The novel begins in a "queer, sultry summer," the one in which the Rosenbergs were electrocuted. The narrator, Esther Greenwood, was in New York, and is preoccupied with news of the Rosenbergs; she cannot imagine being burned alive that way. Esther was supposed to be having the time of her life after winning a scholarship to college and a fashion magazine contest that led to an internship at that magazine. She stays with the twelve other girls at an all-female hotel, the Amazon. Most of the other girls at the hotel were daughters of wealthy parents who wanted to keep them away from men.
One of Esther's major troubles is Doreen, who came from a society girls' college down South. Doreen has a perpetual bemused sneer, and makes Esther feel that she is much sharper than the others. Doreen makes sarcastic comments about Jay Cee, their boss at the magazine. Among the other girls there is also Betsy, a girl from Kansas nicknamed "Pollyanna Cowgirl" by Doreen. Doreen and Esther go out for drinks, where they meet several men. Esther compares them to Buddy Willard, a Yale boy whom she knows from home. Esther gives a pseudonym to one of the men, Frankie, calling herself Elly Higginbottom from Chicago (she is actually from Boston). Esther and Doreen go out with one of the men, Lenny, back to Lenny's apartment.
In the first chapter of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath introduces and develops the character of Esther Greenwood, the narrator and protagonist of the novel. Since the major concern of the novel is the mental health of Esther Greenwood and her progression into a deep depression and eventual recovery, the first chapter establishes the roots of Esther's mental illness. Although Plath does not attribute one specific cause to her protagonist's condition, she does in this chapter lay the foundation for the causes of Esther's dissatisfaction.
One of the most significant causes of this depression is certainly the high-pressure environment in which Esther lives, for Plath early establishes that Esther is the quintessential overachiever, a scholarship winner and gifted student who consistently wins prizes and contests for her academic abilities. While Plath implies that the other girls who are working for this magazine internship in New York are from wealthy backgrounds of leisure, Esther comes from a more modest family. The internship that Esther wins elucidates one of the major themes of the novel: the disparity between what Esther believes should be and what actually occurs. Plath states this most explicitly when Esther notes that she should have been having the time of her life in New York, but instead finds herself quite dissatisfied.
A second prominent cause of anxiety for Esther concerns matters of sexuality. The society of the early fifties in which the story takes place is one noted for its sexual repression, and Plath bolsters this through the inclusion of various details of Esther's stay in New York. She stays in a hotel for women only, presumably intending to keep the women of the hotel away from predatory men. The name of this hotel, the Amazon, is ironic, for the name elicits the idea of strong women warriors, but instead places these girls in cloistered positions of safety and seclusion. This also introduces a theme that will recur throughout the novel, the idea that Esther is trapped or confined.
Plath introduces the theme of sexuality partially through the contrast between Doreen and Betsy, the former savvy, urbane and liberated, and the latter a symbol of a rustic innocence. The suburban Esther mediates between these two extremes: she chooses to associate with Doreen, but admits that Doreen causes major trouble for her. The trouble that Doreen will cause will be the subject of following chapters, as will Esther's relationship with Buddy Willard, mentioned in the chapter but not yet given prominence.
The inclusion of information on the Rosenbergs also brings in Esther's preoccupation with death, a character trait that foreshadows the suicide attempt that will be the central event of the novel.
Lenny's apartment is built exactly like the inside of a ranch, only in the middle of a New York apartment. Lenny is a disc jockey. Doreen tells Esther to stick around, for she won't have a chance if he tries anything funny. Lenny and Doreen become more physical with one another, and Esther leaves as this becomes progressively violent. Esther returns to the hotel, where the silence depresses her. She takes a hot bath to cheer herself up, for she never feels so much herself as when she is in a hot bath. She thinks that "Doreen is dissolving, Lenny is dissolving, Frankie is dissolving, New York is dissolving." She at last gets out of the bath and returns to her room where she falls asleep. A knocking at the door awakes Esther; it is Frankie, who has brought Doreen back. Frankie calls for "Elly," while Doreen calls for "Miss Greenwood," as if Esther has a split personality. Doreen topples into Esther's arms, and Esther carries her back to their room., where she vomits. Esther vows that she would care for Doreen that night, but would have nothing at all to do with her afterward. Esther realizes that she actually better resembles Betsy, the "Pollyanna Cowgirl," than Doreen.
The encounter between Doreen and Lenny at his apartment elucidates Esther Greenwood's perspective on sexuality. Since Plath frames the novel from a first-person perspective with Esther as narrator, the events of the novel must be taken as the memories of a biased and possibly unreliable narrator. The important detail of the events at Lenny's apartment is that Esther views the sexual encounter as a violent and bizarre activity that nevertheless intrigues her. For Esther, sex is unmistakably bound with violence and physical harm, a perspective that will be elucidated and given credence as the story progresses. It is this position on sexuality that causes Esther to retreat from the liberated Doreen and choose the safety and repression exemplified by Betsy.
