This hotel – the Amazon – was for women only, and they were mostly girls my age with wealthy parents [...] and they were all going to posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and junior executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other. (1.15)
Esther self-consciously distances herself from the other women staying at the Amazon, which is a rather ironic name for a residence designed to keep virginal young women safe from lascivious men (think about the mythological Amazons). Her rejection of the secretarial career path is one of the reasons she can't stand her mother, who teaches shorthand, a necessary skill at the time for secretaries.
[Buddy and I] had met together under our own imaginary fig tree, and what we had seen wasn't a bird coming out of an egg but a baby coming out of a woman, and then something awful happened and we went our separate ways. (5.47)
This passage refers to a story that Esther reads where a Jewish man and a Catholic nun meet under a fig tree until one day they bond over seeing a bird hatching out of an egg. The next day, the Catholic nun is replaced by another, grouchier nun. For Esther, the story helps her understand what happened when she went to visit Buddy at medical school, where she witnessed a delivery being performed. Instead of the experience bringing her and buddy together, the experience only confirmed her reluctance to go down the motherhood route.
My trouble was I took everything Buddy Willard told me as the honest-to-God truth. (5.60)
Early in their relationship, Esther idolizes Buddy as a moral and intellectual guide.
The woman's stomach stuck up so high I couldn't see her face or the upper part of her body at all. She seemed to have nothing but an enormous spider-fat stomach and two little ugly spindly legs propped in the high stirrups and all the time the baby was being born she never stopped making this unhuman whooping noise. (6.23)
While society celebrates motherhood, Esther views maternity as something disgusting and "unhuman." The woman she witnesses in the delivery room is reduced to a horrible spider.
All I'd heard about, really, was how fine and clean Buddy was and how he was the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for. (6.45)
Like Quote #3, this quote shows the extent to which Esther idolized Buddy. She accepted what everybody said about Buddy: that he was an upstanding and chaste – "clean" – man who would want an equally "clean" woman to marry. Later, Esther is crushed when she discovers that Buddy isn't so clean after all; he's spent his summer sleeping with a waitress on Cape Cod. She's not bothered as much by the sex as she is by Buddy's hypocrisy, his pretense that he's such a "fine and clean" individual.
"What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinity security," and, "What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from" [...] (6.79)
These fine words are the sayings of Mrs. Willard, Buddy's mother and Esther's prospective mother-in-law. "Infinite security"? "The place the arrow shoots off from"? The idea that a woman might want to be something other than her husband's biggest fan is foreign to Mrs. Willard.
The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters. (7.14)
Here, Esther explains her resistance to learning shorthand, a secretarial skill, from her mother. Shorthand is contrasted with creative writing, which is an expression of her own individuality.
The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket. (7.65)
In this passage, Esther rejects Mrs. Willard's views (see Quote #6). Instead of having her future defined by long years of fawning over a husband, Esther wants to open up her horizons and explore the possibilities.
I pulled up a chair opposite [Miss Norris] at the table and unfolded a napkin. We didn't speak, but sat there, in a close, sisterly silence, until the gong for supper sounded down the hall. (15.65)
At the psychiatric institution, Esther identifies particularly with Miss Norris, a patient who is described as something of a spinster, with a plain dress buttoned up to her chin and her hair arranged in a "schoolmarmish" bun (15.54). Miss Norris's silence could represent the way women's needs and desires are silenced by society, perhaps explaining Esther's "sisterly" identification with her.
Why do I attract these weird old women? [...] [T]hey all wanted to adopt me in some way, and, for the price of their care and influence, have me resemble them. (18.60)
In this passage, Esther looks back over the many older women who have attempted to mentor her in her life, and she doesn't find any of them adequate. None of them seems to have been able to enjoy a fulfilling romantic life and an intellectual life at the same time. Perhaps she resents most of all the fact that they are trying to mother her – and she's had quite enough mothering from her own mom.
