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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath-Free Study Guide-MonkeyNotes Online BookNotes
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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

CHAPTER 1

Summary

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didnít know what I was doing in New York." Thus begins the novel, written in the voice of an as yet unnamed first-person narrator. She adds that she is stupid about executions. She is made sick by the thought of it. She cannot stop imagining "being burned alive all along your nerves." Yet she can go nowhere without seeing headlines and hearing talk of the execution.

She is living in New York and does not like it. She dislikes the weather and the dirt in the air. The ever-presence of the Rosenberg news reminds her of the way she felt after she saw a cadaver for the first time. She couldnít get the image of it out of her mind for weeks afterward. She felt like she was carrying it around with her on a string like a black balloon stinking of vinegar.

She feels sure something is wrong with her based on the fact that she cannot stop thinking of the Rosenbergs. She also thinks she is stupid for having bought so many expensive clothes. She feels as though all her successes at school mean nothing in New York. All the while, she is supposed to be having "the time of her life." She is shown in magazines, along with the other eleven college women in her group, dressed fashionably and being courted by young men hired for the photograph. She is being used as proof that the American Dream is true. She has gone from being a small town person who cannot even afford to buy a fashion magazine, who then wins a scholarship to college and a prize to live in New York for the summer.

The contrast between the advertized image of her and her real life is stark. She feels directionless. She sees the other women reacting with excitement, but she says, "I couldnít get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."


Twelve women live at the hotel. Theyíve all won a fashion magazine contest by writing. They will live in New York for one month of all expenses paid and many bonus gifts and for chances to meet the top professionals in their fields of interest. At some point she realizes the piles of free gifts served the companies who donated them as advertisements. She relates that she kept these gifts for a long time hidden away. Later, when she was "right again," she got them out and placed them around the house. Last week, she cut the starfish off the sunglasses case so her baby could play with it.

The twelve women live on the same wing of a hotel for women only called the Amazon. The hotel is full of young women Estherís age whose parents pay for them to stay there and go to posh secretarial schools like Kathy Gibbs. Others had just graduated from Kathy Gibbs and were hanging around New York waiting to get married. They all look bored. They spend all their time taking care of their looks. They are the bored rich, bored to be yachting and jet setting.

Esther feels sick with jealousy of them. She had never been out of New England all her life. This is her first chance to travel and she feels guilty for letting it go without benefiting from it properly. Doreen is one of these women. She comes from a society womanís school in the south. She goes around with a perpetual sneer on her face as if to say all the people around her are silly. Doreen singles out Esther from the beginning. Esther enjoys her humor, but feels as though Doreen was one of her troubles that summer. Doreen sits next to Esther during conferences with visiting celebrities and makes snide remarks.

Doreen tells Esther about the fashion consciousness of the women in her college. They have matching pocketbooks for each of their outfits, so they have to change pocketbooks with every change of clothes. Esther is fascinated with this image of a decadent world she has always been excluded from. Doreen scolds Esther for working so hard on her job as an editorís assistant. She tells Esther "old Jay Cee" wonít care if the copy is there in the morning or on Monday. She adds a comment on Jay Ceeís ugliness. Esther likes Jay Cee very much. Jay Cee is different from the "fashion magazine gushers with fake eyelashes and giddy jewelry." She is intelligent and knows her business very well. She knows Jay Cee wants to teach her something, but suddenly she doesnít want to learn anything. She closes her typewriter to Doreenís approval.

Betsy knocks and comes in. She asks if they will come to the party. Betsy comes from Kansas. Esther remembers Betsy going on nostalgically about corn in a television producerís office. Betsy later became a cover girl and Esther still sees her in advertisements. Betsy asks Esther to do things with her and the others, but she never asks Doreen. Doreen calls her Pollyanna Cowgirl. Betsy leaves and Doreen tells Esther they should go to the party only until they get bored. Doreen hates the parties staged by the magazine. They always invite young men from Yale, whom Doreen thinks are stupid. Esther thinks of Buddy Willard, who goes to Yale, and decides he is stupid. Unlike Doreen, he has no intuition.

They are stuck in traffic in the back of a taxi that evening when a man strolls over and speaks to them through the window. Esther knows he has come for Doreen. He asks them to join him for drinks. He says he has friends waiting and nods at some men slouching outside a building. They laugh and Esther thinks it should have warned her, but she wants to take the chance to see something of New York outside of the carefully planned outings. The two get out of the cab and the man calls his friend, Frankie to come on. Frankie is short and "scrunty," the kind of man Esther cannot stand. She hates to be with short men because she feels that she must slump. She hopes for a second that the tall man will be with her, but he doesnít even glance at her.

In the bar, Esther feels invisible compared to the dazzling Doreen: "I felt myself melting into the shadows like the negative of a person Iíd ever seen before in my life." When the man asks for their drink orders, Esther feels at a loss since she doesnít know alcohol. She orders a vodka straight, because she remembers an advertisement which featured a glass of vodka with nothing in it. Doreen sits silently and the man who picked them up stares at her "the way people stare at the great white macaw in the zoo, waiting for it to say something human."

Esther finds out the man is a disc jockey. His name is Lenny Shepard. Esther notices Lenny give Frankie a long look as if to prompt him to get Estherís attention away from him so he can concentrate solely on Doreen. Esther tells him her name is Elly Higgenbottom and that she is from Chicago. She doesnít want anyone to know her real name or that she came from Boston. Frankie asks her to dance and she can only think of how bad he looks in his clothes, especially his blue sports coat. She turns her back to him and moves her chair closer to Doreen and Lenny, who are engrossed in each other. She drinks her vodka and feels it go down easily, making her feel powerful and godlike.

Frankie leaves, but not before getting money from Lenny. Lenny tells him to shut up and scram. Doreen says she wonít come unless Elly (Esther) comes. She agrees to come because she wants to see as much as she can. She likes to look on at people in crucial situations. When she sees anything bizarre or upsetting, she always acts as if she is not surprised.

Notes

The narrator reveals her age by her language before she says she is nineteen. She thinks many things are stupid. For instance, she says, "Iím stupid about executions." Perhaps this sounds like the language of a teenager since teenagers tend to express themselves very directly and simply. Esther is hungry for experiences in New York, enough so that she will get out of a cab at night in New York and join a man she doesnít know for drinks.

Esther is also easily led. Doreen is a controlling person. She uses Esther as a side kick. Esther is easily impressed, mistaking sarcasm for intelligent critique. However, Doreen plays an important role as a foil for Esther. While Esther is an outsider and from that position can see the pettiness and exploitativeness of the New York scene, she is also not the empty-souled person that Doreen is. Her age and her vulnerability make her attach herself to the strong-willed Doreen, but she is not fulfilled in this relationship.

This chapter actually doesnít name the narrator yet. She will not be fully named until chapter five. The first name the reader hears is a fake name, Elly Higgenbottom, along with a fake hometown, Chicago instead of Boston. Itís clear Esther isnít comfortable with herself as she is and wants to reinvent herself in order to sound more worldly perhaps.

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