The Bell Jar – Chapters 7–8

Summary: Chapter 7

I saw the world divided into people who
had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t. . . . I thought a spectacular
change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line.
(See Important Quotations Explained)

Constantin picks up Esther and drives her to the UN in
his convertible. They discover that neither likes Mrs. Willard.
Esther finds Constantin attractive even though he is too short for
her, and when he holds her hand she feels happier than she has since
she was nine and ran on the beach with her father the summer before
his death. While at the UN, Esther thinks it odd that she never
before realized that she was only happy until the age of nine. The
skills of the interpreters impress Esther, and she thinks about
all of the things she cannot do: cook, write in shorthand, dance,
sing, ride a horse, ski, or speak foreign languages. She feels that
the one thing she is good at, winning scholarships, will end once
college is over. She sees her life as a fig tree. The figs represent
different life choices—a husband and children, a poet, a professor,
an editor, a traveler—but she wants all of them and cannot choose,
so the figs rot and drop off the tree uneaten.
Constantin takes Esther to dinner, and she feels better
right away, wondering if her fig tree vision came from her empty
stomach. The meal is so pleasant that she decides to let Constantin
seduce her. Esther has decided she should sleep with someone so
that she can get even with Buddy. She recalls a boy named Eric with
whom she once discussed having sex. He lost his virginity to a prostitute
and was bored and repulsed by the experience. He decided that he
would never sleep with a woman he loved, because sex strikes him
as animalistic. Esther thought he might be a good person to have
sex with because he seemed sensible, but he wrote to tell her he
had feelings for her. Because of his views on sex, she knew this
confession meant he would never sleep with her, so she wrote to
tell him she was engaged.
Constantin invites Esther to come to his apartment and
listen to music, and she hopes, as her mother would say, that this
invitation “could mean only one thing.” She remembers an article
her mother sent her listing all of the reasons that a woman should
save sex for marriage. She decides that virginity is impractical,
because even someone as clean-cut as Buddy is not a virgin, and
she rejects a double sexual standard for men and women. To Esther’s
disappointment, Constantin only holds her hand. Sleepy with wine,
she lays down in his bed. He joins her, but the two merely sleep.
She wakes, disoriented, at three in the morning and watches Constantin
sleep, thinking about what it would be like to be married. She decides
marriage consists of washing and cleaning, and that it would endanger her
ambitions. She remembers Buddy telling her “in a sinister, knowing
way” that she will not want to write poems once she has children,
and she worries that marriage brainwashes women. Constantin wakes
and drives her home.
Summary: Chapter 8
Esther remembers Mr. Willard driving her to visit Buddy
in the sanatorium. He stopped along the way and told her that he
would like to have her for a daughter. Esther began to cry, and
Mr. Willard misinterpreted her tears as tears of joy. To Esther’s
dismay, Mr. Willard left her alone with Buddy. Buddy had gained
weight in the sanatorium. He showed Esther a poem he had published
in an esoteric magazine. She thought the poem was awful, although
she expressed neutrality. Buddy proposed by saying, “How would you
like to be Mrs. Buddy Willard?” Esther told him she would never
marry. Buddy laughed at this notion. Esther reminded him that he
accused her of being neurotic because she wanted mutually exclusive
things, and said she will always want mutually exclusive things.
He said he wanted to be with her.
Buddy decided to teach Esther to ski. He borrowed equipment for
her from various people. Esther took the rope tow to the top of the
mountain and Buddy stood at the bottom beckoning to her to ski down.
At first she felt terrified, but then it occurred to her that she might
kill herself. She skied straight down at top speed, utterly happy.
She felt she was skiing into the past. But suddenly she fell, her mouth
filled with ice, and the ordinary world returned. She wanted to
ski down the mountain again, but Buddy told her, with strange satisfaction,
that she had broken her leg in two places.
Analysis: Chapters 7–8
At the UN, Esther begins to doubt her own worth for the
first time. Her identity depends on her success in school. She knows
herself, and the world knows her, as the brilliant student who wins
piles of scholarships. The end of college looms in the near future,
and with it the end of scholarships and prizes, and Esther fears
the end of college will erase her identity and success. She feels
“like a racehorse without racetracks.” Her insecurity mounts when
she visualizes her life as a fig tree, using imagery that makes
her conundrum clear: she feels she can choose only one profession,
only one life, to the exclusion of all others. She cannot decide
to be a mother and a professor, or a wife and a
poet. Esther feels enormous pressure from her family and friends
to marry and have children, but she also longs to become a poet,
so she feels paralyzed with indecision.
The article that Esther’s mother sends her reinforces
the message she receives from Mrs. Willard and Buddy: women and
men have fundamentally different needs and natures, and a woman
must discipline her behavior in anticipation of pleasing her future
husband. The article also reinforces a sexual double standard: while
it is crucial to a woman’s happiness to stay “pure” until marriage,
purity is optional for men. Esther rejects this double standard,
explaining, “I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have
a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one
pure and one not.”
Esther’s conversation with Eric adds a further dimension
to the picture of the limiting sexual conventions of her time. Eric,
a kind and sensible person, believes that women can be divided into
two categories: virgins and whores. He thinks that sex is dirty,
something that reduces women to animals, and that nice girls should remain
untainted by nasty sexual experience. These categories do not work
for Esther, who feels she can have sex without turning herself into
an immoral animal. Though she does not explicitly reject Eric’s
categories, she implicitly seeks a sexual life that will allow her to
be adventurous but also to maintain her dignity and sense of self. Her
quest to lose her virginity embodies these goals, though it is marked
by some confusion. Esther believes that losing her virginity will
transform her, because her culture continually sends the message
that an immense gap exists between virginity and sexual experience.
Plath also suggests that Esther feels comfortable trying to lose
her virginity to Constantin partly because he makes her feel happy
as her father did. When Constantin holds her hand, the platonic
gesture reminds her of her father, and she begins to feel comfortable
with him.
Remembering her skiing experience, Esther implies that
she liked the thought of killing herself. When she considered that
the trip down the mountain might kill her, the thought “formed in
[her] mind coolly as a tree or a flower.” She understood her plunge
down the mountain not as a relinquishment of control, but as an
exercise of control. She aimed past the people and things of the
ordinary world toward the white sun, “the still, bright point at
the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet
baby cradled in its mother’s belly.” Moving toward death made Esther
happy, and she became distressed only when the ordinary world began
reforming itself in her perception. She understands her near-death
experience as a rite of purification rather than as self-injury.