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The Bell Jar | Plot Summary

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Summary

On the surface 19-year-old Esther Greenwood manages her life perfectly. She is a scholarship student at a prestigious college, gets top grades, and consistently wins awards, including, most recently, a guest editorship at a famous fashion magazine in New York City. Twelve young women have been chosen for this honor and are staying in a women's hotel together.

When the book begins, in the summer of 1953, Esther has been working at the magazine for a few days and is beginning to suffer from feelings of isolation and discouragement. She cannot focus on her work or enjoy the special treatment she and the other contest winners receive. She finds that her college successes do not help her navigate the rigid social expectations placed on women.

Of the 12 girls in the hotel, Esther is fondest of Doreen, a witty and sarcastic girl who encourages Esther to blow off her magazine responsibilities in favor of having a good time. Under Doreen's influence, Esther skips a number of planned social events, drinks too much, and meets some very unsuitable men. However, partying brings her no pleasure, and she is nearly assaulted on her final evening in New York City.

Esther frequently entertains flashbacks regarding her suitable on-again, off-again boyfriend, Buddy Willard, a Yale medical student. For a long time, Buddy seems to be the perfect match—but then Esther discovers that he once had an affair with a waitress. Instantly, her respect for him vanishes. She resents the sexual double standards of 1950s America. Why do women have to stay pure when men do not? How can a brilliant, creative young woman get married without sacrificing her ambitions? How can she stay unmarried without social condemnation? Later, Esther visits Buddy during his confinement in a sanitarium for tuberculosis, where she rejects his proposal of marriage and breaks her leg during a skiing accident.

Esther counts on spending the remainder of her summer enrolled in a competitive creative writing course, but when she arrives home, she learns that she has not been accepted into the class. Stuck at home in a sluggish suburb, Esther becomes dangerously depressed. She stops changing her clothes. She is unable to read, write, or use a pencil. No one believes that she has gone for weeks without sleep, but every night Esther stares at the clock until it is time to get up.

At last Esther sees a psychiatrist, Doctor Gordon, who recommends that she have shock therapy at his private hospital. The treatment is horrific, and it does not help. Esther decides that the only way to end her suffering is to kill herself. Slitting her wrists seems like the least painful choice, but Esther cannot bring herself to carry it out. Hanging herself is impossible without a beam for the rope. Drowning in the ocean seems too cold.

Esther's mother, incapable of understanding her daughter's pain, suggests that Esther stop "thinking too much about [herself]" and try helping other people. On her first day as a volunteer at the local hospital, Esther is assigned to bring flowers to new mothers in the maternity ward, but she botches the job and flees.

With the money in her bank account almost gone, Esther decides to visit her father's grave before ending her life. Professor Greenwood died when Esther was nine, and she has never seen the place he is buried. She has never even cried for him—but when she finds his gravestone, she breaks down and sobs "into the cold salt rain." The next day, when her mother is at work, Esther pens a note claiming she has gone for a long walk. Then she pushes her way into a crawl space in the cellar and swallows a bottle of sleeping pills.

After several days Esther is found and taken to a Boston city hospital. The psychiatric ward in the city hospital is a nightmare, and Esther refuses to cooperate with the staff. Hearing of her suicide attempt, Esther's college scholarship sponsor arranges to transfer her to a private hospital and pay for her treatment there. The new place is comfortable and attractive; Esther is free to wander the grounds, and she likes her female psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan. A high school acquaintance who also dated Buddy, Joan Giling, resides at the same hospital, and they form a friendship of sorts. Esther is prescribed shock and insulin therapy, but this time, the shock treatment is performed correctly. As Esther begins to recover, she discusses her sexual conflicts with Dr. Nolan, who sends her to a doctor for birth control.

Esther gains the right to leave the hospital for short periods. She takes advantage of this freedom by pretending she wants to spend the night with Joan, who has been released from the treatment facility, in Cambridge. Instead, she goes to the apartment of a math professor she has just met and allows him to seduce her. The experience is unexpectedly painful, and Esther begins to hemorrhage. Joan takes her to the hospital, where a doctor stops the bleeding. Later, Joan returns to the institution and hangs herself on the grounds.

Despite these setbacks Esther continues her slow recovery. As the book ends, she is on her way to the hospital interview that will determine whether she is ready to leave the institution.

The Bell Jar Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Esther is in NYC as a magazine editor contest winner.

Rising Action

2 In a flashback, Esther and Buddy watch a woman give birth.

3 Esther returns home and is rejected from a writing course.

4 Esther has her first shock treatment with Dr. Gordon.

5 Esther makes several unsuccessful suicide attempts.

6 Esther visits her father's grave for the first time.

Climax

7 Esther hides in the cellar and overdoses.

Falling Action

8 Esther hemorrhages after sex, and Joan commits suicide.

Resolution

9 Esther prepares to be discharged from the hospital.

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