden and life in a state institution. Upon deciding against swimming to the rock, Esther tries to purposely drown in her current position but her body resurfaces each time. In a bid to distract herself from her depressive state, her mother suggests volunteering at a local hospital. Her stint, however, ends abruptly when she upsets the patients by rearranging their bouquets and runs away. Esther considers conversion to Catholicism as a possible solution to her suicidal thoughts, but her mother dismisses the idea with laughter. She visits her father’s grave for the first time, triggering an overwhelming surge of tears, as her father’s death had never felt real to her, given she didn’t see his body, nor attend his funeral. Finally, she comes to a decision regarding her suicide method. After her mother leaves, she writes a note about taking a long walk. She then retrieves her sleeping pills from her mother's lockbox, hides in the basement, consumes around fifty pills, and slowly falls asleep.

chapter 14

Esther gradually gains consciousness in a dark room, unaware that she's in a hospital. She expresses her inability to see, and a nurse responds with a lighthearted comment about marrying a blind man. The doctor confirms her vision is fine; her head is just bandaged. Esther's family visits but she finds her mother's presence bothersome. She encounters George Bakewell, an old acquaintance, who she sends away, suspecting his curiosity about her suicide attempt. Upon seeing her bruised reflection and shaved head in a mirror, she drops it, which leads to her transfer to a city hospital. In the new hospital, Esther shares a room with Mrs. Tomolillo. When Esther reveals her suicide attempt, Mrs. Tomolillo requests a curtain between their beds. Esther's mother visits and criticizes her for not cooperating with the doctors. Esther becomes paranoid, thinking the hospital staff are using fake names and noting down her conversations. She pleads with her mother to remove her from the hospital. After an incident involving green beans and a rude attendant, Esther is moved to Mrs. Mole's previous room, pocketing a ball of mercury on her way.

chapter 15

Esther's college benefactor, Philomena Guinea, covers the cost for Esther's stay in a high-end mental facility, having been in one herself previously. Guinea queries if a young man was the catalyst for Esther's suicide attempt, but Esther's mother discloses her daughter's fear of losing her writing ability. In light of this, Guinea transports Esther to a luxurious mental institution. Despite her mother's insistence that she should be appreciative due to their depleted funds, Esther struggles to feel anything, her depression likened to a bell jar. She contemplates suicide by jumping off a bridge, but her family's presence prevents her. On arrival at the facility, Esther meets Dr. Nolan, her new psychiatrist, and is surprised to encounter a female in this profession. Esther meets Valerie, a fellow patient, and shares her aversion to electroconvulsive therapy during her initial consultation with Dr. Nolan. The doctor reassures her that it was incorrectly applied, promising a different experience if needed again. Esther becomes intrigued by Miss Norris, a silent older patient who becomes her neighbor. Esther regularly receives insulin injections from a nurse, but experiences no reaction except weight gain. Valerie shares her lobotomy scars with Esther, explaining how the procedure has calmed her former anger. Esther is relocated to a brigther room as Miss Norris is moved to a lower-status ward. Esther is then notified of a new patient's arrival - Joan Gilling, someone she recognizes from college.

chapter 16

Joan discloses to Esther that her journey to the mental institution was incited by learning about Esther's plight. She reveals she had been grappling with a terrible job that caused painful foot issues. Joan's bizarre habit of wearing rubber boots to her job strikes Esther as insane. She shares that she began contemplating suicide, and embarked on a downward spiral, ignoring responsibilities and withdrawing from the world. After an uncomfortable experience with a psychiatrist and his students, she read about Esther and this drove her to New York with the intention of ending her life. She presents Esther with newspaper articles depicting her own story. One details Esther's disappearance, another speaks of missing sleeping pills and the search for Esther, and a final one describes the moment Esther's mother found her. Joan staying at her former college roommate’s place, attempted suicide by slashing her wrists with broken glass. One particular night, Esther awakens to find herself pounding her bedpost in an insulin treatment-induced frenzy. She feels surprisingly better after this. She is overjoyed when Dr. Nolan announces she won't be receiving any more guests. Esther finds these visits from old acquaintances and her mother, who always asks what she did wrong, discomforting. Esther confesses to Dr. Nolan her hatred for her mother, which appears to satisfy the doctor.

chapter 17

Esther is transferred from Caplan ward to Belsize, a place for patients nearing their discharge. Despite not feeling much better, she's glad the chance of receiving shock therapy is reduced. The women at Belsize seem normal; they play cards and chat. As Esther joins them, Joan, who arrived at Belsize earlier, discovers Esther's photo in a fashion magazine, which Esther denies is hers. One morning, Esther doesn’t get her breakfast tray. She believes it's a mistake since only those set for shock therapy skip breakfast. However, the nurse confirms her breakfast will be delayed. This leads Esther to hide in the corridor, overwhelmed with fear of the impending treatment and feeling betrayed by Dr. Nolan, who didn't warn her. Once Dr. Nolan arrives, she soothes Esther, explaining she didn't inform her to spare her a night of worry and promises to accompany her during the treatment. Miss Huey, the nurse who will administer the treatment, speaks gently to Esther. The moment the treatment begins, Esther loses consciousness.

