The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After graduating Yale, Buddy went on to medical school and Esther recollects visiting Buddy there and discovering he was a hypocrite. She was very curious about the “hospital sights” and spent a day with Buddy going about his studies. She saw cadavers and deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde, and remembers being proud of “the calm way I stared at all these gruesome things.”
Esther is intrigued by bodies in situations of distress, and (a bit morbidly) hopes to see such bodies at the hospital. She is proud of herself for keeping her mind in calm control, even amidst the visceral horror provoked by physical decay and deformity.
Themes
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Medicine Theme Icon
After lunch, Buddy took Esther to go see a baby being born. Will, the med student scheduled to deliver the baby, mutters to Esther beforehand, “You oughtn’t to see this…You’ll never want to have a baby if you do. They oughtn’t to let women watch. It’ll be the end of the human race.” Esther and Buddy had laughed it off. Then, Esther was horrified by the birthing table the woman (Mrs. Tomolillo) had to lie on, which looked like a kind of “torture table.”
Though Esther laughs off Will’s warning as a joke, it begins to seem more serious as soon as she begins to see the physical discomforts and humiliation that medical practice forces child-birthing women into.
Themes
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Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
Buddy explained that Mrs. Tomolillo, who was making a continuous “unhuman whooing noise,” had been drugged so that she would forget the pain she had. Esther was horrified, thinking the drug was “just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it…and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.”
Esther is horrified by the drug on two counts. First, because it divorces mind from body, making a woman experience excruciating pain but denying her the mental memory of it (which could have helped her avoid repeating that pain in the future). Second, because it is strategically sexist, invented by men to trick women into bearing more children than they might have chosen to bear had they been aware of the pain of childbirth.
Themes
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Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
It was a difficult birth and the doctors had to cut open Mrs. Tomolillo’s vagina open to deliver the baby, but the baby was born intact and Mrs. Tomolillo got sewn up properly. Yet when they told her that the baby had been born, Mrs. Tomolillo was too drugged to understand and lay there unresponsive. Esther was appalled, having always felt that the most important thing about giving birth would be seeing “the baby come out of you yourself and making sure it was yours.” She thought that it would be better to stay conscious if one had to be in so much pain anyway.
As the drug denies women the memory of childbirth’s pain, it also denies them the experience of childbirth’s physical pleasures: Mrs. Tomolillo cannot witness the feat of her successful birth nor recognize the body of her new baby.
Themes
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Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
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Back in Buddy’s room, Buddy had Esther read him a poem and explain the value of it, a ritual he’d initiated so that he might understand the worth of poetry and its importance to Esther.
Buddy’s ritual attempts to assess poetry through the rational evaluation systems of medicine and science.
Themes
Medicine Theme Icon
After hearing the poem, Buddy asked Esther if she’d ever seen a man naked and if she’d like to see him. She said she hadn’t and she would. She thought how her mother and grandmother had been hinting to her “what a fine, clean boy Buddy Willard was...how he was the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for.” Esther was unimpressed by Buddy’s penis. She declined to undress in reciprocation, saying “’Oh, some other time.’” She compared getting naked in front of Buddy to having “my Posture Picture taken at college.” Buddy dressed.
Esther’s mother and grandmother are hinting at Esther to make sure she stays sexually pure (virginal) for Buddy. Buddy’s unromantic manner saps the naked body of eroticism. Getting naked in front of him would, Esther feels, be no more romantic than undressing for her college nurses.
Themes
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Purity vs. Impurity Theme Icon
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
Combing her hair in front of her face, Esther asked Buddy from behind the curtain of hair whether he’d ever had an affair. She’d expected him to say he was a virgin saving himself for marriage, but Buddy blushed and confessed to a summer-long affair with a waitress, Gladys, who seduced him while he was bussing tables in Cape Cod. Esther was blown away and inwardly furious, though she didn’t let on. She thought how all through their courtship, Buddy had hypocritically acted like she was “much more sexy and experienced” when all along he was just pretending to be innocent. She observed how typical it was that “someone had seduced Buddy…it wasn’t really his fault.” She wasn’t annoyed that Buddy had had sex, she was annoyed that he wouldn’t own up to that experience in public, claiming instead to be so perfectly innocent.
Esther uses her hair to create a physical barrier between herself and Buddy. Esther is appalled by the hypocrisy that has enabled Buddy to enjoy all the social approval earned by a virginal public image while also secretly getting to enjoy the sexual experimentation that society discourages. Laying the blame for the affair on the sexually-experienced Gladys, Buddy echoes the attitude of the movie Esther saw, which villainized and punished its sexually-experienced female lead.
Themes
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Esther asked Buddy what Mrs. Willard thought of his affair, since she knew he was very close to his mother and that Mrs. Willard was obsessed with virginity. Buddy was always praising his parents’ marriage and quoting to Esther Mrs. Willard’s conservative maxims about marriage, such as “a man is an arrow into the future and…a woman is the place the arrow shoots off from.” Buddy said he had told his mother off, but Esther knew he was lying. Back at college, she asked other girls what they’d do if they found out about a boy’s promiscuous past, and the girls shrugged it off saying “most boys were like that and you couldn’t honestly accuse them of anything until you were at least pinned or engaged to be married.”
Mrs. Willard’s obsession with virginity and sexist maxims and Esther’s classmates’ attitudes towards male promiscuity illustrate the predominant social dynamics between men and women at the time. 1950s society assumed a double standard for men and women, policing female virginity while condoning men’s sexual experimentation.
Themes
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In the weeks after the visit, Esther decided to break up with Buddy, but just when she’d made the decision, he called distraught to tell her he’d contracted TB and was going to a sanatorium. He wanted Esther to promise to write and visit frequently, and she promised. She thought how he’d always been so proud of his good health and had attributed Esther’s sinus ailments to “psychosomatic” causes. Esther had always “thought this an odd attitude for a doctor to have and perhaps he should study to be a psychiatrist instead.” Esther thought Buddy’s TB “might just be a punishment for living the kind of double life Buddy lived and feeling so superior to people.”
Although society considers Buddy’s behavior acceptable, Esther evaluates him according to her personal goals, deciding to break up because she doesn’t want to date a hypocrite. Buddy’s medical opinions display further hypocrisy, refusing to acknowledge the bodily illness he is supposedly studying to cure. Esther suspects Buddy’s sick body might be a reflection of his sick (hypocritical) mind.
Themes
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Personal Ambition Theme Icon
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Esther was secretly relieved that Buddy had TB as she was saved the trouble of telling everyone at college that she’d dumped him. She told everyone instead that she was waiting for Buddy to recover. For the rest of the year, Esther studied all weekend undisturbed by the other girls, who pitied her and assumed she was studying “to hide a broken heart.”
Buddy’s illness allows Esther to escape the relationship without giving up her social capital among her peers, who would lose all respect for her if she threw away such a handsome, accomplished boyfriend as Buddy.
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