The Bell Jar

Chapter 4

I don’t know just why my successful evasion of chemistry should have floated into my mind there in Jay Cee’s office.

All the time she talked to me, I saw Mr Manzi standing on thin air in back of Jay Cee’s head, like something conjured up out of a hat, holding his little wooden ball and the test-tube that billowed a great cloud of yellow smoke the day before Easter vacation and smelt of rotten eggs and made all the girls and Mr Manzi laugh.

I felt sorry for Mr Manzi. I felt like going down to him on my hands and knees and apologizing for being such an awful liar.

Jay Cee handed me a pile of story manuscripts and spoke to me much more kindly. I spent the rest of the morning reading the stories and typing out what I thought of them on the pink Interoffice Memo sheets and sending them into the office of Betsy’s editor to be read by Betsy the next day. Jay Cee interrupted me now and then to tell me something practical or a bit of gossip.

Jay Cee was going to lunch that noon with two famous writers, a man and a lady. The man had just sold six short stories to the New Yorker and six to Jay Cee. This surprised me, as I didn’t know magazines bought stories in lots of six, and I was staggered by the thought of the amount of money six stories would probably bring in. Jay Cee said she had to be very careful at this lunch, because the lady writer wrote stories too, but she had never had any in the New Yorker and Jay Cee had only taken one from her in five years. Jay Cee had to flatter the more famous man at the same time as she was careful not to hurt the less famous lady.

When the cherubs in Jay Cee’s French wall-clock waved their wings up and down and put their little gilt trumpets to their lips and pinged out twelve notes one after the other, Jay Cee told me I’d done enough work for the day, and to go off to the Ladies’ Day tour and banquet and to the film première, and she would see me bright and early tomorrow.

Then she slipped a suit jacket over her lilac blouse, pinned a hat of imitation lilacs on the top of her head, powdered her nose briefly and adjusted her thick spectacles. She looked terrible, but very wise. As she left the office, she patted my shoulder with one lilac-gloved hand.

“Don’t let the wicked city get you down.”

I sat quietly in my swivel chair for a few minutes and thought about Jay Cee. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I were Ee Gee, the famous editor, in an office full of potted rubber plants and African violets my secretary had to water each morning. I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I’d know what to do.

My own mother wasn’t much help. My mother had taught shorthand and typing to support us ever since my father died, and secretly she hated it and hated him for dying and leaving no money because he didn’t trust life insurance salesmen. She was always on to me to learn shorthand after college, so I’d have a practical skill as well as a college degree. “Even the apostles were tent-makers,” she’d say. “They had to live, just the way we do.”

I dabbled my fingers in the bowl of warm water a Ladies’ Day waitress set down in place of my two empty ice-cream dishes. Then I wiped each finger carefully with my linen napkin which was still quite clean. Then I folded the linen napkin and laid it between my lips and brought my lips down on it precisely. When I put the napkin back on the table a fuzzy pink lip-shape bloomed right in the middle of it like a tiny heart.

I thought what a long way I had come.

The first time I saw a finger-bowl was at the home of my benefactress. It was the custom at my college, the little freckled lady in the Scholarships Office told me, to write to the person whose scholarship you had, if they were still alive, and thank them for it.

I had the scholarship of Philomena Guinea, a wealthy novelist who went to my college in the early nineteen-hundreds and had her first novel made into a silent film with Bette Davis as well as a radio serial that was still running, and it turned out she was alive and lived in a large mansion not far from my grandfather’s country club.

So I wrote Philomena Guinea a long letter in coal-black ink on grey paper with the name of the college embossed on it in red. I wrote what the leaves looked like in autumn when I bicycled out into the hills, and how wonderful it was to live on a campus instead of commuting by bus to a city college and having to live at home, and how all knowledge was opening up before me and perhaps one day I would be able to write great books the way she did.

I had read one of Mrs Guinea’s books in the town library—the college library didn’t stock them for some reason—and it was crammed from beginning to end with long, suspenseful questions: “Would Evelyn discern that Gladys knew Roger in her past? wondered Hector feverishly” and “How could Donald marry her when he learned of the child Elsie, hidden away with Mrs Rollmop on the secluded country farm? Griselda demanded of her bleak, moonlit pillow.” These books earned Philomena Guinea, who later told me she had been very stupid at college, millions and millions of dollars.

