Constantin arrives to pick Esther up from the Amazon and is not the disappointment she thought he would be. They bond over their mutual dislike for Mrs. Willard. Sitting in Esther’s convertible en route to the UN where Constantin works as a simultaneous interpreter, Esther realizes she hasn’t felt so happy since she was a child running on the beach with her father before he died. Esther reflects how strange it is that she’s never realized this before, that all through the lessons and achievements of her youth, she’s never actually been happy.
Esther’s realization challenges her personal ambitions. Though her diligence and academic excellence have yielded many achievements, she suddenly realizes that they have not achieved her happiness.
At the UN, Esther watches a Russian girl interpreter at work and wishes she “could crawl into her and spend the rest of my life barking out one idiom after another…one more little pebble of efficiency among all the other pebbles.” Esther makes a mental tally of all the things she can’t do: cooking, dancing, singing, balancing, horse-riding, skiing, speaking other languages, shorthand (which her mother keeps urging her to learn in order to be hirable as a secretary after college, but which Esther avoids since she “hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.”). Esther realizes she’s “been inadequate all along,” she just hasn’t realized it in the past. Her one talent, she thinks, is “winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end.”
Esther continues to reassess her own ambitions and values. Where she used to define herself in terms of her positive achievements (her academic excellence and myriad prizes), she now sees herself in negative terms, evaluating herself by what she can’t do. She thinks her old value system (and her old sense of accomplishment within it) was only appropriate in an academic setting and can’t be relied on in the world beyond college.
Esther sees “my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story” she’d read. Every branch grew a different future like a ripening fruit: being a poet or a professor or an editor or a world traveler or an athlete or having a host of exotic lovers. Esther sees herself “sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose,” since choosing one meant losing the rest.
Where Esther’s personal ambitions once offered her a clear roadmap for the future, her ambitions now arrest her in place and paralyze her with indecision. Note that all of Esther’s ambitions pursue unconventional careers for women in 1950s America.
Constantin takes Esther to an exotic restaurant and she feels better after eating. She wonders if her vision of the fig-tree of her life might simply have been caused by “the profound void of an empty stomach.”
Esther’s mood shift (and Plath’s use of the abstract, intellectual adjective ‘profound’ to describe her stomach) imply the close relatedness of mind and body.
During dinner, Esther decides to let Constantin seduce her. She has wanted to sleep with someone ever since she’s heard about Buddy’s affair, so that they’d be even. She accompanies Constantin up to his apartment and, as they sit listening to music and drinking wine, Esther calmly recalls warnings from her mother and the female lawyer who wrote an article called ‘In Defense of Chastity’ that there is no sure way to avoid a baby and that a girl should thus stay abstinent till marriage. The woman lawyer insisted that “a man’s world is different from a woman’s world and a man’s emotions different from a woman’s emotions” and only marriage could unite the two. The woman lawyer assured her readers that, no matter what men said, they would “lose all respect for” any girl that slept with them before marriage.
Knowing about Buddy’s affair frees Esther, in her own mind, to pursue sexual experimentation for herself. However, her mother’s pamphlet articulates the sexist double standard supported by society at large. According to this standard, Esther is not free to experiment sexually no matter what Buddy does, because, as a woman, she is subject to different, stricter expectations than a man would be.
Esther reflects that the article didn’t consider “how a girl felt” and thinks how unfair it would be to stay pure for someone who wasn’t pure himself, like Buddy. The world Esther sees is one in which “pureness was the great issue…I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t.” Esther imagines she’ll be transformed by sex, that she’ll be able to see a tiny replica of the man she slept with in her eye in the mirror.
Esther recognizes and resents the deep injustice of her society’s different expectations for men and women. Esther expects that losing her virginity will not only transform her identity, but will alter her physical appearance as well.
Esther says she’s tired and goes to lie down on Constantin’s bed. He follows her and lies down too. She watches him, finding him utterly beautiful. But she wonders whether he, like all the other men she’s gotten to know, would seem to lose their beauty once she got to know him. They fall asleep. When she wakes, she looks at Constantin sleeping and imagines how unglamorous it would be to be married to Constantin, as to any man: she’d be stuck cooking and cleaning and slaving away, just as her mother and Mrs. Willard—who was educated and had once been a teacher—had been stuck. She recalls watching Mrs. Willard laboriously braid an elaborate rag rug to throw on the kitchen floor and thinking how, if she had braided the rug, she’d hang it on a wall. Esther thinks how getting married and having children is “like being brainwashed” into being “numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”
Esther recognizes that her attraction to Constantin’s physical appearance is based on her lack of obligation to him and, were she bound to him in marriage, her attraction would fade. Her mother and Mrs. Willard’s experiences demonstrate the social imperative for women to prioritize marriage and homemaking above all else (regardless of their personal merit, education, or aspirations). Esther, who has strong artistic ambitions for herself, cannot imagine devaluing her own creation the way Mrs. Willard did with the rag rug.
Constantin wakes up and drives Esther home. She lies in bed, listening to rain and feeling an ache in her shin from an old leg-break. She thinks Buddy made her break it, then corrects the thought, thinking she broke it herself by being so stubborn.
Esther’s bodily sensation (her leg aching) triggers her mental action (recollection). Plath’s prose frequently enters Esther’s psychology through physical details.