The Bell Jar: Novel Summary: Chapters 19-20
Esther has now been told that she can return to the college for the winter semester, but she has to stay in the asylum until the term starts. Joan is also about to be released, and she plans to live in Cambridge, sharing an apartment with a nurse.
Esther meets a young Harvard mathematics professor named Irwin. After coffee they go to his apartment in Cambridge, and then Esther gets permission from Dr. Nolan to spend the night in Cambridge. (Esther says that she is going to stay with Joan.) After dinner, Irwin takes her back to his apartment. She is eager to lose her virginity, but is disconcerted to discover that the sexual act hurts her and leaves her bleeding. Irwin reassures her, but the bleeding does not stop. Esther asks Irwin to drive her to Joan's apartment, where she continues to bleed. Joan calls a taxi and Esther is taken to the Emergency Room, where the doctor tells her she is a one in a million case. But he is able to fix the problem.
Some time elapses. One night, after midnight, Dr. Quinn, who is Joan's doctor, comes to Esther's room asking if she has any idea of where Joan might be. Joan had been readmitted to the hospital several days after Esther's trip to the Emergency Room. Dr. Quinn says that Joan had a permit to go to a movie in town, but has not returned. Esther has no knowledge of where she might be. At dawn, Dr. Quinn returns with the news that Joan has been found dead in the woods. She hanged herself.
In January, Esther is about to return to her college, although she first has to pass her interview with the board of directors. There is a heavy snowfall, and Buddy comes to visit her. She helps dig his car out of a snow drift. At afternoon tea in the asylum, Buddy asks her if there is something about him that drives women crazy, since he dated Joan and also Esther. Esther laughs at the question and assures him that he had nothing to do with their illnesses.
She calls Irwin, asking him to pay the bills for her treatment in the Emergency Room, and he agrees. She has not seen him since their one and only meeting, and she has no intention of seeing him again. She feels free.
She attends Joan's funeral, and then prepares to attend the meeting of the board of directors, who must approve her release from the asylum. She is ready to begin her life again, and she appears to have plans for the future.
For her first sexual experience, Esther asserts her freedom by deliberately choosing a man in whom she has no particular interest and does not plan to see again. It is an impersonal thing for her, and in this respect, she manages to turn the tables on the customary casual man-woman relationship. Esther uses the man for sex, rather than the other way round. Later, when Irwin wants to see her again, she rules out the possibility, thus again affirming her freedom.
But as with all Esther's significant transformative experiences, sex turns out to be difficult, not at all what she imagined. She imagines the "miraculous change" that sex will bring about in her, but in reality all it produces is pain and blood. For Esther, nothing is easy. Whatever wisdom she acquires is hard won.
Esther continues to recover her emotional balance. She shows she is aware of the suffering she caused her mother ("A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her.") whereas before all she could feel was her hatred for her mother. She also recognizes that her mother has decided to forgive her, but she cannot accept her mother's desire to act as if all Esther's troubles have been a bad dream. She realizes that her experience of mental breakdown is a part of her experience of life: "They were my landscape." They cannot simply be wished away. In this respect, Esther shows a more mature awareness than her mother. But while she recognizes continuity with her past, she also shows that she is ready to move on to a new phase. When Buddy visits her, for example, he seems "small and unrelated to me."
Esther's new affirmation of life is clear when at the funeral service for Joan, she listens "to the old brag of my heart. I am I am I am." The last time the "I am" of the heartbeat was heard, it was when Esther was swimming in the sea, wanting to commit suicide, trying to outwit the will of her body to go on living. Now, she embraces life rather than protests against it. Mind and body both have a will to live.