Mrs Guinea answered my letter and invited me to lunch at her home. That was where I saw my first finger-bowl.

The water had a few cherry blossoms floating in it, and I thought it must be some clear sort of Japanese after-dinner soup and ate every bit of it, including the crisp little blossoms. Mrs Guinea never said anything, and it was only much later, when I told a debutante I knew at college about the dinner, that I learned what I had done.

When we came out of the sunnily-lit interior of the Ladies’ Day offices, the streets were grey and fuming with rain. It wasn’t the nice kind of rain that rinses you clean, but the sort of rain I imagine they must have in Brazil. It flew straight down from the sky in drops the size of coffee saucers and hit the hot sidewalks with a hiss that sent clouds of stream writhing up from the gleaming, dark concrete.

My secret hope of spending the afternoon alone in Central Park died in the glass egg-beater of Ladies’ Day’s revolving doors. I found myself spewed out through the warm rain and into the dim, throbbing cave of a cab, together with Betsy and Hilda and Emily Ann Offenbach, a prim little girl with a bun of red hair and a husband and three children in Teaneck, New Jersey.

The movie was very poor. It starred a nice blonde girl who looked like June Allyson but was really somebody else, and a sexy black-haired girl who looked like Elizabeth Taylor but was also somebody else, and two big, broad-shouldered boneheads with names like Rick and Gil.

It was a football romance and it was in technicolour.

I hate technicolour. Everybody in a technicolour movie seems to feel obliged to wear a lurid new costume in each new scene and to stand around like a clothes-horse with a lot of very green trees or very yellow wheat or very blue ocean rolling away for miles and miles in every direction.

Most of the action in this picture took place in the football stands, with the two girls waving and cheering in smart suits with orange chrysanthemums the size of cabbages on their lapels, or in a ballroom, where the girls swooped across the floor with their dates, in dresses like something out of Gone With the Wind, and then sneaked off into the powder-room to say nasty intense things to each other.

Finally I could see the nice girl was going to end up with the nice football hero and the sexy girl was going to end up with nobody, because the man named Gil had only wanted a mistress and not a wife all along and was now packing off to Europe on a single ticket.

At about this point I began to feel peculiar. I looked round me at all the rows of rapt little heads with the same silver glow on them at the front and the same black shadow on them at the back, and they looked like nothing more or less than a lot of stupid moon-brains.

I felt in terrible danger of puking. I didn’t know whether it was the awful movie giving me a stomach-ache or all that caviar I had eaten.

“I’m going back to the hotel,” I whispered to Betsy through the half-dark.

Betsy was staring at the screen with deadly concentration. “Don’t you feel good?” she whispered, barely moving her lips.

“No,” I said. “I feel like hell.”

“So do I, I’ll come back with you.”

We slipped out of our seats and said Excuse me Excuse me Excuse me down the length of our row, while the people grumbled and hissed and shifted their rain boots and umbrellas to let us pass, and I stepped on as many feet as I could because it took my mind off this enormous desire to puke that was ballooning up in front of me so fast I couldn’t see round it.

The remains of a tepid rain were still sifting down when we stepped out into the street.

Betsy looked a fright. The bloom was gone from her cheeks and her drained face floated in front of me, green and sweating. We fell into one of those yellow checkered cabs that are always waiting at the kerb when you are trying to decide whether or not you want a taxi, and by the time we reached the hotel I had puked once and Betsy had puked twice.

The cab driver took the corners with such momentum that we were thrown together first on one side of the back seat and then on the other. Each time one of us felt sick, she would lean over quietly as if she had dropped something and was picking it up off the floor, and the other one would hum a little and pretend to be looking out the window.

The cab driver seemed to know what we were doing, even so.

“Hey,” he protested, driving through a light that had just turned red, “you can’t do that in my cab, you better get out and do it in the street.”

But we didn’t say anything, and I guess he figured we were almost at the hotel so he didn’t make us get out until we pulled up in front of the main entrance.

