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The Bell Jar: Novel Summary: Chapters 5-6

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Chapters 5-6

Early the following morning Esther receives a telephone call from a man named Constantin, an interpreter at the United Nations. He has been given her number by the mother of Buddy Willard, a Yale medical student who is a friend of Esther's. Constantin invites Esther to lunch, and she agrees to go.
But before the lunch date happens, she lies in bed in the morning feeling lonely and weak, thinking of her relationship with Buddy. Everyone expects them to marry, but she knows they will not. Buddy is at the moment recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium in New York State. Esther looks back at their relationship, thinking of the time he took her to the Yale Junior Prom. On a Saturday morning in March, he visited her at her college, saying he was there because he was taking a girl called Joan to the Sophomore Prom. Esther was cold to him because she didn't like the idea that he was seeing someone else. But before Buddy left, he gave her a letter. When she opened it she discovered that it was an invitation from him to the Junior Prom. She was surprised and delighted. But at the prom he treated her like a friend or cousin, and she was very disappointed. She had hoped he would fall in love with her. After the prom they went for a walk and he kissed her. She was less than inspired by this little kiss, but was pleased when Buddy said he could manage to see her every third weekend. But when she visited him at medical school the following fall, she found out that he had been a hypocrite for all the years she had known him.
On her visit, he took her on a tour of the hospital sights. She sat and watched as he and his friends cut up four cadavers. Then he took her to a lab where there were bottles full of babies that had died before they were born. In the afternoon they went to see a baby born. The baby was delivered by Will, a third-year student who had to deliver eight babies before he could graduate.
They went back to Buddy's room, where he drank wine as she read poetry to him. She asked him whether he had ever had an affair with anyone. When he admitted that he had, she was shocked. He told her that he was seduced by a waitress at the hotel where he worked as a busboy during the summer at Cape Cod. They made love twice a week for the remainder of the summer. When Esther heard this, she froze up. She thought he was a hypocrite for pretending to be pure and telling her she was very sexy. She thought he had been leading a double life.
Some while later, Esther was determined to ditch Buddy for good, when she received a phone call from him. He said he had been diagnosed with TB and had to go to a sanatorium. Esther felt only relief that she didn't have to announce to her college friends that she had broken off with him. Instead, she told everyone that Buddy had TB and that they were practically engaged. This meant she could stay in her room studying on Saturday nights without the other girls making sarcastic remarks about her wasting her college years by studying too hard.
These chapters draw attention to the stereotypical gender roles in the 1950s that Esther finds so unattractive. Mrs. Willard's maxim, "What a man wants is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from" is rooted in a traditional view of the differences between men and women and the roles that are appropriate for each. The women's liberation movement that began in the 1960s challenged these stereotypes, but that is a decade too late for Esther, who has to deal with things as they are in 1953.
The conservative sexual morality of the 1950s also explains the importance attached to virginity. Buddy's mother thinks it is wrong for either a man or a woman to have sex before marriage. Whenever Esther goes for supper at their house, Mrs. Willard "gave me a queer, shrewd, searching look, and I knew she was trying to tell whether I was a virgin or not." As the next chapters make clear, however, different standards are applied to men and women regarding sexual morality.
The scene in which Esther views the birth of a baby debunks one of the myths about the joys of motherhood. Esther has always held a romantic view of childbirth: "I had always imagined myself hitching up on to my elbows on the delivery table after it was all over . . . smiling and radiant, with my hair down to my waist, and reaching out for my first little squirmy child and saying its name, whatever it was." But the actual reality she witnesses, which is described in all its messy and painful physical details, gives a very different picture. Esther is discovering in many ways that reality is rather different from what she has been encouraged by society to believe.


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