The Bell Jar – Chapters 1–2

Summary: Chapter 1

I guess I should have been excited the
way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react.
I felt very still and very empty.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

It is the summer of 1953 and Esther
Greenwood, a college student, is living in New York and working
at a month-long job as guest editor for a fashion magazine. As the
novel opens, Esther worries about the electrocution of the Rosenbergs,
a husband and wife who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union
and sentenced to death. She also worries about the fact that she
cannot enjoy her job, her new clothes, or the parties she attends,
despite realizing that most girls would envy her. Esther feels numb
and unmoored, and thinks there is something wrong with her. She
lives in the Amazon, a women’s hotel, with the other eleven girls
who work as guest editors and with upper-class girls training to
work as secretaries. Esther spends most of her time with the beautiful,
sarcastic Doreen, a southerner who shares Esther’s cynicism. Betsy,
a wholesome girl from the Midwest, persistently offers her friendship
to Esther. One day, on her way to a party organized by the magazine,
Betsy ask Esther if she wants to share a cab. Esther refuses, catching
a cab with Doreen instead. While their cab sits in traffic, a man
approaches and persuades them to join him and some friends in a
bar. The man’s name is Lenny Shepherd, and he exhibits immediate
interest in Doreen. He persuades his friend Frankie to keep Esther
company, but she treats Frankie coldly because he is short and she
towers over him. Esther orders a vodka. She does not know much about
drinks, and orders them at random, hoping to stumble on something
she likes. She tells the men her name is Elly Higginbottom. Frankie
leaves alone, and Esther and Doreen leave with Lenny.
Summary: Chapter 2
Esther and Doreen go to Lenny’s apartment, which is decorated
like a cowboy’s ranch. He puts on a tape of his own radio show,
saying he enjoys the sound of his voice, and gives the girls drinks.
He offers to call a friend for Esther, but Esther refuses. Doreen
dances with Lenny while Esther watches, lonely and impassive, growing
sleepy. The couple begins fighting playfully, biting one another
and screaming, and Esther sees that Doreen’s breasts have slipped
out of her strapless dress. Esther decides to leave. Although she
is drunk, she manages to walk forty-eight blocks by five blocks
home. She arrives home sober, her feet slightly swollen from the
long walk. In her room, she stares out the window and feels her
isolation from New York and from life in general. She takes a hot
bath and feels purified. She falls asleep, only to be wakened by
a drunken, semiconscious Doreen pounding on her door with the night
maid. Once Esther opens the door, the maid leaves, and Doreen begins
mumbling. Esther decides to leave Doreen in the hall. As she lowers
her onto the carpet, Doreen vomits and passes out. Esther decides
that though she will continue to spend time with and observe Doreen,
“deep down” she will have “nothing at all to do with her.” She feels
that, at heart, she resembles the wholesome Betsy more than she
resembles Doreen. When Esther opens the door the following morning, Doreen
is gone.
Analysis: Chapters 1–2
Esther narrates The Bell Jar in girlish,
slangy prose, sounding mature and detached mainly when speaking
of her own morbidity and depression. The first sentence of the novel
sets the tone: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted
the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
Esther feels misplaced, sad, and removed from reality. She lacks
the cheery good humor that society expects of her, and that she
expects of herself. She knows that most girls long to do what she
is doing, and she cannot understand her own lack of enthusiasm.
It is instructive to read Plath’s own letter to her mother during
her stint as a guest editor in New York, for in it she presents
the chipper front that Esther struggles to maintain: “At first I
was disappointed at not being Fiction Ed, but now that I see how
all-inclusive my work is, I love it. . . . [A]ll is relatively un-tense
now, almost homey, in fact.” Plath manages to sound appropriately
cheery, flexible, and grateful in this letter, just as Esther manages
to pass herself off as suitably happy in front of her employer and
sponsors.
Plath paints Esther as not just unhappy, but touchingly
inexperienced. When Doreen says that Yale men are stupid, the easily
influenced Esther instantly decides that Billy, a Yale man, suffers
from stupidity. Esther knows nothing about alcohol, and says, “My dream
was someday ordering a drink and finding out it tasted wonderful.”
Esther has determination that counters her inexperience, however,
as she proves when she grits her teeth, looks at her street map,
and manages to walk the miles back to her hotel while drunk.
The first two chapters contrast the ideal that life offers
a talented and lucky girl like Esther, and her actual experiences
of the world. She should feel thrilled by the social whirl of her
charmed life in New York, but the death of the Rosenbergs obsesses
her. The wealthy girls at her hotel should epitomize glamour, freedom,
and happiness, but they seem spoiled and “bored as hell.” New York should
set the stage for romantic, magical encounters with fascinating
men, but Esther gets left with a short older man, and Doreen’s encounter
with Lenny proves ugly and scary. Lenny plays a song that idealizes
faithful love and marriage, but calls Doreen a “bitch” when she
bites him, the prelude to their sexual encounter. The beautiful
and confident Doreen, whom Esther idealizes, turns herself into a
helpless, vomiting heap. The excitement of a big city, material
success, romance, and love, get rewritten as an execution, boredom, selfishness,
and brutality. Esther’s distaste for her life seems in part a reasonable
response to her disillusionment at finding her dream summer lacking,
but also a harbinger of her impending mental illness.
In the first chapter, the narrator mentions in an aside
that she now has a baby. Although we never hear about the baby or
Esther’s adult life again, this remark tells us that when she narrates
them, Esther is likely a few years removed from the experiences
the novel describes.