My mother spoke German during her childhood in America and was stoned for it during the First World War by the children at school. My German-speaking father, dead since I was nine, came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia [...] each time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam. (3.57)
Esther's parents' German background contributes to her feeling like an outsider in mainstream American society. German was the language of the enemy in World War I and II.
I wish I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I'd know what to do.
My own mother wasn't much help [...] She was always on to me to learn shorthand after college, so I'd have a practical skill as well as a college degree. (4.10)
Esther embraces Jay Cee as a possible mother figure because, unlike her own mother, Jay Cee is a successful professional who has made a life out of writing. Instead of trying to get Esther to learn shorthand, as Mrs. Greenwood does, Jay Cee tries to prepare Esther for a career in journalism by encouraging her to learn new languages.
Of course, our mothers were good friends. They had gone to school together and then both married their professors and settled down in the same town [...] (5.64)
For Esther, Mrs. Willard, her boyfriend's mother, is the mirror image of her own mother. Both mothers followed the conventional path of sacrificing their own careers for their husbands. By marrying Mrs. Willard's son Buddy, Esther would expect a similar fate.
"You oughtn't to see this," Will muttered in my ear. "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." (6.19)
At the medical school Buddy attends, Esther witnesses a baby being born. Will, Buddy's fellow medical student who's in charge of delivering the baby, actually seems more freaked out by the experience than Esther is. The gross business of delivering a baby seems to be the dark secret that society is trying to cover up by promoting images of sweet domesticity, like Esther's neighbor Dodo Conway and her six children.
I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent [...] 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. (6.25)
Esther sees something insidious about the fact that women are knocked out before giving birth. By losing consciousness, women are denied knowledge of one of the most critical experiences in their lives. Anesthesia seems to be part of a larger social trend to get women to literally lose their minds. (You might want to compare this experience with Esther's own experience with insulin shock therapy [16.62]).
[M]aybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state. (7.79)
If Buddy is trying to get Esther to marry him, he's not doing a very good job. The quote above is Esther's response to Buddy's suggestion that she won't feel like writing once she has a baby. Making your potential wife feel like a "slave in some private, totalitarian state" (and to the American public at the time, that would mean Stalin's Soviet Union) isn't too suave.
"I knew you'd decide to be all right again." (12.58)
In contrast to Dr. Nolan, Esther's mother doesn't seem to understand that Esther's mental illness is just that – an illness, not a moral failing. Depression isn't something that Esther can "decide" away. It's no wonder that Esther only gets worse in her mother's care: on top of depression, Esther has to deal with her mother's implication that Esther is somehow guilty of being depressed.
I had a great yearning, lately, to pay my father back for all the years of neglect, and start tending his grave. I had always been my father's favorite, and it seemed fitting I should take on a mourning my mother had never bothered with. (13.123)
The place of Esther's father in her life isn't really explored in the novel because he died when she was so young. But it's interesting that she decides to mourn his death right before she attempts suicide. Is it because she wishes she had a strong male figure in her life, an intellectual mentor, even a protector? Does she think her life would have been any better if he had been alive?
I was surprised to see a woman. I didn't think they had woman psychiatrists. This woman was a cross between Myrna Loy and my mother. (15.17)
For Esther, Dr. Nolan becomes a replacement for her mother – the cool mom she never had (Myrna Loy was a popular film actress at the time). Dr. Nolan listens to Esther and understands what she's going through. In contrast, Esther's mother seems to think that Esther's depression can be cured by work, even if it's not particularly fulfilling work like learning shorthand or volunteering at the local hospital.
"I hate her," I said, and waited for the blow to fall.
But Doctor Nolan only smiled at me as if something had pleased her very, very much and said, "I suppose you do." (16.93)
Dr. Nolan here lets Esther express her feelings about her mother honestly. Just getting the chance to express her feelings has therapeutic value for Esther. In the past, she's been so worried about what others think of her that she hasn't really had the chance to be honest with herself.
"Leggo you bitch!"
