The Bell Jar

Chapter 19

“I’m going to be a psychiatrist.”

Joan spoke with her usual breathy enthusiasm. We were drinking apple cider in the Belsize lounge.

“Oh,” I said dryly, “that’s nice.”

“I’ve had a long talk with Doctor Quinn, and she thinks it’s perfectly possible.” Doctor Quinn was Joan’s psychiatrist, a bright, shrewd, single lady, and I often thought if I had been assigned to Doctor Quinn I would be still in Caplan or, more probably, Wymark. Doctor Quinn had an abstract quality that appealed to Joan, but it gave me the polar chills.

Joan chattered on about Egos and Ids, and I turned my mind to something else, to the brown, unwrapped package in my bottom drawer. I never talked about Egos and Ids with Doctor Nolan. I didn’t know just what I talked about, really.

“… I’m going to live out, now.”

I tuned in on Joan then. “Where?” I demanded, trying to hide my envy.

Doctor Nolan said my college would take me back for the second semester, on her recommendation and Philomena Guinea’s scholarship, but as the doctors vetoed my living with my mother in the interim, I was staying on at the asylum until the winter term began.

Even so, I felt it unfair of Joan to beat me through the gates.

“Where?” I persisted. “They’re not letting you live on your own, are they?” Joan had only that week been given town privileges again.

“Oh no, of course not. I’m living in Cambridge with Nurse Kennedy. Her room-mate’s just got married, and she needs someone to share the apartment.”

“Cheers.” I raised my apple cider glass, and we clinked. In spite of my profound reservations, I thought I would always treasure Joan. It was as if we had been forced together by some overwhelming circumstance, like war or plague, and shared a world of our own. “When are you leaving?”

“On the first of the month.”


Joan grew wistful. “You’ll come visit me, won’t you, Esther?”

“Of course.”

But I thought, “Not likely.”

“It hurts,” I said. “Is it supposed to hurt?”

Irwin didn’t say anything. Then he said, “Sometimes it hurts.”

I had met Irwin on the steps of the Widener Library. I was standing at the top of the long flight, overlooking the red brick buildings that walled the snow-filled quad and preparing to catch the trolley back to the asylum, when a tall young man with a rather ugly and bespectacled, but intelligent face, came up and said, “Could you please tell me the time?”

I glanced at my watch. “Five past four.”

Then the man shifted his arms around the load of books he was carrying before him like a dinner tray and revealed a bony wrist.

“Why, you’ve a watch yourself!”

The man looked ruefully at his watch. He lifted it and shook it by his ear. “Doesn’t work.” He smiled engagingly. “Where are you going?”

I was about to say, “Back to the asylum”, but the man looked promising, so I changed my mind. “Home.”

“Would you like some coffee first?”

I hesitated. I was due at the asylum for supper and I didn’t want to be late so close to being signed out of there for good.

“A very small cup of coffee?”

I decided to practise my new, normal personality on this man who, in the course of my hesitations, told me his name was Irwin and that he was a very well-paid professor of mathematics, so I said, “All right,” and, matching my stride to Irwin’s, strolled down the long, ice-encrusted flight at his side.

It was only after seeing Irwin’s study that I decided to seduce him.

Irwin lived in a murky, comfortable basement apartment in one of the rundown streets of outer Cambridge and drove me there—for a beer, he said—after three cups of bitter coffee in a student cafe. We sat in his study on stuffed brown leather chairs, surrounded by stacks of dusty, incomprehensible books with huge formulas inset artistically on the page like poems.

While I was sipping my first glass of beer—I have never really cared for cold beer in mid-winter, but I accepted the glass to have something solid to hold on to—the doorbell rang.

Irwin seemed embarrassed. “I think it may be a lady.”

Irwin had a queer, old-world habit of calling women ladies.

“Fine, fine,” I gestured largely. “Bring her in.”

Irwin shook his head. “You would upset her.”

I smiled into my amber cylinder of cold beer.

The doorbell rang again with a peremptory jab. Irwin sighed and rose to answer it. The minute he disappeared, I whipped into the bathroom and, concealed behind the dirty, aluminium-coloured Venetian blind, watched Irwin’s monkish face appear in the door crack.