We didn’t dare wait to add up the fare. We stuffed a pile of silver into the cabby’s hand and dropped a couple of kleenexes to cover the mess on the floor, and ran in through the lobby and on to the empty elevator. Luckily for us, it was a quiet time of day. Betsy was sick again in the elevator and I held her head, and then I was sick and she held mine.

Usually after a good puke you feel better right away. We hugged each other and then said good-bye and went off to opposite ends of the hall to lie down in our own rooms. There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.

But the minute I’d shut the door behind me and undressed and dragged myself on to the bed, I felt worse than ever. I felt I just had to go to the toilet. I struggled into my white bathrobe with the blue cornflowers on it and staggered down to the bathroom.

Betsy was already there. I could hear her groaning behind the door, so I hurried on around the corner to the bathroom in the next wing. I thought I would die, it was so far.

I sat on the toilet and leaned my head over the edge of the washbowl and I thought I was losing my guts and my dinner both. The sickness rolled through me in great waves. After each wave it would fade away and leave me limp as a wet leaf and shivering all over and then I would feel it rising up in me again, and the glittering white torture-chamber tiles under my feet and over my head and on all four sides closed in and squeezed me to pieces.

I don’t know how long I kept at it. I let the cold water in the bowl go on running loudly with the stopper out, so anybody who came by would think I was washing my clothes, and then when I felt reasonably safe I stretched out on the floor and lay quite still.

It didn’t seem to be summer any more. I could feel the winter shaking my bones and banging my teeth together, and the big white hotel towel I had dragged down with me lay under my head numb as a snowdrift.

I thought it very bad manners for anybody to pound on a bathroom door the way some person was pounding. They could just go around the corner and find another bathroom the way I had done and leave me in peace. But the person kept banging and pleading with me to let them in and I thought I dimly recognized the voice. It sounded a bit like Emily Ann Offenbach.

“Just a minute,” I said then. My words bungled out thick as molasses.

I pulled myself together and slowly rose and flushed the toilet for the tenth time and slopped the bowl clean and rolled up the towel so the vomit stains didn’t show very clearly and unlocked the door and stepped out into the hall.

I knew it would be fatal if I looked at Emily Ann or anybody else so I fixed my eyes glassily on a window that swam at the end of the hall and put one foot in front of the other.

The next thing I had a view of was somebody’s shoe.

It was a stout shoe of cracked black leather and quite old, with tiny air holes in a scalloped pattern over the toe and a dull polish, and it was pointed at me. It seemed to be placed on a hard green surface that was hurting my right cheekbone.

I kept very still, waiting for a clue that would give me some notion of what to do. A little to the left of the shoe I saw a vague heap of blue cornflowers on a white ground and this made me want to cry. It was the sleeve of my own bathrobe I was looking at, and my left hand lay pale as a cod at the end of it.

“She’s all right now.”

The voice came from a cool, rational region far above my head. For a minute I didn’t think there was anything strange about it, and then I thought it was strange. It was a man’s voice, and no men were allowed to be in our hotel at any time of the night or day.

“How many others are there?” the voice went on.

I listened with interest. The floor seemed wonderfully solid. It was comforting to know I had fallen and could fall no farther.

“Eleven, I think,” a woman’s voice answered. I figured she must belong to the black shoe. “I think there’s eleven more of ‘um, but one’s missin’ so there’s oney ten.”

“Well, you get this one to bed and I’ll take care of the rest.”

I heard a hollow boomp boomp in my right ear that grew fainter and fainter. Then a door opened in the distance, and there were voices and groans, and the door shut again.

Two hands slid under my armpits and the woman’s voice said, “Come, come, lovey, we’ll make it yet,” and I felt myself being half lifted, and slowly the doors began to move by, one by one, until we came to an open door and went in.

The sheet on my bed was folded back, and the woman helped me lie down and covered me up to the chin and rested for a minute in the bedside armchair, fanning herself with one plump, pink hand. She wore gilt-rimmed spectacles and a white nurse’s cap.

“Who are you?” I asked in a faint voice.

“I’m the hotel nurse.”

“What’s the matter with me?”

