The Bell Jar

Chapter 3

Arrayed on the Ladies’ Day banquet table were yellow-green avocado pear halves stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise, and platters of rare roast beef and cold chicken, and every so often a cut-glass bowl heaped with black caviar. I hadn’t had time to eat any breakfast at the hotel cafeteria that morning, except for a cup of over-stewed coffee so bitter it made my nose curl, and I was starving.

Before I came to New York I’d never eaten out in a proper restaurant. I don’t count Howard Johnson’s, where I only had French fries and cheeseburgers and vanilla frappes with people like Buddy Willard. I’m not sure why it is, but I love food more than just about anything else. No matter how much I eat, I never put on weight. With one exception I’ve been the same weight for ten years.

My favourite dishes are full of butter and cheese and sour cream. In New York we had so many free luncheons with people on the magazine and various visiting celebrities I developed the habit of running my eye down those huge, handwritten menus, where a tiny side-dish of peas costs fifty or sixty cents, until I’d picked the richest, most expensive dishes and ordered a string of them.

We were always taken out on expense accounts, so I never felt guilty. I made a point of eating so fast I never kept the other people waiting who generally ordered only chef’s salad and grapefruit juice because they were trying to reduce. Almost everybody I met in New York was trying to reduce.

“I want to welcome the prettiest, smartest bunch of young ladies our staff has yet had the good luck to meet,” the plump, bald master-of-ceremonies wheezed into his lapel microphone. “This banquet is just a small sample of the hospitality our Food Testing Kitchens here on Ladies’ Day would like to offer in appreciation for your visit.”

A delicate, ladylike spatter of applause, and we all sat down at the enormous linen-draped table.

There were eleven of us girls from the magazine, together with most of our supervising editors, and the whole staff of the Ladies’ Day Food Testing Kitchens in hygienic white smocks, neat hair-nets and flawless make-up of a uniform peach-pie colour.

There were only eleven of us, because Doreen was missing. They had set her place next to mine for some reason, and the chair stayed empty. I saved her place-card for her—a pocket mirror with “Doreen” painted along the top of it in lacy script and a wreath of frosted daisies around the edge, framing the silver hole where her face would show.

Doreen was spending the day with Lenny Shepherd. She spent most of her free time with Lenny Shepherd now.

In the hour before our luncheon at Ladies’ Day—the big women’s magazine that features lush double-page spreads of technicolour meals, with a different theme and locale each month—we had been shown around the endless glossy kitchens and seen how difficult it is to photograph apple pie à la mode under bright lights because the ice-cream keeps melting and has to be propped up from behind with toothpicks and changed every time it starts looking too soppy.

The sight of all the food stacked in those kitchens made me dizzy. It’s not that we hadn’t enough to eat at home, it’s just that my grandmother always cooked economy joints and economy meat-loafs and had the habit of saying, the minute you lifted the first forkful to your mouth, “I hope you enjoy that, it cost forty-one cents a pound,” which always made me feel I was somehow eating pennies instead of Sunday roast.

While we were standing up behind our chairs listening to the welcome speech, I had bowed my head and secretly eyed the position of the bowls of caviar. One bowl was set strategically between me and Doreen’s empty chair.

I figured the girl across from me couldn’t reach it because of the mountainous centrepiece of marzipan fruit, and Betsy, on my right, would be too nice to ask me to share it with her if I just kept it out of the way at my elbow by my bread-and-butter plate. Besides, another bowl of caviar sat a little way to the right of the girl next to Betsy, and she could eat that.

My grandfather and I had a standing joke. He was the head waiter at a country club near my home town, and every Sunday my grandmother drove in to bring him home for his Monday off. My brother and I alternated going with her, and my grandfather always served Sunday supper to my grandmother and whichever of us was along as if we were regular club guests. He loved introducing me to special titbits, and by the age of nine I had developed a passionate taste for cold vichyssoise and caviar and anchovy paste.

The joke was that at my wedding my grandfather would see I had all the caviar I could eat. It was a joke because I never intended to get married, and even if I did, my grandfather couldn’t have afforded enough caviar unless he robbed the country club kitchen and carried it off in a suitcase.

Under cover of the clinking of water goblets and silverware and bone china, I paved my plate with chicken slices. Then I covered the chicken slices with caviar thickly as if I were spreading peanut-butter on a piece of bread. Then I picked up the chicken slices in my fingers one by one, rolled them so the caviar wouldn’t ooze off and ate them.

I’d discovered, after a lot of extreme apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.

