The Bell Jar: Novel Summary: Chapters 3-4
Some days or weeks later, Esther attends a lavish banquet put on for the staff of Ladies' Day, the magazine she works for. Esther, who loves food, eats cold chicken and caviar with great relish, followed by avocado and crabmeat salad. She is in low spirits. She had intended not to go to work that day but stay in bed instead. However, she had been summoned to the office by a phone call from her boss, Jay Cee. Jay Cee asked her if she was interested in her work, and Esther replied that she was, although this is not really true. When Jay Cee asked her what she planned to do when she graduated from college, Esther replied that she did not know. After Jay Cee reproached her, Esther said she would go into publishing. Jay Cee told her she should learn French and German, but Esther knows there is no time in her college schedule to learn languages.
Esther continues to eat at the banquet. She thinks back to the first time she ever saw a finger-bowl. It was at the home of Philomena Guinea, a wealthy alumnus of the college, and a novelist. Mrs. Guinea also provided the scholarship that has enabled Esther to attend the college. Mrs. Guinea invited Esther to her home for lunch, where Esther mistook a finger-bowl full of water for a bowl of soup, and ate it. Mrs. Guinea does not point out her error.
After the luncheon banquet, Esther and some of the other girls to go watch a movie. The movie bores her with its predictable plot, and she also starts to feel ill. She decides to return to the hotel. Betsy, one of the other girls, does not feel well either, and leaves with Esther. During the cab ride to the hotel they both vomit. When Esther gets back to her room she feels even worse. She goes to the bathroom and vomits again. She hears someone pounding on the bathroom door, and loses consciousness.
The next thing she knows is that someone is helping her back to her room. It is the hotel nurse, who tells her that all the girls at the banquet are suffering from food poisoning. Later, Doreen, who missed the banquet, brings her some soup, and she starts to feel better. Doreen tells her that it was the crabmeat that caused the problem. Ladies' Day has sent the girls a present, a book called The Thirty Best Short Stories of the Year, to make up for their ordeal.
The key element in these chapters is that Esther does not know what she will do after she graduates from college. Her old confidence has broken down. She used to think she would get a scholarship to graduate school, or a grant to study in Europe, or be a professor and poet or editor. She had always excelled at studying, always receiving As for her work, so her sudden inability to chart her way forward is disconcerting for her. The reader must remember that the story is set in the 1950s, when opportunities for women were not as plentiful as they are today, and the ideal role for a woman was considered to be getting married and staying at home raising children. In these chapters, two examples are presented of women who have been successful in their careers, but neither of them serves as an inspiring role model for Esther. The first is Jay Cee. The first is Jay Cee. She is a no-nonsense type, the "best editor" at the intellectual fashion magazine, but physically unattractive. As she is about to go out to a lunch date with some writers, "She looked terrible, but very wise," thinks Esther, hardly an appealing figure for a young girl to try to emulate. The second successful woman is Philomena Guinea, the novelist, who is unmarried. Again, the message is that women who choose to concentrate on their careers run the risk of sacrificing their femininity. Or at least that is how society views them.