The Bell Jar

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The Bell Jar Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Esther begins to recollect the events leading up to her broken leg. The shy Mr. Willard drove her up to Buddy’s sanatorium to visit. The whole ride, Esther wished she could turn around. Mr. Willard told her how she’d be the best daughter he and Mrs. Willard ever dreamed of having (implying that they give their blessing to her and Buddy’s marriage). Esther cried and Mr. Willard assumed her tears were tears of gratitude.
Mr. Willard assesses the situation according to social convention, assuming Esther would be overjoyed marry and become his daughter-in-low. But Esther’s personal ambitions don’t match up with social expectations for women and her tears are tears of sadness, not joy.
Themes
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
Personal Ambition Theme Icon
Esther expected the sanatorium to be cheery and Swiss but it is glum and liver-colored. Buddy had grown grotesquely fat from inactivity and eating and Mr. Willard left almost immediately. Buddy explained to Esther that his father, never having been sick, loathes the sight of illness. In his room, Buddy showed Esther a horrible poem he’s written and published and she mustered feigned praise.
Esther’s expectations for the sanatorium are romantic idealizations and don’t match up with the medical reality. Buddy apparently thinks he can win Esther’s affection by trying to achieve success in the field Esther herself aims to enter.
Themes
Personal Ambition Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
Buddy asked Esther to marry him and Esther told him she’d never marry. Buddy cheerfully told her she was “crazy” and that she’d change her mind. Esther reminded him of a psychology questionnaire he’d once tried out on her and how her response that she’d like to live in the city and the country both had categorized her as a neurotic. She told him she could never settle down. “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days,” Esther said. Buddy asked to fly with her.
Trained by society to think that all women want to be wives, Buddy assumes that Esther, too, will end up embracing marriage. Esther tries to drive home to Buddy just how sharply at odds with social expectations her own ambitions are: she aspires to the very kind of life that normative society deems ‘neurotic.’
Themes
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
Personal Ambition Theme Icon
Later in the visit, Buddy tried to teach Esther to ski on a slope near the sanatorium. Neither he nor Esther had ever skied before. Still, Buddy insisted “the elementary principles were quite simple” and watching ski instructors teach had qualified him to teach Esther. After a half hour, he persuaded a nervous Esther to ride up to the top of the slope to ski down. Esther recalled that “it never occurred to me to say no.” Esther accidentally rode the rope tow up too far and stood at the top of the slope, looking down. She ignored the voice of reason telling her to be safe and walk back down. She coolly acknowledged her potential death.
Buddy’s arrogance can be read as further evidence of his social conditioning: he has been trained by the sexist society he lives in to think of himself as an authority figure, an instructor of women. Thus, it does not take much for Buddy to believe he is qualified to act as a ski instructor. It does not occur to Esther, who has been socially conditioned to look up to and obey men, to disobey Buddy’s instructions.
Themes
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
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Esther “aimed straight down” and sped down the hill. She felt her body flying towards the sun and thought, “This is what it is to be happy.” She “hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end [of the hill], the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby in its mother’s belly.”
Esther once again accesses transcendent spiritual purity via bodily experience.
Themes
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Purity vs. Impurity Theme Icon
The next thing Esther knew, she was on the ground looking up at Buddy’s blurry face and people all around. Esther looked up at the “white sun” and “wanted to hone [herself] on it till she grew saintly and thin and essential as the blade of a knife.” She announced she’d ski the slop again, but Buddy, smiling, replied that she couldn’t because her leg was broken in two places.
Intoxicated by the feeling of spiritual purity, Esther is eager to access that feeling again by repeating the physical action that lead to it—so eager, in fact, that she seems not to have noticed the pain of a broken leg.
Themes
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Purity vs. Impurity Theme Icon