The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath
Contributed by Bobbie Heil
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Chapter 3

All the girls have been invited to a luncheon sponsored by the magazine Ladies’ Day. In the first paragraph of this chapter, the narrator describes the elaborate spread of food at the table; Esther hadn’t had time to eat breakfast and so she’s thrilled to see the variety of fancy food they have to choose from. In fact, she had never really gone out to eat at nice restaurants before, and she was sure burgers and milkshakes at Howard Johnson’s with Buddy Willard didn’t count. She loves food, and very fattening food, especially because she never gains any weight.

Doreen has not come to the luncheon because she is spending the day with Lenny; in fact, she now spent most of her free time with him; Esther notices the place cards are little pocket mirrors with each girl’s names painted on; she saves Doreen’s to give to her later.

In the hour before the luncheon, the girls had been shown by the magazine staff how they produce the lavish photography spreads of food which appear each month in their magazine; Esther notes the difference in attitudes towards food from when she was little. She had always had enough to eat, but it seemed whenever she lifted her fork to her mouth to eat, her grandmother had reminded her exactly how much each bite had cost. Esther notices there are huge bowls of caviar on the table; she begins to strategize how to get the most caviar possible. She loves caviar, and recalls a joke she had with her grandfather, who was a waiter at a country club. Because of his job, he was able to get her tidbits of gourmet food, which is how she first tasted caviar. The joke was that for her wedding, her grandfather would get her all the caviar she could eat. It was a joke first because Esther never intended to get married, second because if she ever did, her grandfather could never afford to buy her any.

She lays out a layer of chicken slices on her plate, smothers it in caviar, rolls the whole thing up and eats it with her fingers. She confides that at a fancy place, if you only act like what you’re doing is proper, no one ever questioned you. She realized this when she had gone to lunch with Jay Cee one day and a very famous poet who ate his salad with his fingers. It was then she realized it was all about attitude.

Esther polishes off a whole bowl of caviar without encountering any difficulty and moves on to the avocados stuffed with crabmeat. Now that she isn’t worried about protecting her territory, she strikes up a conversation with Betsy, and asks her how the fur show was. Betsy tells her how they were shown how to make a neckerchief out of fur scraps and inexpensive items from Woolworth’s, which one of their group, Hilda, had already done.

Esther pauses to look across the table at Hilda, who she doesn’t quite understand. She was very tall and Slavic-looking, was apprenticed to the fashion editor and made startling hats. She murmurs appreciation for Hilda’s skill, wishing Doreen was there to say something scathing.

Betsy asks why Esther didn’t go to the fur show, to which Esther responds she was summoned to Jay Cee’s office, which wasn’t totally true. First she had been invited to Coney Island with Doreen and Lenny, an invitation she refused; instead she decided to sleep late. But then that was when Jay Cee called and asked her to come into the office.

When she gets to the office, Jay Cee interrogates her about her goals and aspirations, and Esther isn’t quite sure what to say. She realizes, for the first time, that she doesn’t really know what she wants to do after college; she’s spent her whole life winning scholarships and prizes, but she doesn’t know what comes next. Jay Cee recommends she learn some foreign languages. Esther agrees out loud, but already knows there is no room in her schedule for it. Esther remembers back to how she got out of taking chemistry in college. She had taken botany and loved it; but then she took physics and hated it, but she worked ridiculously hard and was the only student in the class to get an A. She was sure chemistry would be even worse, and was panic-struck at the thought of taking it: "What I couldn’t stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes.and fascinating words like carotene.there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion formulas in Mr. Manzi’s special red chalk."

It turns out her hard work in physics was all part of the plan: she convinces her dean that taking chemistry for a grade was only a waste of time, since she’d just get another A. Instead, she suggests, she’ll attend lectures not for a grade, but because she loved science. She did go to every lecture, but while there she wrote poetry. When the professor looked over at her, he saw her writing and smiling and thought she was hard at work.

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