The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Chapter 20 | Summary



It is January, and if all goes well at Esther's discharge interview in one week, she will be able to return to college. Doctor Nolan has warned her that people will treat her gingerly or even avoid her, but Esther is prepared to deal with this situation. Whether or not the bell jar descends again, she does not plan to hide her past from others or from herself.

Buddy Willard drops in to visit, and Esther helps him dig his car from the snow. She sees that he is changed; his "old, sure smile" is gone when he asks Esther whether anything he has done caused her illness or Joan's. Esther reassures him that he is not to blame.

Esther phones Irwin and asks him to pay for her emergency room visit, which he agrees to do. She declines to see him again.

Esther attends Joan's funeral, where she sees some old friends, patients, and nurses.

Esther gives herself a once-over before her interview with the doctors. She is scared and wishes she could be confident about her future, but all she can do is begin to live again.


The underlying theme here is control. What are people able to control, and what is beyond their control?

Esther asks herself this question repeatedly throughout the novel in a variety of ways. When Buddy visits, she sees that he has been wondering the same thing. His own version of the question is so Buddy-ish that Esther cannot help laughing, but then she recalls that it helps her when Doctor Nolan promises that she, Esther, did not do anything to cause Joan's death. It is a sign of Esther's growing compassion for herself and others that she is able to answer Buddy kindly. She does not even mind too much when Buddy wonders whether anyone will marry her; it is a question that she herself cannot answer.

Esther does take appropriate control of one issue: she gets Irwin to pay for her emergency room visit but refuses to see him again. She suffers the injury, and Irwin can suffer the payment, but she is not going to put him in charge of her sex life. It is not the most satisfying resolution emotionally, but nothing readers have seen of Esther suggests that sex is something she is ready to deal with on an emotional level.

Nor is she really ready for the future—but who ever is? Esther can only see "question marks" ahead, but adults know that the future is definitely out of their control. Her seams are straight, her shoes cracked but polished. She is in charge of what she can manage, and that will have to do.

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