A large, bosomy Slavic lady in a bulky sweater of natural sheep’s wool, purple slacks, high-heeled black overshoes with Persian lamb cuffs and a matching toque, puffed white, inaudible words into the wintry air. Irwin’s voice drifted back to me through the chilly hall.

“I’m sorry, Olga … I’m working, Olga … no, I don’t think so, Olga,” all the while the lady’s red mouth moved, and the words, translated to white smoke, floated up among the branches of the naked Mac by the door. Then, finally, “Perhaps, Olga … good-bye, Olga.”

I admired the immense, steppe-like expanse of the lady’s wool-clad bosom as she retreated, a few inches from my eye, down the creaking wooden stair, a sort of Siberian bitterness on her vivid lips.

“I suppose you have lots and lots of affairs in Cambridge,” I told Irwin cheerily, as I stuck a snail with a pin in one of Cambridge’s determinedly French restaurants.

“I seem,” Irwin admitted with a small, modest smile, “to get on with the ladies.”

I picked up my empty snail shell and drank the herb-green juice. I had no idea if this was proper, but after months of wholesome, dull asylum diet, I was greedy for butter.

I had called Doctor Nolan from a pay phone at the restaurant and asked for permission to stay overnight in Cambridge with Joan. Of course, I had no idea whether Irwin would invite me back to his apartment after dinner or not, but I thought his dismissal of the Slavic lady—another professor’s wife—looked promising.

I tipped back my head and poured down a glass of Nuits St. George.

“You do like wine,” Irwin observed.

“Only Nuits St. George. I imagine him … with the dragon…”

Irwin reached for my hand.

I felt the first man I slept with must be intelligent, so I would respect him. Irwin was a full professor at twenty-six and had the pale, hairless skin of a boy genius. I also needed somebody quite experienced to make up for my lack of it, and Irwin’s ladies reassured me on this head. Then, to be on the safe side, I wanted somebody I didn’t know and wouldn’t go on knowing—a kind of impersonal, priestlike official, as in the tales of tribal rites.

By the end of the evening I had no doubts about Irwin whatsoever.

Ever since I’d learned about the corruption of Buddy Willard my virginity weighed like a millstone around my neck. It had been of such enormous importance to me for so long that my habit was to defend it at all costs. I had been defending it for five years and I was sick of it.

It was only as Irwin swung me into his arms, back at the apartment, and carried me, wine-dazed and limp, into the pitch-black bedroom, that I murmured, “You know, Irwin, I think I ought to tell you, I’m a virgin.”

Irwin laughed and flung me down on the bed.

A few minutes later an exclamation of surprise revealed that Irwin hadn’t really believed me. I thought how lucky it was I had started practising birth control during the day, because in my winey state that night I would never have bothered to perform the delicate and necessary operation. I lay, rapt and naked, on Irwin’s rough blanket, waiting for the miraculous change to make itself felt.

But all I felt was a sharp, startlingly bad pain.

“It hurts,” I said. “Is it supposed to hurt?”

Irwin didn’t say anything. Then he said, “Sometimes it hurts.”

After a little while Irwin got up and went into the bathroom, and I heard the rushing of shower water. I wasn’t sure if Irwin had done what he planned to do, or if my virginity had obstructed him in some way. I wanted to ask him if I was still a virgin, but I felt too unsettled. A warm liquid was seeping out between my legs. Tentatively, I reached down and touched it.

When I held my hand up to the light streaming in from the bathroom, my fingertips looked black.

“Irwin,” I said nervously, “bring me a towel.”

Irwin strolled back, a bathtowel knotted around his waist, and tossed me a second, smaller towel. I pushed the towel between my legs and pulled it away almost immediately. It was half black with blood.

“I’m bleeding!” I announced, sitting up with a start.

“Oh, that often happens,” Irwin reassured me. “You’ll be all right.”

Then the stories of blood-stained bridal sheets and capsules of red ink bestowed on already deflowered brides floated back to me. I wondered how much I would bleed, and lay down, nursing the towel. It occurred to me that the blood was my answer. I couldn’t possibly be a virgin any more. I smiled into the dark. I felt part of a great tradition.

Surreptitiously, I applied a fresh section of white towel to my wound, thinking that as soon as the bleeding stopped, I would take the late trolley back to the asylum. I wanted to brood over my new condition in perfect peace. But the towel came away black and dripping.

