The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

Esther and Constantin, the United Nations translator, meet for their previously arranged date. Constantin takes Esther to a UN session. As Esther watches a young Russian woman, a simultaneous interpreter, it occurs to her that she has not been happy since she was nine. She adds up the long list of things she cannot do and, for the first time, realizes how inadequate she feels. At dinner, she gets drunk and decides to let Constantin seduce her.

When she learns about Buddy's affair, Esther vows to "go out and sleep with somebody myself." She believes that the only real way to distinguish people is by their purity, and she is convinced that crossing this boundary line will change her life in spectacular ways. She recalls a boy named Eric she considers sleeping with, but he believes sex and love do not belong in the same relationship. When Eric says he might love Esther, she knows he will not want to have sex with her.

After dinner at Constantin's apartment, the pair listens to balalaika music, a type of Russian music produced from a three-stringed instrument. Esther remembers an article her mother sent her about the importance of female purity. Esther suggests that the article ignores women's feelings. Esther drowses off before anything sexual happens with Constantin. When she wakes at 3:00 a.m., Esther imagines being Constantin's wife, acknowledging that it would mean only a lack of romance and a gain of chores. Constantin awakens and drives her home. At home in bed, Esther is reminded of a skiing accident by a pain in her left shin.

Analysis

Esther makes a telling reference to one aspect of her purity dilemma: "Sleeping with Buddy wouldn't count," she says, "because he would still be one person ahead of me, it would have to be with somebody else." This reflection indicates that Esther views her relationship with Buddy and, in a larger sense, relationships between women and men in general, as competition between rivals. Esther has a reductive view of female and male relationships. People are either pure or impure; sex is a contest—one that she suspects Buddy is winning.

In Chapter 5, Esther mentions wishing she could come up with snappy answers to Buddy's sweeping statements. "When I was with him," she says, "I had to work to keep my head above water," as if being with Buddy makes her feel as if she is drowning or dying. Esther's sense of drowning suggests that being in a romantic relationship with a man threatens her sense of self or her identity. The threat is so real that it takes her a year to think of a reply when he insults her interest in poetry as an interest in dust. The imagined comeback, "So are the cadavers you cut up ... I reckon a good poem lasts a whole lot longer," illustrates something of Esther's worldview that the body is unsubstantial. It also underscores the notion of competition between the two. Esther likes the idea of "answering him back quite sharply, instead of just sitting around and saying, 'I guess so,'" asserting her desire to claim a sense of self in a world that overvalues masculine opinion and undervalues feminine opinion.

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