The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

It is the summer of 1953. Esther Greenwood and 11 other female college students have won a national fashion magazine contest. They are spending a month in New York City, living at the Amazon hotel, working as guest editors, and being fêted around town. "I was supposed to be having the time of my life," says Esther—but she feels cut off from the festivities, hates the hot city, and finds the other contest winners boring. She is also obsessed with the upcoming electrocution of convicted Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

One evening Esther skips a scheduled party and goes to a bar with Doreen, a clever and sophisticated contest winner Esther has befriended. Doreen contrasts with Esther's other contest friend, Betsy, who is sweet and innocent and goes to the party as she is supposed to do. Esther and Doreen are joined in the bar by two older men. Esther lies to one of the men, Frankie, and tells him that her name is Elly Higginbottom. Doreen and the other man, Lenny Shepard, a famous deejay, hit it off and decide to leave for Lenny's apartment. Frankie leaves the group, and Esther decides to tag along with Doreen and Lenny: "I wanted to see as much as I could."

Analysis

The first paragraph of The Bell Jar is jarring, shocking readers with everything they need to know about Esther: her detachment, her obsession with death, her disgust at her surroundings, and her relentless determination to convey her uniquely feminine state of mind. For this 19-year-old who is coming of age, the Rosenberg execution and speculation about what it would feel like "being burned alive all along your nerves" are a fitting introduction. This fixation also announces Esther's preoccupation with death and foreshadows her shock treatment.

Readers learn that Esther inhabits what, to her, is a living hell. Each morning, the city's "country-wet freshness" is replaced by sizzling heat and "dry, cindery dust." She compares her obsession with the Rosenbergs to the first time she sees a cadaver: for weeks the image of its head "floated up" like a "black, noseless balloon" on a string—a disturbing comparison that may distance readers from Esther initially. However, this exterior hell mirrors the inner hell she experiences as she struggles to come of age and define a new feminine identity in a world where tradition dictates both at home and in the seemingly exotic city.

Esther reflects, "All the little successes I'd totted up so happily at college fizzled to nothing." Esther's, or Elly's (note the trying on of new names or identities throughout the text), search for this new feminine identity in New York City is characterized by depression, disgust, disappointment, isolation, and frustration.

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