The Bell Jar

Chapter 9

“I’m so glad they’re going to die.”

Hilda arched her cat-limbs in a yawn, buried her head in her arms on the conference table and went back to sleep. A wisp of bilious green straw perched on her brow like a tropical bird.

Bile green. They were promoting it for fall, only Hilda, as usual, was half a year ahead of time. Bile green with black, bile green with white, bile green with nile green, its kissing cousin.

Fashion blurbs, silver and full of nothing, sent up their fishy bubbles in my brain. They surfaced with a hollow pop.

I’m so glad they’re going to die.

I cursed the luck that had timed my arrival in the hotel cafeteria to coincide with Hilda’s. After a late night I felt too dull to think up the excuse that would take me back to my room for the glove, the handkerchief, the umbrella, the notebook I forgot. My penalty was the long, dead walk from the frosted glass doors of the Amazon to the strawberry-marble slab of our entry on Madison Avenue.

Hilda moved like a mannequin the whole way.

“That’s a lovely hat, did you make it?”

I half-expected Hilda to turn on me and say, “You sound sick”, but she only extended and then retracted her swanny neck.


The night before I’d seen a play where the heroine was possessed by a dybbuk, and when the dybbuk spoke from her mouth its voice sounded so cavernous and deep you couldn’t tell whether it was a man or a woman. Well Hilda’s voice sounded just like the voice of that dybbuk.

She stared at her reflection in the glossed shop windows as if to make sure, moment by moment, that she continued to exist. The silence between us was so profound I thought part of it must be my fault.

So I said, “Isn’t it awful about the Rosenbergs?”

The Rosenbergs were to be electrocuted late that night.

“Yes!” Hilda said, and at last I felt I had touched a human string in the cat’s cradle of her heart. It was only as the two of us waited for the others in the tomb-like morning gloom of the conference room that Hilda amplified that Yes of hers.

“It’s awful such people should be alive.”

She yawned then, and her pale orange mouth opened on a large darkness. Fascinated, I stared at the blind cave behind her face until the two lips met and moved and the dybbuk spoke out of its hiding place, “I’m so glad they’re going to die.”

“Come on, give us a smile.”

I sat on the pink velvet love-seat in Jay Cee’s office, holding a paper rose and facing the magazine photographer. I was the last of the twelve to have my picture taken. I had tried concealing myself in the powder-room, but it didn’t work. Betsy had spied my feet under the doors.

I didn’t want my picture taken because I was going to cry. I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.

This was the last round of photographs before the magazine went to press and we returned to Tulsa or Biloxi or Teaneck or Coos Bay or wherever we’d come from, and we were supposed to be photographed with props to show what we wanted to be.

Betsy held an ear of corn to show she wanted to be a farmer’s wife, and Hilda held the bald, faceless head of a hatmaker’s dummy to show she wanted to design hats, and Doreen held a gold-embroidered sari to show she wanted to be a social worker in India (she didn’t really, she told me, she only wanted to get her hands on a sari).

When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know.

“Oh, sure you know,” the photographer said.

“She wants,” said Jay Cee wittily, “to be everything.”

I said I wanted to be a poet.

Then they scouted about for something for me to hold.

Jay Cee suggested a book of poems, but the photographer said no, that was too obvious. It should be something that showed what inspired the poems. Finally Jay Cee unclipped the single, long-stemmed paper rose from her latest hat.

The photographer fiddled with his hot white lights. “Show us how happy it makes you to write a poem.”

I stared through the frieze of rubber plant leaves in Jay Cee’s window to the blue sky beyond. A few stagey cloud puffs were travelling from right to left. I fixed my eyes on the largest cloud, as if, when it passed out of sight, I might have the good luck to pass with it.

I felt it was very important to keep the line of my mouth level.

“Give us a smile.”

At last, obediently, like the mouth of a ventriloquist’s dummy, my own mouth started to quirk up.

“Hey,” the photographer protested, with sudden foreboding, “you look like you’re going to cry.”

I couldn’t stop.

I buried my face in the pink velvet façade of Jay Cee’s love-seat and with immense relief the salt tears and miserable noises that had been prowling around in me all morning burst out into the room.