Lenny stooped, and Doreen went flying up on to his shoulder [...] (2.26)
It sounds like assault, but it isn't – it's just the prelude to Lenny and Doreen's hookup. This episode looks ahead to Esther's sexual encounters, which often do not seem distinguishable from violence.
There I went again, building up a glamorous picture of the man who would love me passionately the minute he met me, and all out of a few prosy nothings. (5.26)
Esther's idea of romantic love contrasts with the prevailing view of love around her as something exclusively between husbands and wives, toward the goal of creating a family.
Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed. (6.49)
Ouch. Really, just ouch. Esther is not at all impressed with Buddy's, ahem, family jewels. So much for passionate love.
[Constantin] had what no American man I've ever met has had, and that's intuition. (7.1)
In contrast to Buddy, Constantin attracts Esther because he's got something called "intuition." While Constantin isn't necessarily more attractive than Buddy, Esther feels like she can be honest with Constantin. It helps that Constantin is just as repelled by Mrs. Willard as Esther is.
The main point of the article ["In Defense of Chastity"] was that a man's world is different from a woman's world and a man's emotions are different from a woman's emotions and only marriage can bring the two worlds and the two different sets of emotions together properly [...] This woman lawyer said the best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren't pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex. (7.44-5)
This article spells out the prevailing attitude toward sexuality at the time. While it seems to defend chastity, the article actually promotes the idea that the real difference between men and women is that women have to stay pure, and men do not. The best men stay pure, other men aren't, but regardless of whether they're pure or not, all men want virginal wives. Women, on the other hand, have to stay pure no matter what.
Now the one thing this article didn't seem to me to consider was how a girl felt [...] I couldn't stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not. (7.48)
You said it, sister. As Esther astutely points out, the article mentioned in Quote #5 above doesn't say anything about love. The article makes sexuality sound as if it's just a question of the biological or psychological difference between men and women – there's nothing about love, passion, spiritual connection, romance, or even attraction.
Instead of the world being divided up into Catholics and Protestants or Republics and Democrats or white men and black men or even men and women, I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn't, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another.
I thought a spectacular change would come over me when I crossed the boundary line. (7.50-1)
This passage reveals Esther's naiveté about sex. It's not clear exactly what sort of "spectacular change" she was expecting, but it's interesting to see her use the same language about losing her virginity as she does about suicide (see our discussion of this in "Transformation"). In fact, every time Esther seeks a sexual encounter in the novel inevitably ends in her getting hurt.
I began to see why woman-haters could make such fools of women. Woman-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power. (9.100)
You can almost predict what's going to happen between Esther and her blind date Marco, the "woman-hater" in the quote above. As with Lenny and Doreen (see Quote #1), consensual sex is indistinguishable from violence, another way for "woman-haters" to assert their power over women. Thankfully, Esther fights back and escapes Marco.
"What does a woman see in a woman that she can't see in a man?"
Doctor Nolan paused. Then she said, "Tenderness." That shut me up. (18.53)
In the novel, Esther seems, well, rather homophobic. The relationship between DeeDee and Joan disgusts her. It's interesting here that Doctor Nolan uses the word "tenderness" because it's exactly the same word that Esther uses to describe Doreen (4.60). It would be a stretch to say Esther is a closet lesbian, but at least Esther learns to appreciate female friendship.
Then the stories of blood-stained bridal sheets and capsules of red ink bestowed on already deflowered brides floated back to me [...] I couldn't possibly be a virgin any more. I smiled into the dark. I felt part of a great tradition. (19.65)
Esther believes that she has undergone the "spectacular change" she expected when she lost her virginity (see Quote #7 above). Instead of being empowered by her experience, however, Esther's sexual encounter leaves her with a dangerous hemorrhage and she needs to be taken to the emergency room, further underscoring the connection between sex and violence in the novel.
It was a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. (1.1)
By identifying with the Rosenbergs, a couple executed as Soviet spies, Esther situates herself outside and in some ways opposed to American society.
I knew something was wrong with me that summer ...all the little successes I'd totted up so happily at college fizzled to nothing outside the slick marble and plate-glass fronts along Madison Avenue.
