One morning, Esther is stuck walking alone with Hilda, another contest winner who is a talented hat-maker but seems psychologically shallow, Esther tries to break the awkward silence by bringing up “how horrible” the Rosenbergs execution is. She thinks she’s inspired Hilda’s compassion but Hilda in fact remarks “It’s awful such people should be alive.” Esther thinks Hilda’s voice sounds like a dybuk (a possessing spirit). When Hilda yawns, Esther stares intrigued by “the blind cave behind her face.”
Though Esther at first thinks she’s found a way to connect to Hilda via mutual empathy for others’ pain, their conversation ultimately ends up distancing her even further from Hilda. The image of the dybuk dramatizes the divide between mind and body. In it, the voice (articulating thought) is motivated by a different spirit than the body is.
On her last day in New York, Esther feels she is going to cry, though she doesn’t know why. She is forced to sit in Jay Cee’s office for a last fashion shoot with the other contest winners. Each girl has to hold something to represent the career they aspire to but, when the photographers ask Esther what she wants to be, she says she doesn’t know. “She wants to be everything,” Jay Cee tells them. Esther says she wants to be a poet, but then can’t manage to smile as the photographer’s urge. She bursts into sobs and everyone leaves the office. When Esther sits up, she is alone and feels “limp and betrayed, like the skin shed by a terrible animal. It was a relief to be free of the animal, but it seemed to have taken my spirit with it.” In her compact mirror, her face appears to be the face of someone beaten up in jail, staring out between bars.
This is one of the first signs that Esther is beginning to lose control of her body. She cannot control her tears and feels, after sobbing, that her body has just been possessed. Her almost unrecognizable reflection in the mirror emphasizes her alienation from her body. Esther’s inability to articulate clear career aspirations (and Jay Cee’s quip) demonstrate how muddled and confusing Esther’s own sense of personal ambition has become.
Jay Cee returns and hands Esther fiction submissions to read through. Esther thinks of her own fiction manuscript, which she has sent to apply to take a famous writer’s course later that summer. She is certain she’ll find her acceptance letter waiting for her at home. She thinks of sending Jay Cee stories under a pseudonym and of Jay Cee accepting them and scheduling lunch with the writer, who would turn out to be Esther.
Even though Esther has, as the prior scene illustrated, lost a firm grasp on many of her old ambitions, she remains confident that she wants to keep on writing and to pursue literary achievement.
Later that day, Doreen convinces Esther to come to a country club dance as the date of someone Lenny knows. Esther had been reluctant, having been unable to get her packing done. “It was becoming more and more difficult for me to decide to do anything in those last days,” she recalls. She’d “stared at [her clothes], utterly perplexed.” Doreen snowballed everything together and pushed it under the bed.
Esther’s helplessness packing further demonstrates her slipping command over her own body. She is becoming unable to assert and carry out deliberate action.
Doreen takes Esther to an apartment where she is introduced to Marco, her date, an immaculately dressed man with a diamond stickpin that entrances Esther. Esther walks in by “[putting] one foot in front of the other” and stares at the stickpin, which onlookers tease Marco into giving Esther. The others’ faces, Esther sees, are “empty as plates, and nobody seemed to be breathing.”
Plath’s prose shows Esther’s growing alienation from her body by emphasizing the physical process of walking (which would normally be taken for granted) and portraying human facial expressions as empty and lifeless.
Marco says perhaps he will “perform some small service” for Esther that night that will be worth a diamond. He puts his arm around Esther and squeezes so hard she bruises. He reminds her of a snake she once angered at a zoo. He is “a woman-hater,” which Esther knows because, at the party, Marco ignores all the models and actresses to pay attention to her, simply because “I’d happened to be dealt to him, like a playing card in a pack of identical cards.” He decides what she should drink and forces her to dance the tango, instructing her to “pretend you are drowning.” Esther thinks about how “woman-haters could make such fools of women. Woman-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power…You could never catch one.”
Marco’s misogyny manifests as both physical and psychological aggression. Physically, he bruises Esther’s flesh. Psychologically, he treats her as an interchangeable being without individual identity and instructs her to surrender her personal integrity by abandoning her agency on the dance floor.
At a break in the music, Marco leads Esther into the garden outside the ballroom. Esther asks him who he’s in love with and he tells her: his beautiful first cousin. They can’t marry, and she’s going to be a nun. When Esther assures him he’ll love someone else eventually, he knocks her down in the mud and tears off her dress, calling her “slut” and getting ready to rape her: “he threw himself face down as if he would grind his body through me and into the mud.” Esther sees her own naked skin “like a pale veil separating two blood-minded adversaries.” Esther kicks and slams his nose and gets free from under him. “All sluts,” Marco murmurs, “Yes or no, it is all the same.”
Marco at first seems to separate women into two categories: beautiful women to be loved, like his cousin, and “sluts” to be raped, like Esther. Yet, his statement at scene’s end grimly collapses the division. Plath’s prose teases out the psychological import of the characters’ physical actions: Marco’s rape is motivated by his runaway anger and rabid destructiveness. Esther sees her own flesh as a screen between her and Marco’s opposing wills.
Marco demands his diamond stickpin, drawing two lines of blood from his nose on Esther’s cheeks and saying he’s earned the diamond with his blood. Esther considers lying to him to conceal the diamond for herself, but then decides to tell him the truth that it’s in her purse fallen somewhere around them. She leaves Marco pawing in the dark mud. Back at the party, Esther tries to conceal her grass-matted, muddy back by standing close to the wall. She finds a place in a car driving back to Manhattan. Back at the Amazon, she climbs to the sunroof carrying the bundle of all her clothes and tosses each garment off the roof, watching it sail downwards. She “fed [her] wardrobe to the night wind….like a loved one’s ashes.”
The image of Marco’s bizarre gesture aptly illustrates his brutal psychological savagery. The action of tossing her old clothes into the night dramatizes Esther’s abandonment of her old identity. Plath’s metaphor—comparing the clothes to the ashes of a cremated loved one—further emphasizes the drama of that action.