The Bell Jar


Sylvia Plath

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Bell Jar can help.

The Bell Jar: Chapter 19 Summary & Analysis

Some time later, Joan announces to Esther that she’s going to be a psychiatrist, a plan supported by her own psychiatrist, Dr. Quinn, whose “abstract quality” entails discussion of “Egos and Ids” and gives Esther “chills.” Joan brags that she is also moving out of the asylum by becoming one of the nurse’s roommates. Esther is jealous that Joan will beat her out the door, though she herself will leave the asylum, too, in a more permanent capacity than Joan: she will be returning to college for the winter term. She is just staying on at the asylum until then, as the doctors have vetoed her spending the interval with her mother back home.
Dr. Quinn’s terminology again reflects 1950s psychiatric practice’s strong grounding in Freudian theory, which posited the human psyche in terms of an “id” (conducting primal urges), a “superego” (conducting social expectations), and an “ego” (balancing the self between the other forces).
Medicine Theme Icon
Some time later, Esther loses her virginity to Irwin, a math professor she met on the steps of the Harvard library and decided to seduce after seeing his book-crammed study. While Esther was visiting his study, Irwin was visited by and turned away another woman, who Esther assumes he’s been sexually involved with. After meeting him she called for permission to stay overnight in town, telling Dr. Nolan she’d sleep over with Joan. Esther feels that her virginity has “weighed like a millstone around my neck” ever since she found out about Buddy’s affair. She is eager to discard her virginity with Irwin, who she thinks an ideal candidate to lose it to because he is both intelligent and experienced.
Compared to Esther’s other experiences with men, Esther’s interaction with Irwin demonstrates her new self-empowerment and confidence. She deliberately chooses Irwin as the person she wants to lose her virginity to; she herself arranges the circumstances under which that experience can occur.
Purity vs. Impurity Theme Icon
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
Esther expects sex with Irwin to yield a “miraculous change” in her, but she only feels pain. She asks Irwin if pain is normal. He says it is and gets up to shower. Esther feels a lot of blood seeping between her legs. Irwin comes back and assures her it’ll be fine, though Esther is bleeding enough to drench several towels. She has Irwin drive her to Joan’s apartment in Cambridge and tells a befuddled Joan to call a doctor because she’s hemorrhaging. Esther avoids telling Joan she’s just lost her virginity. After several doctors hang up when Joan says it’s a problem about “a period,” Esther has Joan bring her to the Emergency Room in a taxi and Esther manages to tell a nurse there the truth without Joan hearing. A doctor tells Esther her case is “one in a million” and fixes her up.
Despite Esther’s new enlightenment regarding birth control and premarital sex, she has retained her old romantic imagination about losing her virginity, a fantasy that is quickly dashed by unromantic physical reality. Not only does sex fail to trigger her spiritual transformation, it ends up causing Esther great pain and near death from loss of blood. Despite the doctor’s snark, he acts as a force for good and manages to save Esther’s life.
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
Back at the asylum some days later, Esther is awakened in the night by Dr. Quinn looking for Joan. Since her brief stint in Cambridge, Joan has returned to Belsize to live but has free town privileges. She has apparently not returned from a trip to the movie and can’t be found. Esther has no leads. At dawn, Dr. Quinn returns to tell Esther that Joan has been found dead, having hung herself in the woods of the asylum.
Joan’s warped reflection of Esther’s life warps even further. Like Esther, Joan has made multiple suicide attempts. Yet unlike Esther, Joan has managed to succeed in one of her attempts. Her death makes Esther seem even luckier to be alive, to have won out against suicidal depression.
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Get the entire The Bell Jar LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Bell Jar PDF