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THE BELL JAR - SYNOPSIS/SUMMARY/ANALYSIS
This chapter names the magazine which sponsored the prizes as Ladies’ Day. This magazine holds a banquet for the twelve young women. The table is spread in sumptuous fashion and Esther is hungry since she did not eat breakfast. She had never eaten out in a proper restaurant before coming to New York, only in Howard Johnson’s, which she says doesn’t count. She loves to eat and never gains weight from overeating. When she is taken out on a business lunch in New York, she always chooses the most expensive items on the menu.
The emcee welcomes "the prettiest, smartest bunch of young ladies our staff has yet had the good luck to meet." It is a banquet put on by the foot testing kitchen of Ladies’ Day. Only eleven of the women had shown up; Doreen is spending the day with Lenny as she spends most of her free time with him. Before the banquet, the women are shown around the kitchens and shown how difficult it is to photograph food, especially ice cream. Esther is dizzy at the sight of the food. At home, her grandmother had always cooked economy portions. Just when someone was about to take a bite, she would say the cost of the dish.
Standing up listening to the opening speech, Esther surveys the food on the table. She’s especially attracted by the bowls of caviar. She tries to figure out if she will get to have a bowl of it to herself. Her grandfather had been a head waiter at a country club. He would bring home leftovers for his family. Esther and her brother would drive in with their grandmother to pick him up from work and on Sunday evenings he would serve them dinner.
Esther piles her plate high. She remembers learning about table manners from a messily dressed poet who ate his salad with his fingers in a fancy restaurant, but did it with such self-assurance that no one took notice. Betsy sits next to her and tells her about the fur show that afternoon where she learned how to make an all- purpose neckerchief out of mink tails and a gold chain. Hilda had bought the mink tails at a discount and the gold chains from Woolworth’s and had sewed them together on the bus.
Hilda is a six foot tall woman who makes hates. Hilda is apprenticed to the Fashion editor while the rest of the women write columns for the magazine. Hilda is especially good at hats. She wears a different one to work every day. Esther misses Doreen’s caustic wit as an antidote to the gushing excitement of the other women. She feels especially low since she had been just that morning to see Jay Cee, who had advised her to become more serious about taking advantage of the opportunity of the summer. She feels that after nineteen years of being the best in her class, she is slacking off. That morning Doreen had invited her to Coney Island with her and Lenny. She had told Doreen that she would just lie in bed all day. She wonders why she "couldn’t go the whole away doing what I should any more." She also wonders why she doesn’t go the whole way in doing what she should not. She feels sad and tired at this thought.
As she lied in bed after the others had gone off to the fur show, she got a call from Jay Cee who asked her to come into the office. Jay Cee asked why her work didn’t interest her. She tried to tell Jay Cee that her work did interest her. She remembers that all her life she had thought studying, reading, writing, and working was her goal. She had been college correspondent for the town Gazette and had been the editor of a literary magazine at her school. A well known poet mentored her and she had promises of full scholarships all the way through school. Now, for some unaccountable reason, she is balking. Jay Cee asked her what she wanted to do after her last year of college. She had always wanted to go to graduate school in the U.S. or in Europe and then become a college professor and write poetry. Now for the first time, however, she says she doesn’t know what she wants to do. She said she wants to learn German. She remembers her mother’s story of speaking German during World War I and being stoned for it. Her brother is living in Germany on the Experiment in International Living in Berlin. When she does try to learn German, the sight of the language makes her mind shut down. Jay Cee advised her to learn several languages in order to distinguish herself from the hundreds of other women who flood into New York every year hoping to be editors.
Esther thinks of her senior class schedule. It is an very loose Honor’s program which allows her to study independently. She plans to write a senior thesis on the images of twins in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. She remembers taking the required courses in physics, botany and chemistry. She liked botany but she hated physics. Her teacher, Mr. Manzi, lectured in a boring fashion and taught out of a four hundred page mimeographed book of his own writing. She made straight As in the first course and then devised a way to get out of the second course. She was made sick by physics which she sees as "shrinking everything into letters and numbers." She thought chemistry would be worse because "perfectly good words like gold and silver . . were shortened to ugly abbreviations . . ." She went to her Class Dean and proposed that she take Shakespeare instead and just sit in on Chemistry class. Mr. Manzi agreed with the plan because he felt flattered that she would audit his class for no credit. That term, she went to every chemistry class and wrote villanelles and sonnets. Mr. Manzi thought she was taking notes on his lectures.
In this chapter, Esther’s first name is provided for the first time. Jay Cee says it when she asks Esther about her work. As noted above, her full name, Esther Greenwood, will not be mentioned until chapter five. The fragmentation of the narrator’s name suggests that she feels fragmented in her identity. In chapter three, her loss of direction is the focus. Since she has always succeeded in her studies without much effort, she has never faced a barrier that would require her to evaluate her goals in life. Now, suddenly she cannot feel sure of what she wants to do. She has no role models. Jay Cee, who comes closest to filling this role, is a humorless workaholic who lives unadorned among prettied up women who gossip about her poor looks. The poet professor at Esther’s school is not developed enough as a character to help the reader judge how she might fit in as a role model.