I was supposed to be having the time of my life. (1.5-6)
Madison Avenue has and still is associated with the American advertising industry (think of the recent A&E series Mad Men). Esther just can't seem to go along with the rush of advertising that celebrated American consumer culture at the time.
[I]f you do something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty. (3.17)
We invite you to test this out at a dining hall or a restaurant or maybe your second cousin's wedding. Just go for it.
I started adding up all the things I couldn't do [...] I felt dreadfully inadequate [...] The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end. (7.9-18)
Up until the summer before her senior year, Esther has done a good job of being a student of literature. But the thought of entering the real world terrifies her. The world she lives in seems to be about making money or spending money; it seems to have no place for the literary ideals that she cherishes.
I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three ... nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn't see a single pole beyond the nineteenth. (10.125)
In this passage, Esther considers all of the conventionally acceptable options for a well-educated young woman like herself, but they all bore her – literally to death, as she can't imagine her life extending past her nineteenth year.
The gray, padded roof closed over my head like the roof of a prison van, and the white, shining, identical clapboard houses with their interstices of well-groomed green proceeded past, one bar after another in a large but escape-proof cage. (10.34)
While for many the American suburb represented American affluence, Esther feels imprisoned, particularly after the hustle and bustle of New York City.
I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying "Ah!" in an encouraging way [...] how could this Doctor Gordon help me anyway, with a beautiful wife and beautiful children and a beautiful dog haloing him like the angels on a Christmas card? (11.29)
Dr. Gordon is the psychiatrist who mucks up Esther's electroshock therapy in a terrible way. As the patriarch of the ideal American family, Dr. Gordon seems to represent American society, punishing Esther for going against social expectations and rejecting marriage and family.
For the rest of the evening, I listened to DeeDee thump out some of her own songs on the grand piano, while the other women sat around playing bridge and chatting, just the way they would do in a college dormitory, only most of them were ten years over college age. (17.23)
This passage is one of many where Esther remarks on the similarities between the asylum patients and "normal" women.
The fat bright faces of babies beamed up at me, page after page – bald babies, chocolate-colored babies, Eisenhower-faced babies [...] babies doing all the little tricky things it takes to grow up, step by step, into an anxious and unsettling world [...]
The parenting magazine Esther flips through gives us a good idea of what it was like living during the post-WWII baby boom.
What was there about us, in Belsize, so different from the girls playing bridge and studying in the college to which I would return? Those girls, too, sat under bell jars of a sort. (20.18)
Like Quote #8, this quote points out the similarities between the asylum patients and "normal" women. All women live under a bell jar in the sense that social convention requires them to suppress their individual needs and desires to support men.
[The Rosenbergs' execution] had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along your nerves.
I thought it must be the worst thing in the world. (1.1)
The Rosenbergs' death by execution looks ahead to Esther's nightmarish experience with electroshock therapy later in the novel. Their shared experience with, well, let's just call it "bad electricity" suggests that madness may not be just a physiological issue for Esther. Madness could just be another name for people who don't fit in with the values of mainstream society, like the Rosenbergs.
The silence depressed me. It wasn't the silence of silence. It was my own silence. (2.37)
This is a particularly vivid passage about Esther's descent into suicidal depression. For a girl who spends her life working with words – as a magazine intern, as a literature major – silence is terrifying.
[Buddy] was very proud of his perfect health and was always telling me it was psychosomatic when my sinuses blocked up and I couldn't breathe. (6.84)
Buddy, as a medical student, is one of the voices of the medical profession in the novel. His condescending attitude toward Esther indicates how the medical profession can be sexist in the way that it dismisses the validity of women's concerns.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked [...] I saw myself 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. (7.20-21)
One aspect of Esther's depression is that she feels paralyzed, unable to act. The fig tree here represents all of the possibilities for action that she just can't muster up the initiative to pursue.
A small answering point in my body flew toward it. I felt my lungs inflate with the inrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, "This is what it is to be happy."