chapter 18

Esther awakens after her electroconvulsive therapy alongside Dr. Nolan. She senses that her mental suffocation, which she often compared to a bell jar, has somewhat diminished. Dr. Nolan discloses that such sessions will occur thrice weekly. Later on, as Esther chisels an egg open, she's reminded of her past fascination with knives, but the reason why eludes her, her memory “slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the center of empty air.” Both Joan and Esther are recipients of letters from Buddy Willard, expressing his wish to visit them. Joan, who previously dated Buddy, admits her fondness for Buddy's family more than Buddy himself, finding them more ordinary than her family. Joan yearns for Buddy and his mother to visit. Initially, Esther despised the thought of his visit, yet now she perceives it as an opportunity to shut off that chapter of her life. Earlier that day, Esther had discovered Joan and DeeDee, another patient, in an intimate moment. She discusses with Dr. Nolan what women might find attractive in each other, to which Dr. Nolan replies, “Tenderness.” Joan confesses to Esther that she prefers her more than Buddy. Esther recalls encounters with other lesbians, two classmates and a professor. She sternly chastises Joan before leaving. Esther confides in Dr. Nolan her desire for the same liberation men have, but she feels the menace of pregnancy looming over her. She shares the chastity pamphlet her mother sent, evoking laughter from Dr. Nolan who labels it as propaganda and suggests a doctor who could assist her. Esther visits this doctor to procure a diaphragm. Amidst women with infants at the clinic, Esther contemplates her absence of motherly instincts. The doctor fitting her with the diaphragm is unassuming and cheerful, and Esther feels a rush of liberation from fear of an unwanted pregnancy and marrying the wrong man. Now equipped with birth control, Esther seeks the right man to whom she can willingly give herself.

chapter 19

Joan discloses her intentions to Esther of pursuing a career in psychiatry and moving in with a Cambridge-based nurse. Despite Esther preparing to leave the hospital for college's winter term, Joan's imminent departure breeds envy in her. During her town visit, Esther encounters a mathematics professor, Irwin, at Harvard's library. Following a coffee, she accompanies him to his apartment for a drink. An unexpected visit from Irwin's occasional lover, Olga, is swiftly rebuffed by him. Esther dines with Irwin and secures Dr. Nolan's approval to spend the night in Cambridge, under the pretense of staying at Joan's. She perceives Irwin to be an ideal candidate for her sexual initiation, valuing his intelligence, past experiences, and anonymity. She envisions her first sexual encounter with an "impersonal, priestlike official, as in the tales of tribal rites". Although she anticipates a transformative experience, she is met only with intense pain. Bleeding profusely, Esther is initially not overly concerned, recalling tales of virginal bleeding after wedding night intercourse. Her bleeding continues unabated, leading her to bandage her wound with a towel before seeking Irwin's help to get to Joan's place. Upon revealing her situation to Joan and claiming to be hemorrhaging, Joan, blind to the actual situation, escorts her to the hospital's emergency room. The examining doctor expresses astonishment at the significant blood loss from a first sexual encounter, a rare occurrence, and manages to halt the bleeding. Several days later, Dr. Quinn visits Esther's room to inform her of Joan, who has since returned to the asylum, has gone missing. Despite her ignorance of Joan's whereabouts, Esther wakes up the following morning to the horrific news of Joan's suicide by hanging in the woods.

chapter 20

Esther is looking forward to her college return in seven days. She imagines the recognizable academic environment that's waiting for her. Her mother wants them to get back into their old routine, pretending Esther's mental health crisis was just a terrible dream. However, Esther knows she can't erase the memory of her mental breakdown. When Buddy visits, Esther assists him to unbury his car from the snow. He seems less assured both physically and emotionally. He queries if Esther believes he added to her or Joan's mental illness. Esther remembers Dr. Nolan's words that no one is responsible for Joan's demise, especially not Esther herself. She tells Buddy he wasn't the cause of their issues, greatly comforting him. He carelessly questions who would marry Esther now after her stay in a mental institution. Esther bids Valerie farewell, and demands that Irwin cover her medical expenses from the night they became intimate. He complies and inquires when he'll see her next. She responds with a firm "Never," disconnects the call, feeling relief that he can't locate her or get in touch. She experiences a sense of freedom. Esther attends Joan's burial, listening to her own heart repeating: "I am, I am, I am." She awaits her concluding doctors' meeting. Despite Dr. Nolan's reassurances, she’s anxious. She feels prepared to exit Belsize, but is aware that her mental illness, symbolized by the bell jar, might reoccur. She enters the room filled with doctors, bringing the novel to an end.

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