Esther rides the train back home to Boston wearing Betsy’s borrowed clothes (she’d thrown everything of her own off the roof) and Marco’s lines of blood, which she thinks “touching, and rather spectacular” and refuses to wash off. Looking at herself in her compact mirror, she looks “like a sick Indian.” She doesn’t “really see” why people stare at her, since lots of people “looked queerer than I did.”
Wearing someone else’s clothes and marked by someone else’s blood, Esther's bodily appearance echoes her rapidly transforming identity. Her inability to understand why other people are staring at her demonstrates her dissolving sense of social norms and expectations.
Her mother picks Esther up at the station and tells Esther in the car that she hasn’t been accepted to the fiction writing course she applied to. Esther is at first breathless, then thinks: “I had expected it.” She rides back slumped in the back seat, feeling it is “very important not to be recognized.”
Esther continues to recalibrate her personal ambition, choosing to expect defeat now where she used to depend on victory. She slumps to avoid being associated with her prior appearance and identity.
Alone in the house in the morning, (Her mother has left for her job teaching shorthand to city college girls), Esther crouches at the window to watch Dodo Conway, a short woman “with a grotesque, protruding stomach,” walk her several small children and baby in stroller up and down the sidewalk. Dodo Conway is a Barnard graduate and Catholic who lives with her husband (a Columbia graduate) in a ramshackle, tree-screened, clutter-strewn house unlike everyone else’s manicured lawns and little houses. She has six children she raises on cheap food. Everyone else in town has two or, if wealthy, four children. Still everyone is fond of Dodo, and Esther is interested in her “in spite of myself.” Esther ducks when Dodo turns towards her window.
Dodo Conway presents a model of womanhood that simultaneously aligns with and contradicts conventional social expectations for women. Though well educated, Dodo has given up her own career prospects in order to be a homemaker and mother (as society expects). On the other hand, Dodo has rejected social expectations governing propriety, moderation, and cleanliness by choosing to have many more children than the middle-class households around her and to raise her family in a chaotic, messy environment.
The phone rings and Esther tries to disguise her voice in answering. It’s her college friend Jody, calling about Esther’s spot in a shared apartment they’d rented together when Esther thought she’d be taking the summer writing course. Esther tells Jody to give her room to someone else, though she immediately regrets this after hanging up. She thinks a summer living with her mother listening to Dodo Conway’s stroller will drive her “crazy.” Esther thinks, “I made a point of never living in the same house with my mother for more than a week.” Nevertheless, she doesn’t call Jody back and calls up the summer school to leave a message saying she won’t be attending any classes at all.
Disguising her voice, Esther continues to distance herself from her old identity. Likewise, Esther grows further alienated from her past ambitions. Where she would once have avoided living in the suburbs with her mother and pursued summer school at all cost, she now makes arrangements to spend the summer at home, even though she knows she’ll hate it.
On the kitchen table is a letter from Buddy saying he’s “probably falling in love with a nurse who also had TB” but if Esther accompanied Mrs. Willard for a month-long visit to the sanatorium in July, he might forget about the nurse. Esther furiously crosses out his letter and writes a response on the back: she says she is engaged to a simultaneous interpreter and wants nothing to do with Buddy, not wanting to bear the children of a hypocrite. She tapes the paper back into Buddy’s envelope.
Buddy’s letter tries to manipulate Esther’s attentions by making her jealous. Esther no longer feels obliged to restrain her anger towards Buddy and writes a letter designed to injure his spirits. Though the facts of the letter may not be true, the emotional fury it conveys is.
Esther decides she will spend the summer writing a novel. She sits down at the typewriter. “From another, distanced mind, I saw myself sitting on the breezeway,…small as a doll in a doll’s house.” She is filled with tenderness by the image of herself and decides to make herself her novel’s heroine, “only in disguise.” She writes a beginning about a girl named Elaine sitting on a breezeway in the summer “waiting for something to happen.” Esther sits for a long time trying to figure out what should happen after that.
Esther retains her literary ambitions even as her other ambitions (like her academic goals) start to dissolve. Yet writing a novel about herself in the third person emphasizes the mental alienation Esther is already experiencing, watching herself “from another, distanced mind.”
Her mother returns in the afternoon and asks Esther shouldn’t she get dressed, but Esther replies she doesn’t have time to change clothes, she’s writing a novel. Lying down despairing over her novel while her mother fixes supper, Esther decides that the reason she can’t write is because she hasn’t yet had enough experiences. Over supper, her mother convinces Esther to spend the summer learning shorthand, and Esther thinks this practical plan will satisfy the Scholarships Office at college, which expects her to have a summer job. Still, she knows there isn’t a single career she wants that requires shorthand.
Again, Esther acts in direct contradiction to her own instincts and old ambitions. Though she has no desire to learn shorthand or to pursue the kind of (limiting) career that would require it, she consents to spend the summer learning it. From the conventionally minded perspective of her college’s Scholarships Office, a summer spent learning shorthand would appear a responsible, worthy pursuit.
That night, Esther can’t sleep and stays awake all night concocting “plan after plan” for how she could spend the summer, “like a family of scatty rabbits” jumping in her mind. She envisions her nineteen years like a row of nineteen telephone poles but tries and fails to envision another pole. She thinks about twisting “the column of skin and sinew” from which “the piggish noise” of her mother’s snore rises. After her mother leaves for work, she tries to hide from the light (which the “raw, red screen” of her eyelids can’t shut out) by crawling under the mattress. Still, she wants something heavier over her to make her sleep.
As when she was overwhelmed by the branching fig-tree of possible career options, so too is Esther overwhelmed by the multiplicity of possible ways to spend her summer. Fractured and multiple, her ambitions now terrify her rather than offering guidance and security. Plath’s description of Esther’s mother’s throat and of Esther’s eyelids conveys Esther’s increasingly estranged perspective on human body parts.
Esther starts reading Finnegan’s Wake, which she is supposed to write her thesis on in the fall semester at college (she has thought she might write her thesis this summer, to get ahead). After a few lines, “words, dimly familiar…twisted all awry, like faces in a funhouse mirror” and “fled past, leaving no impression on the glassy surface of my brain.”
Esther’s alienation from her body increases as her eyes lose the ability to read. Plath’s comparison of the words to warped faces in a mirror points to literature’s shifting identity in Esther’s mind.
Esther decides to abandon her thesis and her honors program but, when she looks up requirements for a regular English major, she realizes that she isn’t qualified (the honors program is much freer and has exempt her from courses ordinary students had to take). Then Esther looks up the requirements for English majors at the city college where her mother works, thinking she could transfer. But those requirements are even more rigorous and Esther meets even fewer of them. She has always “looked down” on her mother’s college, but now realizes that even the worst students there are in fact more knowledgeable than Esther is. She decides to drop out of school for a year “and think things over.”
As when she was surprised to realize her own inadequacy while visiting the UN, Esther is now shocked to discover that certain populations she’d always looked down on in the past—non-honors English majors at her own college and English majors at the city college—were in fact accomplished in ways that she herself was not.
A couple weeks later, Esther visits Teresa, her family doctor, to ask for more sleeping pills. (Teresa has already prescribed others in the past.) She explains that she needs the pills because she can’t sleep or read. As she says this, Esther feels a “zombie” rising in her throat. Teresa refers her to Dr. Gordon, a psychiatrist.
Esther asks for sleeping pills, assuming she can cure her sleeplessness by drugging her body. But Teresa recognizes that Esther’s problem is psychological, not bodily, and refers her to a mental health specialist.