The Bell Jar Plot Summary
Esther Greenwood is in New York as an editorial intern. She won the position along with eleven other girls in a writing contest. Her roommate is Doreen, a very beautiful girl who is more audacious than the rest. That night, they are supposed to go to a party with one of the others, but they end up at a bar with a man named Lenny Shepherd. Doreen and Esther go back to Lenny's place with his friend, and Doreen ends up making out with Lenny. Esther leaves. The next day, there is a banquet at which all the girls eat crabmeat. Earlier in the morning, their boss, Jay Cee, had criticized Esther for not knowing what she was going to do with her life. She cries over her dessert as she thinks about this. She and Betsy go to a movie, but Esther leaves early because she feels sick. By the time she gets back to the hotel she is puking. All eleven of the girls get food poisoning from the crabmeat. Esther is woken by Doreen, who is not sick because she spent the day with Lenny. Esther reads a short story and thinks about her boyfriend Buddy. They first kissed at his junior prom at Yale. Their mothers are good friends. He got tuberculosis before she could break up with him. Now he is in a sanatorium recovering.
Once, she went to visit him at medical school and saw the birth of a baby in the maternity ward. Soon after, Buddy admitted to Esther he had sex with a waitress the summer before. She realized he is hypocritical because he had always acted so innocent. It was at this moment she had sworn to break up with him. Before she was able to dump Buddy, he contracted TB and was sent to a sanitorium. Later, Esther accompanied Buddy's father and visited him at the sanatorium. To impress her, he had taken to writing poetry, but Esther thought it awful. He asked her to marry him and she said that she never wants to get married. He didn't take this seriously. Soon after, Buddy took Esther skiing and she broke her leg in two places.
A man named Constantin takes Esther out to lunch and they go back to his place. She decides that she wants to have sex with him, but he is not interested. The next day, she breaks down crying. Doreen makes her go out with her, Lenny, and a guy named Marco. Marco tries to force himself on her, but she punches him in the nose. Later that night, she throws all of her clothing off the roof of the hotel.
Esther goes home and finds out that she will be staying in the suburbs for the summer. She sends a letter to Buddy telling him that she wants nothing to do with him. She gets depressed. She can't write, read or sleep. Her mother tries to get her to learn shorthand, but she doesn't want to. All she wants is stronger sleeping pills. Her doctor sends her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist doesn't really listen to her, and after two meetings, prescribes shock therapy. Esther fears this and tries to escape but cannot. The treatment is terrible for her and only makes her worse. She begins to seek out ways to kill herself everyday. She tries hanging, cutting her wrists with razors, and drowning. Finally, she overdoses on sleeping pills and hides herself in the basement.
Esther is found and taken to the hospital. Here, she breaks a mirror on purpose and is sent to a psychiatric ward at another hospital. At the second hospital, she continues her violent behavior and slips further into depression. She is finally transferred to a private institution where she slowly begins to improve at the hands of Dr. Nolan. Another ex-girlfriend of Buddy's, Joan, enters the asylum and they talk. Esther begins to gain weight and one night has a violent episode. Dr. Nolan realizes Esther's violent episode was a nervous reaction to her mother, and the many visitors she was receiving. She tells Esther that she will not be having visitors for a while.
Esther gets better and moves into other buildings. One day, Dr. Nolan surprises her by scheduling shock treatment, but it goes well. Esther only needs five treatments before they are done. Joan gets out of the hospital. Esther tells Dr. Nolan she is planning to have sex, and he tells her to get fitted for a diaphragm. Esther does and has sex with a man she meets. She hemorrhages badly from intercourse, and must go to the hospital. She gets back to her room and someone asks her if she knows where they can find Joan. They find Joan in the woods, dead.
Esther is apprehensive about leaving the institution, but Dr. Nolan reassures her that she is ready to go. Buddy comes to visit her in a snowstorm, but she feels nothing when she sees him. She gets ready for the exit interview. The novel ends as Esther pauses, focuses, and enters the room where all the doctors who saw her on the first day are sitting.