I plummed down past the zigzaggers, the students, the experts, through year after year of doubleness and smiles and compromise, into my own past. (7.121-122)
While Esther is certainly mentally ill, she experiences moments of almost visionary clarity, such as the one described in this passage. It is this clarity that comes through when she makes her biting critique of the hypocrisy of modern society. Her experience suggests that her "madness" is not an either/or kind of thing, but a composite of physiological, emotional, and social factors. Simply put, both Esther and society contribute to her suicidal depression.
I made out men and women, and boys and girls who must be as young as I, but there was a uniformity to their faces, as if they had lain for a long time on a shelf, out of the sunlight, under siftings of pale, fine dust. (12.9)
The "uniformity" of these patients is distressing when you consider that Dr. Gordon, who runs the institution, also happens to be prone to uniformity, as seen when he repeats the things he said about Esther's college. These patients basically represent how even "sane" or "normal" people are trapped in habits and routines.
Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world [...] with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.
I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done. (12.32-33)
This passage describes Esther's first experience with electroshock therapy, and significantly, she feels that it's a punishment. Not a cure, but a punishment. This underscores her connection to the Rosenbergs (see Quote #1).
[...] I felt dumb and subdued. Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently. (12.53)
Again, after her first experience with electroshock therapy at Dr. Gordon's, Esther loses, well, her mind. She's unable to put thoughts together, and she feels "dumb," another way of saying she's lost her voice (see Quote #2). The therapy seems just as bad as her illness.
If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn't have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air (15.10)
The bell jar is a recurring symbol in the novel that captures how Esther feels trapped in her depression, and, as this passage emphasizes, isolated from the rest of the world. (See "What's Up with the Title?" for more on the bell jar.)
All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air. (18.5)
As with Quote #9, the bell jar appears in this passage as a symbol for depression. But in this instance, after a successful bout of electroshock therapy (guided by the female Dr. Nolan), the bell jar is lifted and Esther feels relief.
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 hullaballoo. (1.9)
In this early passage, Esther feels that she is distanced from the "hullaballoo" of New York City. Her feelings of emptiness suggest that she's lost her sense of who she is.
Doreen had intuition. Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones. (1.42)
Esther uses the term "intuition" to describe characters with whom she instantly connects. They are usually unconventional characters, such as Doreen.
I felt myself melting into the shadows like the negative of a person I'd never seen before in my life. (1.64)
This passage describes how Esther feels invisible in social situations. In the darkness of the bar, all eyes are on the beautiful Doreen in her gleaming white dress, and not on Esther.
I felt myself shrinking to a small black dot [...] I felt like a hole in the ground [...] (2.21)
The fact that Doreen and Lenny act as if Esther doesn't exist leads Esther to feel that she literally doesn't exist.
It's like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction – every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it's really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier [...] (2.23)
This passage emphasizes the way that Esther feels invisible in the eyes of society. She sees herself not through her own eyes, but from the perspective of others, in this case Paris.
"Elly, Elly, Elly," the first voice mumbled, while the other voice went on hissing, "Miss Greenwood, Miss Greenwood, Miss Greenwood," as if I had a split personality or something. (2.52)
Esther often uses aliases or pseudonyms in the novel in social situations; it gives her a certain freedom to pretend to be someone else. This feeling of having a "split personality" gets much more serious later in the novel as her depression worsens, and she loses all sense of who she really is.
"I don't really know," I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true. (3.52)
In this conversation with her boss, Jay Cee, Esther feels enormous pressure to pin down her identity to a definite career path, but she finds herself unable to. (Come to think of it, a lot of people have no idea what they want to do after college, so why is Jay Cee being so hard on Esther?)
The mouth in the mirror cracked into a grin.
A minute after the crash another nurse ran in. (14.76-77)
This passage is a great example of how Esther feels alienated from her own body. It's "the" mouth, not "my" mouth, as if a random pair of lips just happened to be dangling in front of a mirror. And notice that there's a paragraph break where a description of what Esther is thinking when she sees herself should be. The novel shows how Esther loses herself by literally erasing her from the page – just a paragraph break. Pretty cool, huh?
