The Bell Jar

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The Bell Jar Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next morning, Esther receives a phone call from Constantin, a simultaneous interpreter at the U.N. and an acquaintance of Mrs. Willard. He arranges to pick her up in the afternoon. At first Esther is excited to meet him, but she realizes that he is just fulfilling a favor owed to Mrs. Willard and feels depressed, thinking this man will be just as much a disappointment as Buddy Willard, Mrs. Willard’s son and the man Esther is expected to marry. Esther is certain she will never marry him because he is a hypocrite. She has not, however, gotten the opportunity yet to tell Buddy this information because he contracted tuberculosis right when she realized the truth about him and she feels she has to wait until he’s well to break the news.
Though at first Constantin seems to be an excitingly exotic foreign figure, his ties to Mrs. Willard draw him right back into the strictures of conventional social expectations that Esther already feels so oppressed by. Buddy Willard is a weight around her neck. On top of feeling burdened by his personal hypocrisy and by her desire to be rid of him, Esther is burdened by other people’s belief in his excellence and in her future as his wife.
Themes
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Esther decides to skip breakfast so as to be able to skip getting dressed for breakfast and lie in bed all morning. She doesn’t want to have a tray sent up because then she’d have to tip the sender and she has already muddled tipping etiquette twice in NY, not knowing the proper contexts or rate to tip.
Esther’s reasoning—choosing to skip a meal just to avoid the potential awkwardness of tipping—demonstrates her lack of confidence surrounding social expectations and customs.
Themes
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Esther picks up the story collection sent over by Ladies’ Day and reads a story about a fig-tree that a Jewish man and “a beautiful dark nun” daily meet at to pick figs. One day they watch a bird hatching in a nest in the tree and touch the backs of their hands together. To the man’s dismay, the nun never comes to pick figs again and the convent sends a sour kitchen maid instead. Esther loves the story and wants “to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig-tree.”
The story dramatizes anxieties surrounding female purity (virginity): at the first hint of physical intimacy between the nun and the man, she is cut off from contact with him. Plath’s use of figuration to describe the lines of print unites mind and body by rendering the abstract imagination of the story into a concrete, tangible place.
Themes
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Purity vs. Impurity Theme Icon
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Esther reflects that the story is similar to the story of her and Buddy Willard, who watched a baby getting born together and were ever after separated. She thinks pityingly of Buddy lying in a TB sanatorium in the Adirondacks sending her letters about poets and writers who are also doctors to show “maybe doctors and writers could get along fine after all.” She notes that Buddy didn’t use to think this way. Two years ago, he’d told her with self-satisfaction that a poem was nothing but “a piece of dust.” Esther wishes she’d had the wherewithal then to retort that all the people Buddy treats as a doctor were dust, too, and would disappear far sooner than a good poem would. She often reenacts conversations with Buddy in her head in which she comes up with sharp responses to get the better of him, instead of mumbling agreement with him (as she always did in actual life).
Yearning for more of Esther’s attention, the desperate, invalid Buddy is eager to unite the worlds of medicine and literature. Still, his prior, healthy attitude towards poetry better represented the predominant medical attitude towards art at the time: that it was useless and that those who pursued it were wasting attention that would be much more valuably devoted to modern science and medicine.
Themes
Medicine Theme Icon
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Esther recollects how she had first started dating the handsome Buddy Willard, who she’d never seen much of growing up even though their mothers were friends and lived in the same town. Esther spent every weekend in college studying and going on bad blind dates with ugly “mushroomy” boys. Then Buddy had, to Esther’s astonished delight, showed up unexpectedly at her college dorm one morning to say hello. When Esther invited him to stay for lunch, he said he was there to go to a dance with Joan Gilling, the daughter of another friend of Mrs. Willard who had asked Buddy to take her. Joan is a horsy, sporty girl who gives Esther the creeps. Esther was mortified to have asked Buddy to lunch and lied about having to run off for a date with two Dartmouth boys. Buddy, seeming hurt at the mention of her date, left Esther with a letter inviting her to Yale Junior prom.
The story of Buddy and Esther’s courtship illustrates 1950s social norms and expectations for women. Esther’s academic diligence makes her less attractive to men and she thus spends most of her high-achieving college career relegated to dates with men who are themselves undesirable, and who perhaps can’t find other girls to go on dates with. Thrifty and pragmatic as ever, Buddy tries to kill two birds with one stone by asking Esther out on a date while on his date with Joan.
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Esther is ecstatic to read the invitation and shouts out the news in her dorm. After that, she notes that all the other girls, who used to make “nasty loud remarks outside my door about people wasting their golden college days with their noses stuck in a book,” start treating Esther with respect.
Esther’s peers had little regard for her academic excellence, but can appreciate and respect someone who goes on a date with a handsome man. These women’s bias towards romance over academia echoes the predominant social attitudes of the time.
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Esther remembers the prom itself as a disappointment. She and Buddy danced far apart and she’d felt “dull and flat and full of shattered visions.” But afterwards, they’d shared “a dry, uninspiring little kiss” on a hill behind the chemistry lab. Esther had tried to memorize the scenery as they’re kissing so that she’ll never forget the moment. Buddy had exclaimed how “it makes me feel terrific to kiss you.” He tells Esther that, though he has a lot of studying to do he could “manage to see you every third week-end.” Esther had been faint with eagerness to tell everyone back at college.
Esther does not enjoy her date with Buddy in and of itself, but she enjoys the social capital the date earns her among her peers back at college. Thus, her first thought when he suggests dating more seriously is not how happy she’ll be to be closer to him but how happy she’ll be to get to tell the other girls at school.
Themes
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