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The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Chapter 3 | Summary



Ladies' Day magazine throws a celebratory luncheon for the 12 contest winners. Doreen is absent from the lunch, and Betsy questions Esther about missing the fur show earlier that morning. With manic determination, Esther devours caviar, chicken, and avocado stuffed with crabmeat.

As she eats, Esther thinks back on her unpleasant morning. Her magazine editor, Jay Cee, had berated her for not taking her contest internship seriously.

Until this point, Esther has experienced nothing but success in her life. College honors, scholarships, and prizes have come effortlessly to her. Even in physics—where she understands literally nothing—Esther earns an A. This feat allows Esther to trick the college dean into allowing her to take a required chemistry course without having to turn in any work.

When Jay Cee ruthlessly lists the skills required for a career in publishing, Esther realizes that her college success will not help her much after graduation.


Esther has always viewed good grades as a path to success. She is so determined to achieve high grades at any cost, even at the cost of learning the material, that the prospect of a difficult chemistry class literally sickens her: "If I had to strain my brain with any more of that stuff I would go mad." She is as frightened of chemistry's unfamiliar rules as she is of society's familiar rules regarding accepted women's roles.

Jay Cee's unmasking of Esther reveals several important truths: Jay Cee is a rarity, a woman with a marriage and a career; as one of the text's mother figures, she has important information to offer Esther. However, Jay Cee's success in the publishing world is based on razor-sharp focus, an overabundance of real, rather than projected, knowledge, and an "offer [of] something more than the run-of-the-mill person." It may be that Jay Cee's "plug ugly looks" and "strict office suit" insulate her from society's gender norms. The strategies Esther has prided herself on thus far, getting good grades or scholarships for the sake of getting other good grades or other scholarships, are beginning to fail her. When Jay Cee asks what Esther wants to do after graduation, Esther, lost, suddenly realizes that she does not know. "I couldn't hide the truth much longer," she admits. "I was letting up, slowing down, dropping clean out of the race."

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