The Bell Jar: Plot Summary
Esther Greenwood, a college student from Massachusetts,
travels to New York
to work on a magazine for a month as a guest editor. She works for Jay Cee, a sympathetic but demanding woman. Esther and eleven
other college girls live in a womenís hotel. The sponsors of their trip wine
and dine them and shower them with presents. Esther knows she should be having
the time of her life, but she feels deadened. The execution of the Rosenbergs
as Communist spies worries her, and she can embrace neither the rebellious
attitude of her friend Doreen nor the perky conformism of her friend Betsy.
Esther and the other girls suffer food poisoning after a fancy banquet. Esther
attempts to lose her virginity with a UN interpreter, but he seems uninterested.
She questions her abilities and worries about what she will do after college.
On her last night in the city, she goes on a disastrous blind date with a man
named Marco, who tries to rape her.
Esther wonders if she should marry and live a conventional
domestic life, or attempt to satisfy her ambition. Buddy Willard, her college
boyfriend, is recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitarium, and wants to marry
Esther when he regains his health. To an outside observer, Buddy appears to be
the ideal mate: he is handsome, gentle, intelligent, and ambitious. But he does
not understand Estherís desire to write poetry, and when he confesses that he
slept with a waitress while dating Esther, Esther thinks him a hypocrite and
decides she cannot marry him. She sets out to lose her virginity as though in
pursuit of the answer to an important mystery.
Esther returns to the Boston
suburbs and discovers that she has not been accepted to a writing class she had
planned to take. She will spend the summer with her mother instead. She makes
vague plans to write a novel, learn shorthand, and start her senior thesis.
Soon she finds the feelings of unreality she experienced in New York taking over her life. She is unable
to read, write, or sleep, and she stops bathing. Her mother takes her to Dr.
Gordon, a psychiatrist who prescribes electric shock therapy for Esther. Esther
becomes more unstable than ever after this terrifying treatment, and decides to
kill herself. She tries to slit her wrists, but can only bring herself to slash
her calf. She tries to hang herself, but cannot find a place to tie the rope in
her low‑ceilinged house. At the beach with friends, she attempts to drown
herself, but she keeps floating to the surface of the water. Finally, she hides
in a basement crawl space and takes a large quantity of sleeping pills.
Esther awakens to find herself in the hospital. She has
survived her suicide attempt with no permanent physical injuries. Once her body
heals, she is sent to the psychological ward in the city hospital, where she is
uncooperative, paranoid, and determined to end her life. Eventually, Philomena Guinea, a
famous novelist who sponsors Estherís college scholarship, pays to move her to
a private hospital. In this more enlightened environment, Esther comes to trust
her new psychiatrist, a woman named Dr. Nolan. She slowly begins to improve
with a combination of talk therapy, insulin injections, and properly
administered electric shock therapy. She becomes friends with Joan, a woman
from her hometown and college who has had experiences similar to Estherís. She
is repulsed, however, when Joan makes a sexual advance toward her.
As Esther improves, the hospital officials grant her
permission to leave the hospital from time to time. During one of these excursions,
she finally loses her virginity with a math professor named Irwin. She begins
bleeding profusely and has to go to the emergency room. One morning, Joan, who
seemed to be improving, hangs herself. Buddy comes to visit Esther, and both
understand that their relationship is over. Esther will leave the mental
hospital in time to start winter semester at college. She believes that she has
regained a tenuous grasp on sanity, but knows that the bell jar of her madness
could descend again at any time.