“I … think I better go home,” I said faintly.

“Surely not so soon.”

“Yes, I think I better.”

I asked if I could borrow Irwin’s towel and packed it between my thighs as a bandage. Then I pulled on my sweaty clothes. Irwin offered to drive me home, but I didn’t see how I could let him drive me to the asylum, so I dug in my pocketbook for Joan’s address. Irwin knew the street and went out to start the car. I was too worried to tell him I was still bleeding. I kept hoping every minute that it would stop.

But as Irwin drove me through the barren, snow-banked streets I felt the warm seepage let itself through the dam of the towel and my skirt and on to the car seat.

As we slowed, cruising by house after lit house, I thought how fortunate it was I had not discarded my virginity while living at college or at home, where such concealment would have been impossible.

Joan opened the door with an expression of glad surprise. Irwin kissed my hand and told Joan to take good care of me.

I shut the door and leaned back against it, feeling the blood drain from my face in one spectacular flush.

“Why, Esther,” Joan said, “what on earth’s the matter?”

I wondered when Joan would notice the blood trickling down my legs and oozing, stickily, into each black patent leather shoe. I thought I could be dying from a bullet wound and Joan would still stare through me with her blank eyes, expecting me to ask for a cup of coffee and a sandwich.

“Is that nurse here?”

“No, she’s on night duty at Caplan….”

“Good.” I made a little bitter grin as another soak of blood let itself through the drenched padding and started the tedious journey into my shoes. “I mean … bad.”

“You look funny,” Joan said.

“You better get a doctor.”




Still she hadn’t noticed anything.

I bent down, with a brief grunt, and slipped off one of my winter-cracked black Bloomingdale shoes. I held the shoe up, before Joan’s enlarged, pebbly eyes, tilted it, and watched her take in the stream of blood that cascaded on to the beige rug.

“My God! What is it?”

“I’m hæmorrhaging.”

Joan half-led, half-dragged me to the sofa and made me lie down. Then she propped some pillows under my blood-stained feet. Then she stood back and demanded, “Who was that man?”

For one crazy minute I thought Joan would refuse to call a doctor until I confessed the whole story of my evening with Irwin and that after my confession she would still refuse, as a sort of punishment. But then I realized that she honestly took my explanation at face value, that my going to bed with Irwin was utterly incomprehensible to her, and his appearance a mere prick to her pleasure at my arrival.

“Oh somebody,” I said, with a flabby gesture of dismissal. Another pulse of blood released itself and I contracted my stomach muscles in alarm. “Get a towel.”

Joan went out and came back almost immediately with a pile of towels and sheets. Like a prompt nurse, she peeled back my blood-wet clothes, drew a quick breath as she arrived at the original royal red towel, and applied a fresh bandage. I lay, trying to slow the beating of my heart, as every beat pushed forth another gush of blood.

I remembered a worrisome course in the Victorian novel where woman after woman died, palely and nobly, in torrents of blood, after a difficult childbirth. Perhaps Irwin had injured me in some awful, obscure way, and all the while I lay there on Joan’s sofa I was really dying.

Joan pulled up an Indian hassock and began to dial down the long list of Cambridge doctors. The first number didn’t answer. Joan began to explain my case to the second number, which did answer, but then broke off and said “I see” and hung up.

“What’s the trouble?”

“He’ll only come for regular customers or emergencies. It’s Sunday.”

I tried to lift my arm and look at my watch, but my hand was a rock at my side and wouldn’t budge. Sunday—the doctor’s paradise! Doctors at country clubs, doctors at the seaside, doctors with mistresses, doctors with wives, doctors in church, doctors in yachts, doctors everywhere resolutely being people, not doctors.

“For God’s sake,” I said, “tell them I’m an emergency.”

The third number didn’t answer and, at the fourth, the party hung up the minute Joan mentioned it was about a period. Joan began to cry.

“Look, Joan,” I said painstakingly, “call up the local hospital. Tell them it’s an emergency. They’ll have to take me.”

Joan brightened and dialled a fifth number. The Emergency Service promised her a staff doctor would attend to me if I could come in to the ward. Then Joan called a taxi.

