Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1028
Esther Greenwood is in New York City the summer that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are to be executed (1953). Ecstatic over having won a position as guest editor on the college board for a well-known magazine for young women, she is puzzled that she is not having the time of her life.
On the face of it, she has everything going for her. She is attractive, intelligent, and talented. She is a straight-A student. The magazine arranges concerts, dances, celebrity interviews, fashion shows, and luncheons galore for the twelve college student women who won positions as guest editors. Why is she feeling depressed? Esther’s boyfriend Buddy is in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis. She is discovering that her feelings for him are lukewarm. She feels free to date other men, but somehow those dates are not turning out as well as she expects.
She and the eleven other young women from colleges across the United States are living in a hotel for women. Doreen, who is cynical and audacious, particularly appeals to Esther. One night on their way to a party, they let themselves be picked up by a disc jockey, Lenny Shepherd. After drinks he asks them to his apartment. After more drinks, Doreen and Lenny dance lasciviously. Esther is disgusted. She leaves Doreen and walks back to the hotel disillusioned with Doreen and later with herself for abandoning Doreen. Doreen is not the only reason Esther is disillusioned. The city glamour she expected manifests itself as a series of shoddy episodes. Behind the glittery surfaces she sees a world of competition, meanness, fakery, and backbreaking work leading to some trivial end.
Esther and the other young women are invited to a “ladies’ magazine” luncheon. Beautifully presented crabmeat salad is served, but later they are all violently sick. The crabmeat was tainted. Another event in New York City that was supposed to be wonderful is spoiled.
Another spoiled event for Esther is the work she is assigned at the magazine. She is a perfectionist, an overachiever, and always anxious about deadlines. Stress becomes apparent during a photography session. Esther, told to hold a paper rose and smile (to represent her dream to be a poet), bursts into tears.
Later, however, she lets Doreen talk her into going out on another date. It is another fiasco. Ripping Esther’s dress and throwing her in the mud, calling her a slut, the “country-club gentleman” date, Marco, tries to rape her. She escapes and once again flees back to her hotel.
Her stint as guest editor over, in a gesture of her feelings, Esther throws all of her new clothes off the roof of the hotel. In the morning she leaves for home. Her mother meets her at the train station. Esther hates their small house and the suburbs and plans to escape by attending a creative writing seminar at Harvard. She is not accepted. The rejection, in addition to her recent experiences, sends her into depression. She cannot concentrate on writing her honors thesis. She tries to work on a novel, but disappointment and despondency lock her in lethargy. Esther’s apathy worries her mother who, at her wits’ end, suggest they see a psychiatrist.
Unfortunately, the psychiatrist, Doctor Gordon, is the wrong doctor for Esther. She finds him insensitive and patronizing. In addition, the shock treatments he prescribes for her not only frighten her but also send her into a deeper depression. Esther begins to dwell on suicide even though she attempts to do normal things, such as double-dating and hospital volunteer work.
One rainy day, after visiting the grave of her father, she returns home, leaves a note that she is going for a walk, takes a bottle of sleeping pills and a glass of water, and goes to the basement. Hiding herself in a crawl space behind some firewood, she swallows the pills. She takes too many, causing her to vomit, which saves her life. Now desperate, her mother sends Esther to a state mental institution.
At this point Esther’s benefactress, Philomena Guinea, proposes that Esther be sent to a private hospital. Philomena will finance it. At the new institution Esther begins to improve. Doctor Nolan, her psychiatrist, an intuitive woman, gains Esther’s trust. Intuitive people gain Esther’s approval. Esther learns that it is all right to say that one hates one’s mother. She also learns that her need to be sexually active is not only normal but also feasible. Doctor Nolan prescribes birth control. Under compassionate supervision and carefully conducted shock treatments, Esther begins to improve.
One of Esther’s college friends, Joan Gilling, is also at the hospital. Joan, like Esther, tried to kill herself. In addition, like Esther, Joan dated Buddy Willard, but at the hospital Joan confesses that she prefers women to men. Initially disgusted with Joan’s homosexuality, Esther nevertheless continues to befriend Joan. Eventually, Esther and Joan are allowed town and overnight privileges from the hospital. On one of these outings, Esther has her first sexual experience with a professor she meets. Esther’s experience is another misadventure. She begins to hemorrhage. The professor, in a panic, takes her to the apartment where Joan is staying. Joan, upset, takes Esther to an emergency ward, and a doctor repairs the damage. One in a million, he says.
A few days later, Joan hangs herself. Doctor Nolan, worried that Joan’s suicide will throw Esther back into despair, assures her that no one is to blame. A sign of Esther’s newly gained stability is that neither her sexual misadventure nor Joan’s suicide casts her into depression. Buddy then visits Esther at the sanatorium and tells her that she is no longer a suitable marriage prospect. Esther is not disturbed. In fact, his pompous announcement frees her. Buddy, from then on, is out of her life. It is another sign of her recovery that she responds in a healthy way to his announcement. Esther is well. She has the strength to face the panel of doctors, who, if she passes their examinations, will discharge her from the hospital. She will take charge, once again, of her destiny.
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