The Bell Jar – Chapters 5–6

Summary: Chapter 5
The morning after her sickness, Esther receives a call
from Constantin, a simultaneous interpreter at the United Nations
and an acquaintance of Mrs. Willard. Constantin invites Esther to
come see the UN and get something to eat. Esther assumes Constantin
asked her out as a favor to Mrs. Willard, but she agrees to go nonetheless. Esther
thinks about Mrs. Willard’s son, Buddy, who is currently in a sanitarium
recovering from tuberculosis. Buddy wants to marry Esther, and Esther
thinks about how odd it is that she worshipped Buddy from afar before
they met, and now that he wants to marry her she loathes him.
Esther recalls her tipping mishaps: upon her arrival
in New York, she failed to tip the bellhop who brought her suitcase
to her room, and the first time she rode in a cab, the cabdriver
sneered at her ten percent tip. Esther opens the book sent by the Ladies’
Day magazine staff. A cloying get-well card falls out.
Esther pages through the books, and finds a story about a fig tree.
In the story, a Jewish man and a nun from an adjoining convent meet
under a fig tree. One day, as they watch a chick hatch, they touch
hands. The next day, the nun does not come out, and in her place
comes the kitchen maid. Esther sees parallels between this story
and her doomed relationship with Buddy. She thinks about the differences
between the two couples: she and Buddy are Unitarian, not Catholic
and Jewish, and they saw a baby being born, not a chick hatching.
Esther thinks of Buddy’s recent letters, in which he
tells her that he has found poems written by a doctor, which encourages
him to think that doctors and writers can get along. This comment
marks a change from his old way of thinking: he once told Esther
that a poem is “a piece of dust.” At the time, Esther could think
of nothing to say in reply, and now she composes sharp speeches
she could have made criticizing his work as meaningless, and his
cadavers as dust. She thinks that curing people is no better than
writing “poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when
they were unhappy or sick or couldn’t sleep.” Esther recalls the
beginning of her relationship with Buddy. She had a crush on him
for years, and one day he dropped by her home and said he might
like to see her at college. He stopped at her dorm several months
later, explaining that he was on campus to take Joan Gilling to
a dance. Angry, Esther said she had a date in a few minutes. Buddy
departed, displeased, but left Esther a letter inviting her to the
Yale Junior Prom. He treated her like a friend at the prom, but
afterward kissed her. She felt little besides eagerness to tell
the other girls of her adventure.
Summary: Chapter 6
Esther continues to remember the progression of her relationship with
Buddy. She went to visit him at Yale Medical School, and since she
had been asking to see interesting sights at the hospital, he showed
her cadavers and fetuses in jars, which she viewed calmly. They
attended a lecture on diseases, and then went to see a baby being
born. Buddy and his friend Will joked that Esther should not watch
the birth, or she would never want to have a baby. Buddy told her
that the woman had been given a drug, and would not remember her
pain. Esther thought the drug sounded exactly like something invented
by a man. She hated the idea that the drug tricks the woman into
forgetting her pain. The woman had to be cut in order to free the
baby, and the sight of the blood and the birth upset Esther, although
she said nothing to Buddy.
After the birth, they went to Buddy’s room, where Buddy
asked Esther if she had ever seen a naked man. She said no, and
he asked if she would like to see him naked. She agreed, and he
took off his pants. The sight of him naked made her think of “turkey
neck and turkey gizzards,” and she felt depressed. She refused to
let him see her naked, and then asked him if he had ever slept with
a woman, expecting him to say that he was saving himself for marriage.
He confessed to sleeping with a waitress named Gladys at a summer
job in Cape Cod. He claimed she seduced him, and admitted that they slept
together for ten weeks.
Esther was not bothered by the idea that Buddy slept with
someone, but was angry that he hypocritically presented himself
as virginal and innocent. Esther asked students at her college what
they would think if a boy they had been dating confessed to sleeping
with someone, and they said a woman could not be angry unless she
were pinned or engaged. When she asked Buddy what his mother thought of
the affair, Buddy said he told his mother, “Gladys was free, white, and
twenty-one.” Esther decided to break up with Buddy, but just as she
had made up her mind, Buddy called her long-distance and told her
he had TB. She did not feel sorry but relieved, because she knew she
would not have to see him very much. She decided to tell the girls in
her dorm that she and Bobby were practically engaged, and they left
her alone on Saturday nights, admiring her for studying in order to
mask her pain at Buddy’s illness.
Analysis: Chapters 5–6
Society expects Esther, a well-educated middle-class girl,
to find a nice, responsible young man and become his loving wife.
As Mrs. Willard explains to Buddy, “What a man is is an arrow into
the future, and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off
from.” In her conventional view, a woman must support her husband
by creating an attractive and orderly home and by nurturing him
and his ambitions. This vision troubles Esther, who has always nurtured ambitions
of her own, and has never aspired simply to help a husband. It seems
that she cannot have both marriage and a career, and that marrying
someone would mean relinquishing her dreams of writing. Failing
to marry Buddy would strike most people as lunacy, however. Mrs.
Willard and Esther’s mother, grandmother, and classmates see Buddy
as an ideal match: he is handsome, intelligent, and ambitious. Esther
herself thinks him the ideal man before she gets to know him. But
she soon understands Buddy’s limitations. He cares for Esther, but
he cannot understand her passion for literature, he patronizes her
with his supposedly superior understanding of the world, and, perhaps
worst of all, he is boring. Something of a mama’s boy, he seeks
a woman who shares his values and does not aspire to anything beyond
wifely duties and motherhood.
Buddy separates the pleasures of sex from the pleasures
of cozy domesticity. Because he imagines Esther as his future wife,
he does not imagine that he could have passionate sex with her.
Instead, he removes his clothes in front of her as if their sexual
encounters will be a clinical duty. Because he does not associate
Esther with sex, he feels only a twinge of guilt at sleeping with
Gladys, a passionate girl he does not plan to marry. Examining her
own feelings, Esther realizes that she does not object to sex before
marriage, but she does object to Buddy’s deception. She hates the
fact that he presented himself as pure.