When I lifted my head, the photographer had vanished. Jay Cee had vanished as well. I felt limp and betrayed, like the skin shed by a terrible animal. It was a relief to be free of the animal, but it seemed to have taken my spirit with it, and everything else it could lay its paws on.

I fumbled in my pocketbook for the gilt compact with the mascara and the mascara brush and the eyeshadow and the three lipsticks and the side mirror. The face that peered back at me seemed to be peering from the grating of a prison cell after a prolonged beating. It looked bruised and puffy and all the wrong colours. It was a face that needed soap and water and Christian tolerance.

I started to paint it with small heart.

Jay Cee breezed back after a decent interval with an armful of manuscripts.

“These’ll amuse you,” she said. “Have a good read.”

Every morning a snowy avalanche of manuscripts swelled the dust-grey piles in the office of the Fiction Editor. Secretly, in studies and attics and schoolrooms all over America, people must be writing. Say someone or other finished a manuscript every minute; in five minutes that would be five manuscripts stacked on the Fiction Editor’s desk. Within the hour there would be sixty, crowding each other on to the floor. And in a year…

I smiled, seeing a pristine, imaginary manuscript floating in mid-air, with Esther Greenwood typed in the upper-right hand corner. After my month on the magazine I’d applied for a summer school course with a famous writer where you sent in the manuscript of a story and he read it and said whether you were good enough to be admitted into his class.

Of course, it was a very small class, and I had sent in my story a long time ago and hadn’t heard from the writer yet, but I was sure I’d find the letter of acceptance waiting on the mail table at home.

I decided I’d surprise Jay Cee and send in a couple of the stories I wrote in this class under a pseudonym. Then one day the Fiction Editor would come in to Jay Cee personally and plop the stories down on her desk and say, “Here’s something a cut above the usual,” and Jay Cee would agree and accept them and ask the author to lunch and it would be me.

“Honestly,” Doreen said, “this one’ll be different.”

“Tell me about him,” I said stonily.

“He’s from Peru.”

“They’re squat,” I said. “They’re ugly as Aztecs.”

“No, no, no, sweetie, I’ve already met him.”

We were sitting on my bed in a mess of dirty cotton dresses and laddered nylons and grey underwear, and for ten minutes Doreen had been trying to persuade me to go to a country club dance with a friend of somebody Lenny knew which, she insisted, was a very different thing from a friend of Lenny’s, but as I was catching the eight o’clock train home the next morning I felt I should make some attempt to pack.

I also had a dim idea that if I walked the streets of New York by myself all night something of the city’s mystery and magnificence might rub off on to me at last.

But I gave it up.

It was becoming more and more difficult for me to decide to do anything in those last days. And when I eventually did decide to do something, such as packing a suitcase, I only dragged all my grubby, expensive clothes out of the bureau and the closet and spread them on the chairs and the bed and the floor and then sat and stared at them, utterly perplexed. They seemed to have a separate, mulish identity of their own that refused to be washed and folded and stowed.

“It’s these clothes,” I told Doreen. “I just can’t face these clothes when I come back.”

“That’s easy.”

And in her beautiful, one-track way, Doreen started to snatch up slips and stockings and the elaborate strapless bra, full of steel springs—a free gift from the Primrose Corset Company, which I’d never had the courage to wear—and finally, one by one, the sad array of queerly-cut forty dollar dresses…

“Hey, leave that one out. I’m wearing it.”

Doreen extricated a black scrap from her bundle and dropped it in my lap. Then, snowballing the rest of the clothes into one soft, conglomerate mass, she stuffed them out of sight under the bed.

Doreen knocked on the green door with the gold knob.

Scuffling and a man’s laugh, cut short, sounded from inside. Then a tall boy in shirtsleeves and a blond crewcut inched the door open and peered out.

“Baby!” he roared.

Doreen disappeared in his arms. I thought it must be the person Lenny knew.

I stood quietly in the doorway in my black sheath and my black stole with the fringe, yellower than ever, but expecting less. “I am an observer,” I told myself, as I watched Doreen being handed into the room by the blond boy to another man, who was also tall, but dark, with slightly longer hair. This man was wearing an immaculate white suit, a pale blue shirt and a yellow satin tie with a bright stickpin.

I couldn’t take my eyes off that stickpin.