The first clipping showed a big, blown-up picture of a girl with black-shadowed eyes and black lips spread in a grin [...] The next clipping showed a picture of my mother and brother and me grouped together in our backyard and smiling [...] The last picture showed policemen lifting a long, limp blanket roll with a featureless cabbage head into the back of the ambulance. (16.34)
As we saw in Quote #8, Esther has a hard time recognizing images of herself, just as society doesn't seem to be able to see her either (see Quote #5 above, for example).
[Joan's] thoughts were not my thoughts, nor her feelings my feelings, but we were close enough so that her thoughts and feelings seemed a wry, black image of my own. (18.50)
Even as Esther feels herself splitting up into multiple personalities, she sees herself in others' situations, like the Rosenbergs and her friend Joan.
[L]ater, when I was all right again, I brought [the gifts] out, and I still have them around the house [...] last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with. (1.13)
This passage is the only glimpse we have of Esther, the narrator, after all of the events described in the novel. It suggests that she was able to get to the point where she could have a writing life (the book) and a baby at the same time.
I liked looking on at other people in crucial situations [...] I certainly learned a lot of things I never would have learned otherwise this way, and even when they surprised me or made me sick I never let on, but pretended that's the way I knew things were all the time. (1.97-98)
This passage suggests that crisis situations, such as Esther's attempted suicide, are the most revealing of a person's true nature.
The longer I lay there in the clear hot water the purer I felt, and when I stepped out at last and wrapped myself in one of the big, soft white hotel bath towels I felt pure and sweet as a new baby. (2.49)
This passage is one of many where Esther expresses her desire to feel "pure," newborn, without all of the baggage of her life.
People and trees receded on either hand like the dark sides of a tunnel as I hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother's belly. (7.117)
Like Quote #3, the image of the baby appears here, only this time in one of Esther's extreme situations. The baby image signals a moment where Esther feels truly alive, even as she risks her life hurtling down a ski slope.
As I paddled on, my heartbeat boomed like a dull motor in my ears.
I am I am I am. (13.53)
So, yeah, Esther thinks her heart is talking to her. A pretty weird way to think about your body, true. But it is interesting that Esther's body is no longer something that she thinks of as a sexual object (see our discussion of this theme under "Sex") or as a baby-making machine (see our discussion of this theme under "Women and Femininity"). It's just her body, pure and simple, reduced to the most essential expression of the fact that she is, that she lives.
Then I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash.
I would simply have to ambush it with whatever sense I had left, or it would trap me in its stupid cage for fifty years without any sense at all. (13.62-63)
Here we have another instance where Esther has, well, an out-of-body experience in her own body, as if her body isn't really under her control but has a will of its own. Her body wants to live; she does not.
The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep. (13.)
We don't want to get all Freudian on you, but Esther's suicide scene seems very womb-ish in its set-up. She crawls into a dark tunnel? Not tough to see this as her crawling back into a metaphorical birth canal. And the rhythmic tidal imagery suggests the contractions and water breaking during labor. Too Freudian? Or just another way to stress the association between birth and death for Esther?
I lay, trying to slow the beating of my heart, as every beat pushed forth another gush of blood. (19.92)
After Esther's treatment under Dr. Nolan, we see that she's finally willing herself to live. During the hemorrhaging episode after she loses her virginity, she tries to suppress her body's natural reaction to pump blood, which is actually threatening her life.
How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again? (20.60)
Even though with Quote #1 we see that the narrator/Esther is speaking from the perspective of having survived this personal tragedy, this quote suggests that Esther isn't entirely free of the threat of the bell jar.
