The Bell Jar – Chapters 19–20

Summary: Chapter 19
Joan tells Esther she plans to become a psychiatrist.
She will be leaving Belsize to live with a nurse in Cambridge. Even
though Esther is due to leave the hospital for winter semester at
college, Joan’s eminent departure makes her jealous. While on town
leave, Esther meets a math professor named Irwin on the steps of
the library at Harvard. They have coffee together, and then she
goes to his apartment for a beer. A woman named Olga rings the bell.
She seems to be a sometime lover of Irwin’s, but he sends her away.
Esther and Irwin go out for dinner, and she gets permission from
Dr. Nolan to spend the night in Cambridge by saying she plans to
sleep at Joan’s apartment. Esther thinks that Irwin would be a good
person to sleep with. He is intelligent, experienced, and unknown.
She wants to sleep with an “impersonal, priestlike official, as
in the tales of tribal rites.” When they return to Irwin’s apartment
and have sex, she expects to feel transformed, but merely feels
sharp pain.
Esther realizes that she is bleeding. She worries, but
Irwin reassures her, and she remembers stories about virgins bleeding
on their wedding night. The bleeding does not stop, however, and
Esther bandages herself with a towel and asks Irwin to drive her
to Joan’s apartment. Esther shows Joan her problem, telling Joan
she is hemorrhaging. Joan does not suspect the real story, and takes
her to the hospital emergency room in a taxicab. The doctor examines
Esther and expresses surprise, saying that such blood loss after
the first sexual encounter is extremely rare. He stops the bleeding.
Several nights later, a woman named Dr. Quinn knocks on Esther’s
door. Joan, who has returned to the asylum, is missing. Esther does
not know where she is. She wakes the next morning to the news that Joan
hanged herself in the woods.
Summary: Chapter 20

To the person in the bell jar, blank
and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.
How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe,
somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions,
wouldn’t descend again?

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Esther anticipates her return to college in a week. It
is snowing, and she thinks of the familiar college landscape that
awaits her. Her mother has told her that they will “take up where
[they] left off” and act as if Esther’s bout with madness has been
a bad dream. Esther knows she will not be able to forget what she
has gone through. Buddy comes to visit, and Esther helps him dig
his car out of the snow. He seems less physically and emotionally
self-confident. He asks Esther if she thinks he contributed to her
or Joan’s madness. Esther thinks of Dr. Nolan’s reassurance that
no one is to blame for Joan’s death, least of all Esther. She reassures
Buddy that he did not cause their problems, which seems to hearten
him greatly. Thoughtlessly, he wonders out loud who will marry Esther
now that she has been in an asylum.
Esther says goodbye to Valerie, and calls Irwin to demand
that he pay her doctor’s bill from the night they had sex. He agrees
and asks when he will see her again. She answers, “Never,” and hangs
up on him, relieved that he cannot contact or find her. She feels
free. Esther attends Joan’s funeral and listens to her heart beat
its mantra: “I am, I am, I am.” Esther waits for her final interview
with her doctors. Even though Dr. Nolan has reassured her, she is
nervous. She feels ready to leave Belsize, but realizes that the
bell jar of her madness may descend again later in her life. She
walks into the room of doctors, and the novel ends.
Analysis: Chapters 19–20
Esther finally loses her virginity, and it is not the
transformation she expects. Still, the experience pleases her in
some ways. Esther feels relieved to relinquish her virginity and
its attendant worries; she describes her virginity as “a millstone
around my neck.” Furthermore, she exercises control by choosing
a man who meets her criteria of intelligence and anonymity. These
criteria are not conventional. Esther wants not a relationship,
but a ritualistic, formal, impersonal first sexual experience. Irwin’s
involvement with Olga and his admission that he enjoys many women
does not dissuade Esther but encourages her, because it suggests
Irwin has the kind of experience she needs to offset her own ignorance
of sex.
Esther’s mental health seems greatly improved in these
final chapters. Whereas before she elicited no sympathy for Joan,
even after learning that her own suicide attempt inspired Joan to
try to take her own life, in Chapter 20 she
asks Dr. Nolan if she should feel responsible for Joan’s death.
Esther can now empathize with others, and think of something other
than her own pain. She also demonstrates the maturity and strength
that are the rewards of surviving such a harrowing experience. When
Buddy visits, his selfish, thoughtless immaturity contrasts with
her cool strength. Like someone much older, Esther assures Buddy
that she is fine, and generously soothes his fears that he causes
women to go mad.
Joan’s death elicits quiet reflection in Esther. This
quiet suggests Esther’s unconventional way of expressing herself.
It also suggests that, although Esther does not particularly like
Joan, Esther and Joan are two parts of a whole. Esther does not
think of Joan as her friend. As she says in Chapter 18,
Joan fascinates and disgusts her, for “her thoughts and feelings
seemed a wry, black image of [Esther’s] own.” Because Joan functions
partly as Esther’s double, her burial symbolizes Esther’s burial
of the diseased, suicidal part of herself. This rebirth allows the
novel to end on a hopeful note, although the symbol of the bell
jar returns when Esther asks, “How did I know that someday . . .
the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”