I learned this trick the day Jay Cee took me to lunch with a famous poet. He wore a horrible, lumpy, speckled brown tweed jacket and grey pants and a red-and-blue checked open-throated jersey in a very formal restaurant full of fountains and chandeliers, where all the other men were dressed in dark suits and immaculate white shirts.

This poet ate his salad with his fingers, leaf by leaf, while talking to me about the antithesis of nature and art. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pale, stubby white fingers travelling back and forth from the poet’s salad bowl to the poet’s mouth with one dripping lettuce leaf after another. Nobody giggled or whispered rude remarks. The poet made eating salad with your fingers seem to be the only natural and sensible thing to do.

None of our magazine editors or the Ladies’ Day staff members sat anywhere near me, and Betsy seemed sweet and friendly, she didn’t even seem to like caviar, so I grew more and more confident. When I finished my first plate of cold chicken and caviar, I laid out another. Then I tackled the avocado and crabmeat salad.

Avocados are my favourite fruit. Every Sunday my grandfather used to bring me an avocado pear hidden at the bottom of his briefcase under six soiled shirts and the Sunday comics. He taught me how to eat avocados by melting grape jelly and French dressing together in a saucepan and filling the cup of the pear with the garnet sauce. I felt homesick for that sauce. The crabmeat tasted bland in comparison.

“How was the fur show?” I asked Betsy, when I was no longer worried about competition over my caviar. I scraped the last few salty black eggs from the dish with my soup spoon and licked it clean.

“It was wonderful,” Betsy smiled. “They showed us how to make an all-purpose neckerchief out of mink tails and a gold chain, the sort of chain you can get an exact copy of at Woolworth’s for a dollar ninety-eight, and Hilda nipped down to the wholesale fur warehouses right afterwards and bought a bunch of mink tails at a big discount and dropped in at Woolworth’s and then stitched the whole thing together coming up on the bus.”

I peered over at Hilda, who sat on the other side of Betsy. Sure enough, she was wearing an expensive-looking scarf of furry tails fastened on one side by a dangling gilt chain.

I never really understood Hilda. She was six feet tall, with huge, slanted, green eyes and thick red lips and a vacant, Slavic expression. She made hats. She was apprenticed to the Fashion Editor, which set her apart from the more literary ones among us like Doreen and Betsy and I myself, who all wrote columns, even if some of them were only about health and beauty. I don’t know if Hilda could read, but she made startling hats. She went to a special school for making hats in New York and every day she wore a new hat to work, constructed by her own hands out of bits of straw or fur or ribbon or veiling in subtle, bizarre shades.

“That’s amazing,” I said. “Amazing.” I missed Doreen. She would have murmured some fine, scalding remark about Hilda’s miraculous furpiece to cheer me up.

I felt very low. I had been unmasked only that morning by Jay Cee herself, and I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer. After nineteen years of running after good marks and prizes and grants of one sort and another, I was letting up, slowing down, dropping clean out of the race.

“Why didn’t you come along to the fur show with us?” Betsy asked. I had the impression she was repeating herself, and that she’d asked me the same question a minute ago, only I couldn’t have been listening. “Did you go off with Doreen?”

“No,” I said, “I wanted to go to the fur show, but Jay Cee called up and made me come into the office.” That wasn’t quite true about wanting to go to the show, but I tried to convince myself now that it was true, so I could be really wounded about what Jay Cee had done.

I told Betsy how I had been lying in bed that morning planning to go to the fur show. What I didn’t tell her was that Doreen had come into my room earlier and said, “What do you want to go to that assy show for, Lenny and I are going to Coney Island, so why don’t you come along? Lenny can get you a nice fellow, the day’s shot to hell anyhow with that luncheon and then the film première in the afternoon, so nobody’ll miss us.”

For a minute I was tempted. The show certainly did seem stupid. I have never cared for furs. What I decided to do in the end was to lie in bed as long as I wanted to and then go to Central Park and spend the day lying in the grass, the longest grass I could find in that bald, duck-ponded wilderness.

I told Doreen I would not go to the show or the luncheon or the film première, but that I would not go to Coney Island either, I would stay in bed. After Doreen left, I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.

I didn’t know what time it was, but I’d heard the girls bustling and calling in the hall and getting ready for the fur show, and then I’d heard the hall go still, and as I lay on my back in bed staring up at the blank, white ceiling the stillness seemed to grow bigger and bigger until I felt my eardrums would burst with it. Then the phone rang.

I stared at the phone for a minute. The receiver shook a bit in its bone-coloured cradle, so I could tell it was really ringing. I thought I might have given my phone number to somebody at a dance or a party and then forgotten clean, about it. I lifted the receiver and spoke in a husky, receptive voice.