A great white light seemed to shoot out of it, illumining the room. Then the light withdrew into itself, leaving a dewdrop on a field of gold.

I put one foot in front of the other.

“That’s a diamond,” somebody said, and a lot of people burst out laughing.

My nail tapped a glassy facet.

“Her first diamond.”

“Give it to her, Marco.”

Marco bowed and deposited the stickpin in my palm.

It dazzled and danced with light like a heavenly ice-cube. I slipped it quickly into my imitation jet bead evening bag and looked round. The faces were empty as plates, and nobody seemed to be breathing.

“Fortunately,” a dry, hard hand encircled my upper arm, “I am escorting the lady for the rest of the evening. Perhaps,” the spark in Marco’s eyes extinguished, and they went black, “I shall perform some small service…”

Somebody laughed.

“… worthy of a diamond.”

The hand round my arm tightened.


Marco removed his hand. I looked down at my arm. A thumb-print purpled into view. Marco watched me. Then he pointed to the underside of my arm. “Look there.”

I looked, and saw four, faint matching prints.

“You see, I am quite serious.”

Marco’s small, flickering smile reminded me of a snake I’d teased in the Bronx Zoo. When I tapped my finger on the stout cage glass the snake had opened its clockwork jaws and seemed to smile. Then it struck and struck and struck at the invisible pane till I moved off.

I had never met a woman-hater before.

I could tell Marco was a woman-hater, because in spite of all the models and TV starlets in the room that night he paid attention to nobody but me. Not out of kindness or even curiosity, but because I’d happened to be dealt to him, like a playing card in a pack of identical cards.

A man in the country club band stepped up to the mike and started shaking those seedpod rattles that mean South American music.

Marco reached for my hand, but I hung on to my fourth daiquiri and stayed put. I’d never had a daiquiri before. The reason I had a daiquiri was because Marco ordered it for me, and I felt so grateful he hadn’t asked what sort of drink I wanted that I didn’t say a word, I just drank one daiquiri after another.

Marco looked at me.

“No,” I said.

“What do you mean, no?”

“I can’t dance to that kind of music.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“I want to sit here and finish my drink.”

Marco bent towards me with a tight smile, and in one swoop my drink took wing and landed in a potted palm. Then Marco gripped my hand in such a way I had to choose between following him on to the floor or having my arm torn off.

“It’s a tango.” Marco manoeuvred me out among the dancers. “I love tangos.”

“I can’t dance.”

“You don’t have to dance. I’ll do the dancing.”

Marco hooked an arm around my waist and jerked me up against his dazzling white suit. Then he said, “Pretend you are drowning.”

I shut my eyes, and the music broke over me like a rainstorm. Marco’s leg slid forward against mine and my leg slid back and I seemed to be riveted to him, limb for limb, moving as he moved, without any will or knowledge of my own, and after a while I thought, “It doesn’t take two to dance, it only takes one,” and I let myself blow and bend like a tree in the wind.

“What did I tell you?” Marco’s breath scorched my ear. “You’re a perfectly respectable dancer.”

I began to see why woman-haters could make such fools of women. Woman-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power. They descended, and then they disappeared. You could never catch one.

After the South American music there was an interval.

Marco led me through the French doors into the garden. Lights and voices spilled from the ballroom window, but a few yards beyond the darkness drew up its barricade and sealed them off. In the infinitesimal glow of the stars, the trees and flowers were strewing their cool odours. There was no moon.

The box hedges shut behind us. A deserted golf course stretched away towards a few hilly clumps of trees, and I felt the whole desolate familiarity of the scene—the country club and the dance and the lawn with its single cricket.

I didn’t know where I was, but it was somewhere in the wealthy suburbs of New York.

Marco produced a slim cigar and a silver lighter in the shape of a bullet. He set the cigar between his lips and bent over the small flare. His face, with its exaggerated shadows and planes of light, looked alien and pained, like a refugee’s.

I watched him.

“Who are you in love with?” I said then.

For a minute Marco didn’t say anything, he simply opened his mouth and breathed out a blue, vaporous ring.

“Perfect!” he laughed.

The ring widened and blurred, ghost-pale on the dark air.

Then he said, “I am in love with my cousin.”

I felt no surprise.