Joan insisted on riding with me. I clasped my fresh padding of towels with a sort of desperation as the cabby, impressed by the address Joan gave him, cut corner after corner in the dawn-pale streets and drew up with a great squeal of tyres at the Emergency Ward entrance.

I left Joan to pay the driver and hurried into the empty, glaringly lit room. A nurse bustled out from behind a white screen. In a few swift words, I managed to tell her the truth about my predicament before Joan came in the door, blinking and wide-eyed as a myopic owl.

The Emergency Ward doctor strolled out then, and I climbed, with the nurse’s help, on to the examining table. The nurse whispered to the doctor, and the doctor nodded and began unpacking the bloody towelling. I felt his fingers start to probe, and Joan stood, rigid as a soldier, at my side, holding my hand, for my sake or hers I couldn’t tell.

“Ouch!” I winced at a particularly bad jab.

The doctor whistled.

“You’re one in a million.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it’s one in a million it happens to like this.”

The doctor spoke in a low, curt voice to the nurse, and she hurried to a side table and brought back some rolls of gauze and silver instruments. “I can see,” the doctor bent down, “exactly where the trouble is coming from.”

“But can you fix it?”

The doctor laughed. “Oh, I can fix it, all right.”

I was roused by a tap on my door. It was past midnight, and the asylum quiet as death. I couldn’t imagine who would still be up.

“Come in!” I switched on the bedside light.

The door clicked open, and Doctor Quinn’s brisk, dark head appeared in the crack. I looked at her with surprise, because although I knew who she was, and often passed her, with a brief nod, in the asylum hall, I never spoke to her at all.

Now she said, “Miss Greenwood, may I come in a minute?”

I nodded.

Doctor Quinn stepped into the room, shutting the door quietly behind her. She was wearing one of her navy blue, immaculate suits with a plain, snow-white blouse showing in the V of the neck.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Miss Greenwood, and especially at this time of night, but I thought you might be able to help us out about Joan.”

For a minute I wondered if Doctor Quinn was going to blame me for Joan’s return to the asylum. I still wasn’t sure how much Joan knew, after our trip to the Emergency Ward, but a few days later she had come back to live in Belsize, retaining, however, the freest of town privileges.

“I’ll do what I can,” I told Doctor Quinn.

Doctor Quinn sat down on the edge of my bed with a grave face. “We would like to find out where Joan is. We thought you might have an idea.”

Suddenly I wanted to dissociate myself from Joan completely. “I don’t know,” I said coldly. “Isn’t she in her room?”

It was well after the Belsize curfew hour.

“No, Joan had a permit to go to a movie in town this evening, and she’s not back yet.”

“Who was she with?”

“She was alone.” Doctor Quinn paused. “Have you any idea where she might be likely to spend the night?”

“Surely she’ll be back. Something must have held her up.” But I didn’t see what could have held Joan up in tame night Boston.

Doctor Quinn shook her head. “The last trolley went by an hour ago.”

“Maybe she’ll come back by taxi.”

Doctor Quinn sighed.

“Have you tried the Kennedy girl?” I went on. “Where Joan used to live?”

Doctor Quinn nodded.

“Her family?”

“Oh, she’d never go there … but we’ve tried them, too.”

Doctor Quinn lingered a minute, as if she could sniff out some clue in the still room. Then she said, “Well, we’ll do what we can,” and left.

I turned out the light and tried to drop back to sleep, but Joan’s face floated before me, bodiless and smiling, like the face of the Cheshire cat. I even thought I heard her voice, rustling and hushing through the dark, but then I realized it was only the night wind in the asylum trees….

Another tap woke me in the frost-grey dawn.

This time I opened the door myself.

Facing me was Doctor Quinn. She stood at attention, like a frail drill sergeant, but her outlines seemed curiously smudged.

“I thought you should know,” Doctor Quinn said. “Joan has been found.”

Doctor Quinn’s use of the passive slowed my blood.


“In the woods, by the frozen ponds….”

I opened my mouth, but no words came out.

“One of the orderlies found her,” Doctor Quinn continued, just now, coming to work….

“She’s not…”

“Dead,” said Doctor Quinn. “I’m afraid she’s hanged herself.”


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This work (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath) is free of known copyright restrictions.