“Jay Cee here,” Jay Cee rapped out with brutal promptitude. “I wondered if you happened to be planning to come into the office today?”

I sank down into the sheets. I couldn’t understand why Jay Cee thought I’d be coming into the office. We had these mimeographed schedule cards so we could keep track of all our activities, and we spent a lot of mornings and afternoons away from the office going to affairs in town. Of course, some of the affairs were optional.

There was quite a pause. Then I said meekly, “I thought I was going to the fur show.” Of course I hadn’t thought any such thing, but I couldn’t figure out what else to say.

“I told her I thought I was going to the fur show,” I said to Betsy. “But she told me to come into the office, she wanted to have a little talk with me, and there was some work to do.”

“Oh-oh!” Betsy said sympathetically. She must have seen the tears that plopped down into my dessert dish of meringue and brandy ice-cream, because she pushed over her own untouched dessert and I started absently on that when I’d finished my own. I felt a bit awkward about the tears, but they were real enough. Jay Cee had said some terrible things to me.

When I made my wan entrance into the office at about ten o’clock, Jay Cee stood up and came round her desk to shut the door, and I sat in the swivel chair in front of my typewriter table facing her, and she sat in the swivel chair behind her desk facing me, with the window full of potted plants, shelf after shelf of them, springing up at her back like a tropical garden.

“Doesn’t your work interest you, Esther?”

“Oh, it does, it does,” I said. “It interests me very much.” I felt like yelling the words, as if that might make them more convincing, but I controlled myself.

All my life I’d told myself studying and reading and writing and working like mad was what I wanted to do, and it actually seemed to be true, I did everything well enough and got all A’s, and by the time I made it to college nobody could stop me.

I was college correspondent for the town Gazette and editor of the literary magazine and secretary of Honour Board, which deals with academic and social offences and punishments—a popular office, and I had a well-known woman poet and professor on the faculty championing me for graduate school at the biggest universities in the east, and promises of full scholarships all the way, and now I was apprenticed to the best editor on any intellectual fashion magazine, and what did I do but balk and balk like a dull cart horse?

“I’m very interested in everything.” The words fell with a hollow flatness on to Jay Cee’s desk, like so many wooden nickels.

“I’m glad of that,” Jay Cee said a bit waspishly. “You can learn a lot in this month on the magazine, you know, if you just roll up your shirt-cuffs. The girl who was here before you didn’t bother with any of the fashion show stuff. She went straight from this office, on to Time.”

“My!” I said, in the same sepulchral tone. “That was quick!”

“Of course, you have another year at college yet,” Jay Cee went on a little more mildly. “What do you have in mind after you graduate?”

What I always thought I had in mind was getting some big scholarship to graduate school or a grant to study all over Europe, and then I thought I’d be a professor and write books of poems or write books of poems and be an editor of some sort. Usually I had these plans on the tip of my tongue.

“I don’t really know,” I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true.

It sounded true, and I recognized it, the way you recognize some nondescript person that’s been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your real father and looks exactly like you, so you know he really is your father, and the person you thought all your life was your father is a sham.

“I don’t really know.”

“You’ll never get anywhere like that.” Jay Cee paused. “What languages do you have?”

“Oh, I can read a bit of French, I guess, and I’ve always wanted to learn German.” I’d been telling people I’d always wanted to learn German for about five years.

My mother spoke German during her childhood in America and was stoned for it during the First World War by the children at school. My German-speaking father, dead since I was nine, came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia. My younger brother was at that moment on the Experiment in International Living in Berlin and speaking German like a native.

What I didn’t say was that each time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam.

“I’ve always thought I’d like to go into publishing.” I tried to recover a thread that might lead me back to my old, bright salesmanship. “I guess what I’ll do is apply at some publishing house.”

“You ought to read French and German,” Jay Cee said mercilessly, “and probably several other languages as well, Spanish and Italian—better still, Russian. Hundreds of girls flood into New York every June thinking they’ll be editors. You need to offer something more than the run-of-the-mill person. You better learn some languages.”

I hadn’t the heart to tell Jay Cee there wasn’t one scrap of space on my senior year schedule to learn languages in. I was taking one of those honours programmes that teaches you to think independently, and except for a course in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and a seminar in advanced poetry-composition, I would spend my whole time writing on some obscure theme in the works of James Joyce. I hadn’t picked out my theme yet, because I hadn’t got round to reading Finnegan’s Wake, but my professor was very excited about my thesis and had promised to give me some leads on images about twins.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I told Jay Cee. “I probably might just fit in one of those double-barrelled, accelerated courses in elementary German they’ve rigged up.” I thought at the time I might actually do this. I had a way of persuading my Class Dean to let me do irregular things. She regarded me as a sort of interesting experiment.