Plath continues a slow progression of Esther's descending mental health. This chapter includes a self-diagnosis of Esther's mental health in which she claims that she feels like a person with multiple personalities when Doreen and Lenny call out to Esther using both her name and pseudonym. The most significant event demonstrating this decline is Esther's acute reaction to the silence around her and her reaction by taking a bath; she attempts to deal with her problems through mentally dissociating herself from the situation.
Esther attends a Ladies Day banquet, the first time that she has eaten out at a proper restaurant. Esther can eat as much as she wants without gaining weight, but all of the other girls are trying to reduce their weight. Doreen does not attend, for she spends most of her free time with Lenny Shepherd now. Esther eats as much as she can, even eyeing the caviar. She notices Hilda, a six foot tall girl with huge green eyes who goes to a special school for making hats in New York. Betsy invites Esther to a fur show that day, but she has to meet Jay Cee that afternoon. When she meets Esther, Jay Cee asks her if her work interests her and what she plans to do after graduating from college. Esther answers that she doesn't know, and knows that it is true. Jay Cee tells her that she will never get anywhere with that attitude, and recommends that she read French and German so that she can offer more than the run-of-the-mill person. Esther realizes she has no room in her schedule for this, and thinks about how she manipulated the Class Dean into letting her out of her chemistry course (a difficult subject for her) by convincing the professor, Mr. Manzi, that it was dishonorable to take his course merely for the A and the credit, and she should merely audit it.
The centerpiece of this chapter is the meeting between Esther and Jay Cee; this confrontation highlights once again the central problem in Esther's life. She is a girl without any particular direction; she has no definite goals and cannot commit to any single course of action. In this chapter, Plath contrasts Esther with the other girls, including Hilda and Doreen, who have modest but definable goals (Hilda wants to make hats, Doreen is interested only in her new boyfriend); in contrast, Esther has a multitude of possibilities but the inability to choose a single one. Furthermore, the meeting with Jay Cee emphasizes the detriments to Esther's indecision and anxiety; by refusing to commit to one action, Esther wastes the distinctions that she has and becomes a "run-of-the-mill" person, as she fears. However, Jay Cee's attitude toward Esther also shows that Esther has the pressure of great expectations; she does have special talents and abilities and feels the burden of these hopes that people like Jay Cee have for her. It is this that most separates Esther from the other girls such as Doreen and Hilda; they do not have the same talent as Esther, but do not have the same burden of expectations.
The story concerning Esther's manipulation of the Class Dean serves to show that Esther does not handle pressure well and deals with it primarily through avoidance. She does not face her difficulty with chemistry; she merely uses courtesy and diplomatic means to get out of taking the class and thus ignore this possible challenge. This continues a trend of denial that prevails when Esther faces a problem and that will continue as her problems become more and more serious.
Jay Cee hands Esther a pile of story manuscripts and begins speaking more kindly to her. She tells Esther "don't let the wicked city get you down." Esther imagines what it would like to be a famous editor like Jay Cee, and wishes she had a mother like her. Esther's own mother isn't helpful, for she spends most of her time working to support her family, since Esther's father died without providing the family with insurance. Esther reminisces about how she saw a fingerbowl for the first time at the home of Philomena Guinea, a wealthy novelist who donated the scholarship that enabled Esther to go to college. Esther goes with the other girls to see a Technicolor movie, a football romance. During the movie, Esther begins to feel sick, so Betsy accompanies her back to the hotel. In the cab back to the hotel, Esther and Betsy both vomit, and the next thing that Esther remembers is seeing someone else's shoe. All of the girls have food poisoning from the Ladies Day banquet, and find themselves in the hospital. Doreen is the only one who is healthy. Doreen gives Esther a present from Ladies Day; each of the girls were sent a book, The Thirty Best Short Stories of the Year.
Sylvia Plath develops the idea of Esther Greenwood as a girl faced with significant pressures and expectations in this chapter through the important biographical point that Esther comes from a family of modest means in which her mother has struggled to support her family and can offer her daughter only limited emotional support. Esther finds her mother inadequate in some as yet undefined sense, thus wishes that Jay Cee could be her mother instead. Yet Esther is rather unfairly critical of her mother for her apparent neglect, showing a sense of solipsism that is both uncompassionate and even a bit selfish; Esther is too consumed by her own problems to adequately comprehend the problems of others.
Esther's story concerning Philomena Guinea adds to the idea of Esther as an overachiever who is expected to excel in whatever she does; this wealthy patron has assumed a position as benefactor for Esther for her scholastic achievement and skills. Furthermore, Plath introduces another recurring theme of the novel through Philomena Guinea, who represents polite and genteel society. Propriety and sociability is a prominent concern throughout the novel, as when a fingerbowl, a symbol of this rarefied society, triggers Esther's memory of Philomena Guinea. Along with the Ladies Day luncheon, this suggests that Esther lives in a society with strict social codes of behavior that constrict her behavior. This proves an additional explanation for Esther's feeling that she is trapped.
The more mundane events that occur to Esther as she lives in New York are significant primarily to show Esther's attitude and perception of life around her. Esther approaches the movie with a combination of cynicism and sarcastic detachment; she expresses a dissatisfaction with Technicolor movies nearly equal to the dissatisfaction she displays when she and the other girls have food poisoning.