The Bell Jar Chapter 3 and 4 Summary

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath Menu

Chapter 3 Summary

All the girls have been invited to a luncheon sponsored by the magazine Ladies’ Day. In the first paragraph of this chapter, the narrator describes the elaborate spread of food at the table; Esther hadn’t had time to eat breakfast and so she’s thrilled to see the variety of fancy food they have to choose from. In fact, she had never really gone out to eat at nice restaurants before, and she was sure burgers and milkshakes at Howard Johnson’s with Buddy Willard didn’t count. She loves food, and very fattening food, especially because she never gains any weight.

Doreen has not come to the luncheon because she is spending the day with Lenny; in fact, she now spent most of her free time with him; Esther notices the place cards are little pocket mirrors with each girl’s names painted on; she saves Doreen’s to give to her later.

In the hour before the luncheon, the girls had been shown by the magazine staff how they produce the lavish photography spreads of food which appear each month in their magazine; Esther notes the difference in attitudes towards food from when she was little. She had always had enough to eat, but it seemed whenever she lifted her fork to her mouth to eat, her grandmother had reminded her exactly how much each bite had cost. Esther notices there are huge bowls of caviar on the table; she begins to strategize how to get the most caviar possible. She loves caviar, and recalls a joke she had with her grandfather, who was a waiter at a country club. Because of his job, he was able to get her tidbits of gourmet food, which is how she first tasted caviar. The joke was that for her wedding, her grandfather would get her all the caviar she could eat. It was a joke first because Esther never intended to get married, second because if she ever did, her grandfather could never afford to buy her any.

She lays out a layer of chicken slices on her plate, smothers it in caviar, rolls the whole thing up and eats it with her fingers. She confides that at a fancy place, if you only act like what you’re doing is proper, no one ever questioned you. She realized this when she had gone to lunch with Jay Cee one day and a very famous poet who ate his salad with his fingers. It was then she realized it was all about attitude.

Esther polishes off a whole bowl of caviar without encountering any difficulty and moves on to the avocados stuffed with crabmeat. Now that she isn’t worried about protecting her territory, she strikes up a conversation with Betsy, and asks her how the fur show was. Betsy tells her how they were shown how to make a neckerchief out of fur scraps and inexpensive items from Woolworth’s, which one of their group, Hilda, had already done.

Esther pauses to look across the table at Hilda, who she doesn’t quite understand. She was very tall and Slavic-looking, was apprenticed to the fashion editor and made startling hats. She murmurs appreciation for Hilda’s skill, wishing Doreen was there to say something scathing.

Betsy asks why Esther didn’t go to the fur show, to which Esther responds she was summoned to Jay Cee’s office, which wasn’t totally true. First she had been invited to Coney Island with Doreen and Lenny, an invitation she refused; instead she decided to sleep late. But then that was when Jay Cee called and asked her to come into the office.

When she gets to the office, Jay Cee interrogates her about her goals and aspirations, and Esther isn’t quite sure what to say. She realizes, for the first time, that she doesn’t really know what she wants to do after college; she’s spent her whole life winning scholarships and prizes, but she doesn’t know what comes next. Jay Cee recommends she learn some foreign languages. Esther agrees out loud, but already knows there is no room in her schedule for it. Esther remembers back to how she got out of taking chemistry in college. She had taken botany and loved it; but then she took physics and hated it, but she worked ridiculously hard and was the only student in the class to get an A. She was sure chemistry would be even worse, and was panic-struck at the thought of taking it: “What I couldn’t stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes.and fascinating words like carotene.there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion formulas in Mr. Manzi’s special red chalk.”

It turns out her hard work in physics was all part of the plan: she convinces her dean that taking chemistry for a grade was only a waste of time, since she’d just get another A. Instead, she suggests, she’ll attend lectures not for a grade, but because she loved science. She did go to every lecture, but while there she wrote poetry. When the professor looked over at her, he saw her writing and smiling and thought she was hard at work.

Chapter 4 Summary

Esther can’t understand why these events keep going through her head as she’s talking to Jay Cee, but they do. All the time Jay Cee was talking, she saw Mr. Manzi floating above Jay Cee’s head. She felt sorry for Mr. Manzi, and felt she should apologize for lying.

Before Esther leaves for the luncheon, she sits in her office and thinks what it would be like to be an editor like Jay Cee. She also wishes Jay Cee was her real mother, she feels then she’d know what to do. Her own mother had been teaching shorthand and typing to support her family ever since Esther’s father had died when she was nine. Esther’s mother always nagged her to acquire a practical skill she could fall back on if she needed to.

At the luncheon, Esther washes her fingers in the finger bowls on the table and thinks about how far she’d come. She was able to go to college because she’d won a scholarship named after Philomena Guinea, a wealthy novelist who had attended her college in the early 1900s. Esther did do a little research to find out what Mrs. Guinea’s novels were like – they seemed to be all sentimental, silly overwritten, but they had made the author a millionaire. She wrote a thank-you note to Mrs. Guinea and was invited to her house for lunch. This occasion was the first time she saw finger bowls. There were some flowers floating in the water, and mistaking it for some exotic soup, Esther ate the whole thing. She only realized her huge mistake when she related the story later to a debutante she knew at college.

When they all emerged from the luncheon down on the street, it was gray and raining. Esther had been hoping to spend the day in Central Park, but instead is talked into a movie with the other girls. She didn’t think much of the movie and found the Technicolor grating: “Everybody in a Technicolor movie seems to feel obliged to wear a lurid costume in each new scene and to stand around like a clotheshorse with a lot of very green trees or very yellow wheat or very blue ocean rolling away for miles and miles in every direction.”

Esther starts to feel nauseous and gets up to leave; she tells Betsy, who says she also isn’t feeling well so they both leave for the hotel. They hail a taxi, and all the way back to the hotel they vomit in the back of the cab. The driver isn’t pleased, but there’s nothing he can do. They were sick again in the elevator, and they take turns holding each other’s heads. When she gets to the bathroom, she throws up repeatedly, and then lies back on the cold floor.

She wakes up to someone pounding on the door. She tries to hide the signs of her sickness and walks out into the hallway, and promptly falls face down on the floor. She hears two women talking: one asks the other how many others there are, to which the other answers eleven, but since one was missing, only ten. One of the women volunteers to take care of Esther. She’s picked up and tucked into bed. She asks the person, who turns out to be the hotel nurse what’s happened, and is informed they’ve all been poisoned. The nurse tells her she’s been given an injection and she’ll soon fall asleep.

When she wakes up, Doreen is offering her a cup of broth; she drinks some and feels better immediately. Doreen tells her she almost died; Esther is sure it was the caviar, but it actually was the crabmeat, which they’d let sit out too long under the hot lights. As soon as the girls started getting sick, the people at Ladies Day had tested the food and discovered what was wrong. They sent presents – copies of The Thirty Best Short Stories of the Year to each girl, ostensibly to atone for almost killing them all. She gives Doreen her mirror/place card, which amuses her a great deal.