At college I had to take a required course in physics and chemistry. I had already taken a course in botany and done very well. I never answered one test question wrong the whole year, and for a while I toyed with the idea of being a botanist and studying the wild grasses in Africa or the South American rain forests, because you can win big grants to study off-beat things like that in queer areas much more easily than winning grants to study art in Italy or English in England, there’s not so much competition.

Botany was fine, because I loved cutting up leaves and putting them under the microscope and drawing diagrams of bread mould and the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern, it seemed so real to me.

The day I went into physics class it was death.

A short dark man with a high, lisping voice, named Mr Manzi, stood in front of the class in a tight blue suit holding a little wooden ball. He put the ball on a steep grooved slide and let it run down to the bottom. Then he started talking about let a equal acceleration and let t equal time and suddenly he was scribbling letters and numbers and equals signs all over the blackboard and my mind went dead.

I took the physics book back to my dormitory. It was a huge book on porous mimeographed paper—four hundred pages long with no drawings or photographs, only diagrams and formulas—between brick-red cardboard covers. This book was written by Mr Manzi to explain physics to college girls, and if it worked on us he would try to have it published.

Well, I studied those formulas, I went to class and watched balls roll down slides and listened to bells ring and by the end of the semester most of the other girls had failed and I had a straight A. I heard Mr Manzi saying to a bunch of the girls who were complaining that the course was too hard, “No, it can’t be too hard, because one girl got a straight A.” “Who is it? Tell us,” they said, but he shook his head and didn’t say anything and gave me a sweet little conspiring smile.

That’s what gave me the idea of escaping the next semester of chemistry. I may have made a straight A in physics, but I was panic-struck. Physics made me sick the whole time I learned it. What I couldn’t stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes and enlarged diagrams of the holes the leaves breathe through and fascinating words like carotene and xanthophyll on the blackboard, there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas in Mr Manzi’s special red chalk.

I knew chemistry would be worse, because I’d seen a big chart of the ninety-odd elements hung up in the chemistry lab, and all the perfectly good words like gold and silver and cobalt and aluminium were shortened to ugly abbreviations with different decimal numbers after them. If I had to strain my brain with any more of that stuff I would go mad. I would fail outright. It was only by a horrible effort of will that I had dragged myself through the first half of the year.

So I went to my Class Dean with a clever plan.

My plan was that I needed the time to take a course in Shakespeare, since I was, after all, an English major. She knew and I knew perfectly well I would get a straight A again in the chemistry course, so what was the point of my taking the exams, why couldn’t I just go to the classes and look on and take it all in and forget about marks or credits? It was a case of honour among honourable people, and the content meant more than the form, and marks were really a bit silly anyway, weren’t they, when you knew you’d always get an A? My plan was strengthened by the fact that the college had just dropped the second year of required science for the classes after me anyway, so my class was the last to suffer under the old ruling.

Mr Manzi was in perfect agreement with my plan. I think it flattered him that I enjoyed his classes so much I would take them for no materialistic reason like credit and an A, but for the sheer beauty of chemistry itself. I thought it was quite ingenious of me to suggest sitting in on the chemistry course even after I’d changed over to Shakespeare. It was quite an unnecessary gesture and made it seem I simply couldn’t bear to give chemistry up.

Of course, I would never have succeeded with this scheme if I hadn’t made that A in the first place. And if my Class Dean had known how scared and depressed I was, and how I seriously contemplated desperate remedies such as getting a doctor’s certificate that I was unfit to study chemistry, the formulas made me dizzy and so on, I’m sure she wouldn’t have listened to me for a minute, but would have made me take the course regardless.

As it happened, the Faculty Board passed my petition, and my Class Dean told me later that several of the professors were touched by it. They took it as a real step in intellectual maturity.

I had to laugh when I thought about the rest of that year. I went to the chemistry class five times a week and didn’t miss a single one. Mr Manzi stood at the bottom of the big, rickety old amphitheatre, making blue flames and red flares and clouds of yellow stuff by pouring the contents of one test-tube into another, and I shut his voice out of my ears by pretending it was only a mosquito in the distance and sat back enjoying the bright lights and the coloured fires and wrote page after page of villanelles and sonnets.

Mr Manzi would glance at me now and then and see me writing, and send up a sweet little appreciative smile. I guess he thought I was writing down all those formulas not for exam time, like the other girls, but because his presentation fascinated me so much I couldn’t help it.


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