The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Chapter 19 | Summary

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Summary

Now that she has been fitted for a diaphragm, Esther decides she is ready to lose her virginity—the struggle over purity has been oppressing her for some time. Practically, she decides to take care of the matter by hooking up with the first suitable man she meets rather than waiting to have her first sexual experience with someone she loves. She meets a math professor named Irwin and decides he will do.

Unfortunately, sex with Irwin causes Esther to hemorrhage. Irwin drives her to the apartment where Joan is now living; Joan has trouble finding a doctor who can help Esther. None of the male doctors Joan calls will agree to help. One of them hangs up when he hears the word "period." It is Sunday—"the doctor's paradise," says Esther—and she imagines a sea of men everywhere "resolutely being people, not doctors." Finally Joan takes Esther to the hospital in a taxi. Even the doctor in the emergency department is strangely callous. He whistles when he sees Esther's wound and laughs when she asks whether he can fix it: "Oh, I can fix it, all right," he answers aggressively. Patched up, Esther returns to the psychiatric hospital. A few nights later, she is awakened by Joan's doctor, who tells her that Joan, who has also returned to the hospital, is missing. At dawn, Joan's doctor again comes to Esther's room and tells her that Joan has hanged herself on the grounds.

Analysis

Esther's hemorrhage has puzzled readers since The Bell Jar was published. Can losing one's virginity cause hemorrhaging? That question of biology tends to overshadow most of the action in the chapter, so it is worth some attention. Unfortunately, the answer is not easy to find. Plath's biographers do not mention that she had an experience similar to Esther's, though in later life, she suffered a miscarriage that may have caused her to hemorrhage.

So it seems safe to assume that Esther's hemorrhage takes place for symbolic reasons rather than autobiographical ones. Why does Esther bleed so copiously after her first sexual encounter?

Plath may be using Esther's experience as a metaphor for the battle between the sexes or a battle between Esther's will and her conscience. Whatever the cause of Esther's bleeding, it is brought on by sex, and therefore, no male authority figure will agree to help her.

Esther is neither physically nor mentally traumatized by her injury, but it is plain that her act of sexual freedom will not be rewarded by a patriarchal society.

Esther's act of sexual freedom may also be viewed as the death she has so actively sought throughout the novel, and in death, there is often blood. In keeping with the novel's themes, blood, too, accompanies birth. By sacrificing her virginity, Esther also sacrifices many of the gender conventions that have stifled her growth as a woman. In this act, she may successfully kill off some of the things she does not like about herself and create for herself a kind of rebirth or self-birth into a new, more authentic woman. Hence, the reason she suffers no psychological trauma and perhaps, also, the reason she no longer needs Joan as her dark double.

Another interpretation is that the heavy blood loss is a threat to Esther's physical life, as the notion of heterosexual monogamy is a threat to her psychological life. It may be no coincidence that Joan—the lesbian twin of Esther—dies immediately after Esther has sex with a man.

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