But I wasn't getting married. There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice – patched, retreaded, and approved for the road, I was trying to think of an appropriate one when Doctor Nolan appeared from nowhere and touched me on the shoulder. (20.96)
Here, Esther continues to reject marriage as the defining event in a young woman's road to maturity. She picks her own rite – the rite of being reborn, significantly not through suicide, as she attempted in the depths of her depression, but through the therapy she underwent at the institution.
The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there is to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner, and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. (1.1)
This passage, which is set smack dab in the middle of the first paragraph of the novel, sets the novel apart from mass media (such as newspapers and popular magazines). Unlike the sensational way that the mass media often covers suicide and adolescent angst, the novel is going to try to take a serious and personally candid look at the matter.
People were made of nothing so much as dust, and I couldn't see that doctoring all that dust was a bit better than writing poems people could remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick and couldn't sleep. (5.60)
Here, Esther imagines her response to Buddy, who looks down on her writing aspirations as a useless hobby. The passage suggests a social function for writing, as a way of comforting people, possibly even as a form of therapy.
I had read one of Mrs. Guinea's books in the town library – the college library didn't stock them for some reason – and it was crammed from beginning to end with long, suspenseful questions: "Would Evelyn discern that Gladys knew Roger in her past? wondered Hector feverishly" and "How could Donald marry her when he learned of the child Elsie, hidden away with Mrs. Rollmop on the secluded country farm? Griselda demanded of her bleak moonlit pillow." (4.16)
Philomena Guinea, popular novelist, is also a part of the mass media culture that Esther seeks some distance from. With her soap operatic fictions, Philomena Guinea fills the need for romance of her mainly female audience.
I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. (7.79)
Buddy, in a not so smooth move, once again disparages Esther's literary talent, this time suggesting that women are really only good for having children.
A feeling of tenderness filled my heart. My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. (10.99)
This is what literary critics would call a "self-reflexive" move on the part of the novel. The heroine of Esther's imaginary novel is herself, "only in disguise" – uh, like The Bell Jar is about Sylvia Plath, "only in disguise"? Kind of puts a new spin on all of those times that Esther takes on different names, hm?
I needed experience.
How could I write about a life when I'd never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? (10.109-110)
Interestingly, all three of these things happen in Esther's life. We hear about how she lost her virginity, we know that she's had a baby by the time she's written this story, and while she hasn't actually "seen" anyone dying, she did attempt suicide and her friend Joan passed away.
Words, dimly familiar but twisted all awry, like faces in a funhouse mirror, fled past, leaving no impression on the glassy surface of my brain. (10.138)
Esther describes her attempt to read what many consider to be the greatest novel of all time, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. And yes, those are actual quotes from the book. If those quotes seem to be "dimly familiar but twisted all awry" to you, you are not alone. You are so not alone that you are in the majority. But Joyce appears in The Bell Jar to signal Esther's own hope to write great literature.
It was what my mother called a scandal sheet, full of the local murders and suicides and beatings and robbings [...] At home, all I ever saw was the Christian Science Monitor, which appeared on the doorstep at five o'clock every day but Sunday and treated suicides and sex crimes and airplane crashes as if they didn't happen. (11.127-8)
Esther here describes why she loves to read "scandal sheets," which would be roughly similar to the New York Post today, though a step above The National Enquirer. Unlike the Christian Science Monitor, which maintains an aura of social respectability, the scandal sheets get into the real dirt and grime of human experience.
The only reason I remembered this play was because it had a mad person in it, and everything I had ever read about mad people stuck in my mind, while everything else flew out. (13.13)
Although Henrik Ibsen isn't specifically mentioned, this play sounds an awful lot like his Ghosts, where a man gone mad with syphilis he inherited in the womb is (possibly) killed by his mother in a mercy killing. Ibsen was both celebrated and pilloried for his look at the dark side of human nature, and he continues to be considered one of the greatest modern playwrights.
SCHOLARSHIP GIRL MISSING. MOTHER WORRIED. (16.31)
In an ironic or not-so-ironic twist, Esther ends up fodder for the scandal sheets that her mother deplores. The headline is kind of funny because it sums up a good portion of The Bell Jar in five words.