Sitting in Jay Cee’s office recalling her chemistry scheme, Esther had suddenly felt guilty and wanted to apologize to Mr. Manzi. She’d screened fiction submissions to the magazine while Jay Cee explained the careful flattery she’d have to balance between the two authors she was about to meet for lunch, one a famous, successful man and the other a less famous, less successful woman. Esther had wished she’d “had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I’d know what to do.” Her own mother, Esther had reflected, “wasn’t much help.” She teaches shorthand, which she doesn’t like but urges Esther to learn so as to have “a practical skill” alongside her degree.
The imbalance between the male and female writers Jay Cee is going to lunch with provides a microcosm of 1950s literary society at large, where male writers were much more powerful and praised than their female counterparts. Esther’s mother embraces conventional social expectations for female careers, but Esther would rather follow the lead of an unconventional, ambitious woman, like Jay Cee.
At the Ladies’ Day lunch, Esther is given a finger-bowl and remembers the first time she saw a finger-bowl at the house of her benefactress, Philomena Guinea, and drank its contents as if it were a soup. Philomena Guinea sponsors Esther’s scholarship at college. She is a wealthy novelist who freely admits she hadn’t done well in school and wrote trashy novels.
Like Jay Cee, Philomena Guinea represents an alternative female career path to the conventional homemaker role supported by 1950s America. Though Esther does not want to write trashy novels, she does, like Guinea, aspire to make a name for herself as an author.
After the lunch, Esther and the other girls are scheduled to see a movie, whose romantic plot Esther finds artificial and dull. It stars “a nice blond girl,” “a sexy black-haired girl,” and “two big, broad-shouldered boneheads.” The nice girl ends up happily married and the sexy girl is abandoned.
The movie plot reiterates the conventional beliefs and values of 1950s American society: nice virginal girls will be rewarded with happiness while girls who engage in premarital sex will wind up lonely and miserable.
Mid-movie, Esther and Betsy start to feel sick and vomit all through the cab-ride back to the Amazon. At the hotel, Esther faints and comes round to the sight of a man’s shoe and “a vague heap of blue cornflowers on a white ground and this made me want to cry. It was the sleeve of my own bathrobe I was looking at, and my left hand lay pale as a cod at the end of it.” The shoe belongs to a doctor, the only kind of man allowed in the Amazon. A nurse with him carts Esther off to bed and explains that all the girls are sick with food poisoning and that the doctor has given her an injection to sleep. She sleeps.
Plath’s prose captures Esther’s alienation from her own body. Her use of figure—comparing the human hand to a codfish—emphasizes that alienation. As a man of medicine, the doctor is highly respected and understood to be honorable. He is thus exempt from the normal prohibitions against men in the women-only Amazon.
Esther wakes up to someone offering her broth. She thinks it is Betsy but it’s Doreen, not smoking for once and with “a sort of expert tenderness flowing from the ends of her fingers” as if she were “Betsy or my mother or a fern-scented nurse.” After the broth, Esther feels “purged and holy and ready for a new life.” Doreen explains that the crabmeat from the Ladies’ Day lunch was tested and found to be full of ptomaine. Esther has “a vision of the celestially white kitchens on Ladies’ Day stretching into infinity” and “the delicate, pink-mottled claw-meat poking seductively through its blanket of mayonnaise.” Ladies’ Day sent every girl a short story collection as an apology and get-well present. Esther thinks that if the present is good, she “wouldn’t mind about what happened, because I felt so pure as a result.”
Esther expects her nurse to be Betsy, having categorized Doreen as a woman who refuses to play a conventional female role. However, Doreen proves more complex than Esther gave her credit for: though she is a rebel and a risk-taker, she can also be a nurturer and a caretaker. Again, a purifying physical experience (drinking broth) vaults Esther’s spirit into pure ecstasy. The language used to describe the tainted crab (pink interrupting white, a seductive “poking”) is erotically charged, implicitly likening the poison to sexual arousal/awakening.