The events in this summary do not appear in the novel in chronological order; rather, everything which occurs before Esther's arrival in New York are revealed gradually, through flashbacks. Esther is about twenty, and grew up in the suburbs of Boston, MA. Her father died when she is only eight and her mother must work (teaching at a secretarial school) to support her and her brother. Esther has been bright and ambitious her whole life, winning prizes and scholarship and having her writing published. She wins a scholarship to attend a prestigious women's college (here, Smith College in disguise). The scholarship is sponsored by a famous alumna, a novelist named Philomena Guinea. There Esther also excels, but is never comfortable: she enjoys studying and writing rather than social activities. While there, she begins to date Buddy Willard, a Yale (and later medical) student, who she knows from home. Esther had had a crush on him for years, and when they first start dating, she's thrilled. One weekend she goes to visit him at medical school, where he lets her see all sorts of gruesome things, like the dissection of cadavers and a woman giving birth, which brings out her deeply ambivalent feelings about motherhood. But then she finds out that while pretending that "purity" was very important to him, Buddy was not a virgin: he'd had a summer-long fling with a woman he worked with. Esther finds this hypocrisy unbearable and decides to break up with Buddy. But it seems as soon as she makes this decision, Buddy calls her to tell her he's been diagnosed with tuberculosis. After Christmas that year, she rides with his father to the sanatorium in New York where Buddy is being treated; there she and Buddy goes skiing and she breaks her shin. The following summer, Buddy's mother arranges for Esther to get a job near Buddy's hospital, but instead she decides to go to New York - she has won an internship at a national women's magazine.
In New York Esther is struck with her differences, in her ambitions and class background, from other women: there she meets Betsy, who is from Kansas and whose primary ambition is to marry a farmer. She also spends a lot of time with Doreen, a beautiful and snobby Southern belle who is a magnet for men. Esther is also faced with the fact that she's not sure what she wants to do after college; an older, successful editor at the magazine tries to mentor her. While in New York she also gets a life-threatening case of food-poisoning (from the food at a luncheon sponsored by another women's magazine). She goes on a date with a translator from the UN, and while she tries to seduce him, (partially to even things up between her and Buddy), nothing happens. And her last evening out before returning home, she attends a party with Doreen and is almost raped by a smooth-talking ladies-man.
Rather than affirm and clarify her goals, her month in New York only makes her more depressed and unsure about her place in the world. She had placed all her hopes on getting into an exclusive writing class at Harvard that summer; but when she arrives home, she finds the rejection letter, which devastates her. She writes to Buddy and breaks up with him and cancels her plan to live in Cambridge with friends and take summer classes. For weeks she can't sleep and refuses to bathe or change her clothes. She tries to write a novel; she attempts volunteering at a local hospital; she even visits her father's grave. But she's starting to feel like she's going crazy: she looks at the pages of a novel and the letters seem to turn into strange shapes; she tries to write a letter and it comes out looking like a child's scrawl. Her mother takes her to a psychiatrist, who recommends shock treatments, which are horrible and brutal. Esther begins to seriously consider killing herself, and ties to think about the most effective way. Finally, she leaves a note for her mother saying she's gone out; she fits herself into a secret hole in the basement of her house and takes a whole bottle of sleeping pills.
Her body is found, days later, by her mother, and she's rushed to the hospital. Although bruised and battered, she survives and is transferred to a mental hospital where things only seem to get worse. Then Mrs. Guinea, the woman who sponsored her scholarship at college, intervenes and offers to pay for her treatment at a private hospital. There Esther sees Joan, a woman she knew from both home and college and who had dated Buddy before her. Esther eventually improves and is given more and more privileges, but not before she undergoes shock treatments again, although they're very different this time, much less painful and traumatic. With a referral from her doctor, she's even fitted for a diaphragm. Out one evening in Cambridge, she meets a young professor, who she decides to seduce (she does not disclose, of course, that she is a mental patient). He doesn't believe she's a virgin, and when he tries to penetrate her, he tears something and she starts bleeding profusely. She goes to her friend Joan's house (Joan was still being treated but living "out" of the hospital) who takes her to the emergency room.
Days later, Esther is told Joan has, inexplicably, committed suicide. But Esther only seems to be improving, although she has great doubts about her future. Buddy comes to visit her, and asks if she thinks he (literally) drives women (Esther and Joan) crazy; she says no. But he wonders out loud who she will marry; she echoes this wonder - who would have her now?. On the last page of the novel Esther is scheduled to go before the hospital's review board to see if she'd be released and allowed to return to college. Although she feels immensely better than when she was admitted, Esther hopes the "bell jar" of insanity doesn't descend on her again.
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