“Why don’t you marry her?”



Marco shrugged. “She’s my first cousin. She’s going to be a nun.”

“Is she beautiful?”

“There’s no one to touch her.”

“Does she know you love her?”

“Of course.”

I paused. The obstacle seemed unreal to me.

“If you love her,” I said, “you’ll love somebody else someday.”

Marco dashed his cigar underfoot.

The ground soared and struck me with a soft shock. Mud squirmed through my fingers. Marco waited until I half rose. Then he put both hands on my shoulders and flung me back.

“My dress…”

“Your dress!” The mud oozed and adjusted itself to my shoulder blades. “Your dress!” Marco’s face lowered cloudily over mine. A few drops of spit struck my lips. “Your dress is black and the dirt is black as well.”

Then he threw himself face down as if he would grind his body through me and into the mud.

“It’s happening,” I thought. “It’s happening. If I just lie here and do nothing it will happen.”

Marco set his teeth to the strap at my shoulder and tore my sheath to the waist. I saw the glimmer of bare skin, like a pale veil separating two bloody-minded adversaries.


The word hissed by my ear.


The dust cleared, and I had a full view of the battle.

I began to writhe and bite.

Marco weighed me to the earth.


I gouged at his leg with the sharp heel of my shoe. He turned, fumbling for the hurt.

Then I fisted my fingers together and smashed them at his nose. It was like hitting the steel plate of a battleship. Marco sat up. I began to cry.

Marco pulled out a white handkerchief and dabbed his nose. Blackness, like ink, spread over the pale cloth.

I sucked at my salty knuckles.

“I want Doreen.”

Marco stared off across the golf links.

“I want Doreen. I want to go home.”

“Sluts, all sluts.” Marco seemed to be talking to himself. “Yes or no, it is all the same.”

I poked Marco’s shoulder.

“Where’s Doreen?”

Marco snorted. “Go to the parking lot. Look in the backs of all the cars.”

Then he spun round.

“My diamond.”

I got up and retrieved my stole from the darkness. I started to walk off. Marco sprang to his feet and blocked my path. Then, deliberately, he wiped his finger under his bloody nose and with two strokes stained my cheeks. “I have earned my diamond with this blood. Give it to me.”

“I don’t know where it is.”

Now I knew perfectly well that the diamond was in my evening bag and that when Marco knocked me down my evening bag had soared, like a night bird, into the enveloping darkness. I began to think I would lead him away and then return on my own and hunt for it.

I had no idea what a diamond that size would buy, but whatever it was, I knew it would be a lot.

Marco took my shoulders in both hands.

“Tell me,” he said, giving each word equal emphasis. “Tell me, or I’ll break your neck.”

Suddenly I didn’t care.

“It’s in my imitation jet bead evening bag,” I said. “Somewhere in the muck.”

I left Marco on his hands and knees, scrabbling in the darkness for another, smaller darkness that hid the light of his diamond from his furious eyes.

Doreen was not in the ballroom nor in the parking lot.

I kept to the fringe of the shadows so nobody would notice the grass plastered to my dress and shoes, and with my black stole I covered my shoulders and bare breasts.

Luckily for me, the dance was nearly over, and groups of people were leaving and coming out to the parked cars. I asked at one car after another until finally I found a car that had room and would drop me in the middle of Manhattan.

At that vague hour between dark and dawn, the sunroof of the Amazon was deserted.

Quiet as a burglar in my cornflower-sprigged bathrobe, I crept to the edge of the parapet. The parapet reached almost to my shoulders, so I dragged a folding chair from the stack against the wall, opened it, and climbed on to the precarious seat.

A stiff breeze lifted the hair from my head. At my feet, the city doused its lights in sleep, its buildings blackened, as if for a funeral.

It was my last night.

I grasped the bundle I carried and pulled at a pale tail. A strapless elasticized slip which, in the course of wear, had lost its elasticity, slumped into my hand. I waved it, like a flag of truce, once, twice… The breeze caught it, and I let go.

A white flake floated out into the night, and began its slow descent. I wondered on what street or rooftop it would come to rest.

I tugged at the bundle again.

The wind made an effort, but failed, and a batlike shadow sank towards the roof garden of the penthouse opposite.

Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.


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