“Poisoned,” she said briefly. “Poisoned, the whole lot of you. I never seen anythin’ like it. Sick here, sick there, whatever have you young ladies been stuffin’ yourselves with?”

“Is everybody else sick too?” I asked with some hope.

“The whole of your lot,” she affirmed with relish. “Sick as dogs and cryin’ for ma.”

The room hovered around me with great gentleness, as if the chairs and the tables and the walls were withholding their weight out of sympathy for my sudden frailty.

“The doctor’s given you an injection,” the nurse said from the doorway. “You’ll sleep now.”

And the door took her place like a sheet of blank paper, and then a larger sheet of paper took the place of the door, and I drifted toward it and smiled myself to sleep.

Somebody was standing by my pillow with a white cup.

“Drink this,” they said.

I shook my head. The pillow crackled like a wad of straw.

“Drink this and you’ll feel better.”

A thick white china cup was lowered under my nose. In the wan light that might have been evening and might have been dawn I contemplated the clear amber liquid. Pads of butter floated on the surface and a faint chickeny aroma fumed up to my nostrils.

My eyes moved tentatively to the skirt behind the cup. “Betsy,” I said.

“Betsy nothing, it’s me.”

I raised my eyes then, and saw Doreen’s head silhouetted against the paling window, her blonde hair lit at the tips from behind like a halo of gold. Her face was in shadow, so I couldn’t make out her expression, but I felt a sort of expert tenderness flowing from the ends of her fingers. She might have been Betsy or my mother or a fern-scented nurse.

I bent my head and took a sip of the broth. I thought my mouth must be made of sand. I took another sip and then another and another until the cup was empty.

I felt purged and holy and ready for a new life.

Doreen set the cup on the window-sill and lowered herself into the armchair. I noticed that she made no move to take out a cigarette, and as she was a chain-smoker this surprised me.

“Well, you almost died,” she said finally.

“I guess it was all that caviar.”

“Caviar nothing! It was the crabmeat. They did tests on it and it was chock-full of ptomaine.”

I had a vision of the celestially white kitchens on Ladies’ Day stretching into infinity. I saw avocado pear after avocado pear being stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise and photographed under brilliant lights. I saw the delicate, pink-mottled claw-meat poking seductively through its blanket of mayonnaise and the bland yellow pear cup with its rim of alligator-green cradling the whole mess.


“Who did tests?” I thought the doctor might have pumped somebody’s stomach and then analyzed what he found in his hotel laboratory.

“Those dodos on Ladies’ Day. As soon as you all started keeling over like ninepins somebody called into the office and the office called across to Ladies’ Day and they did tests on everything left over from the big lunch. Ha!”

“Ha!” I echoed hollowly. It was good to have Doreen back.

“They sent presents,” she added. “They’re in a big carton out in the hall.”

“How did they get here so fast?”

“Special express delivery, what do you think? They can’t afford to have the lot of you running around saying you got poisoned at Ladies’ Day. You could sue them for every penny they own if you just knew some smart law man.”

“What are the presents?” I began to feel if it was a good enough present I wouldn’t mind about what happened, because I felt so pure as a result.

“Nobody’s opened the box yet, they’re all out flat. I’m supposed to be carting soup into everybody, seeing as I’m the only one on my feet, but I brought you yours first.”

“See what the present is,” I begged. Then I remembered and said, “I’ve a present for you as well.”

Doreen went out into the hall. I could hear her rustling around for a minute and then the sound of paper tearing. Finally she came back carrying a thick book with a glossy cover and people’s names printed all over it.

“The Thirty Best Short Stories of the Year.” She dropped the book in my lap. “There’s eleven more of them out there in that box. I suppose they thought it’d give you something to read while you were sick.” She paused. “Where’s mine?”

I fished in my pocket-book and handed Doreen the mirror with her name and the daisies on it. Doreen looked at me and I looked at her and we both burst out laughing.

“You can have my soup if you want,” she said. “They put twelve soups on the tray by mistake and Lenny and I stuffed down so many hotdogs while we were waiting for the rain to stop I couldn’t eat another mouthful.”

“Bring it in,” I said. “I’m starving.”


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