The Bell Jar begins in the summer of 1953 in New York City. Esther Greenwood is working for a month as a guest editor at a women's magazine, one of twelve college girls chosen for this honor in a national competition. She admits that she should be having the time of her life, but she is not. The whole experience of the big city just makes her feel empty. She is nineteen years old and has never been out of New England before.
One evening she goes out with her friend Doreen, intending to go to one of the tame parties arranged by the magazine. But a man approaches them in the taxi and persuades them to slip out and join him in a bar instead. The man's name is Lenny Shepherd, and he is a disc jockey. But he is more interested in Doreen than Esther, and Esther finds herself paired off with a nondescript young man named Frankie, who is considerably shorter than her five feet ten inches. Esther pretends that her name is Elly Higginbottom and that she is from Chicago. (She is really from Boston.) She refuses Frankie's invitation to dance. He slinks off, and the other three make their way to Lenny's apartment, which resembles the inside of a ranch, even though it is in the middle of a New York apartment house. There is expensive recording equipment there, and Doreen seems impressed. Larry mixes some drinks, and she and Lenny dance the jitterbug while Esther sits cross-legged on one of the beds, and then on the floor. As she drinks, Esther gets depressed at being on her own in an apartment with a couple. When Lenny and Doreen start to get sexually aggressive with each other as they dance, Esther leaves. She walks over forty-three blocks back to her hotel. The silence of her room depresses her, but after she takes a long bath her spirits are restored. She goes to bed and sleeps but is awakened by a knocking on the door. It is Doreen. She is drunk and needs to lie down, so Esther lowers her onto the green carpet in the hall. Doreen vomits and then falls asleep. Esther goes back to her room. When she awakes in the morning, she opens the door of her room, but Doreen has gone. All that remains is a stain on the carpet.
The opening chapters introduce Esther and present her as something of a lost soul. She does not feel at home in her new environment. Although she has been fortunate, because of her academic brilliance, in securing her internship, she feels like a fish out of water. All she does, she says, is go from her hotel to work and to parties, and then back to the hotel and back to work, "like a numb trolleybus." The adjective numb is significant. Esther for some reason is withdrawn and does not embrace her life as fully or with as much enjoyment as would be normal for a young woman in her position. She feels "very still and very empty." These descriptions foreshadow Esther's later psychological problems.
Esther is contrasted with Doreen, who seems quite at home in New York, and is funny, outgoing, and adventurous. In comparison to her, Esther seems like a misfit. She is an observer of life rather than a full participant, and she does not reveal her true emotions easily. Her inability to fit in is illustrated in the scene in which she and Doreen meet the two young men, Lenny and Frankie. While Doreen and Lenny hit it off together, Frankie and Esther are a complete mismatch, and after Frankie leaves, Esther ends up as the silent onlooker as Lenny and Doreen enjoy themselves in uninhibited fashion. "I felt like a hole in the ground," Esther says. Again, the phrase is a significant one, with its implications of a vanishing self, as if the person is becoming nothing. Esther has a problem with her sense of identity. She doesn't really know who she is. This is shown symbolically by the fact that whenever she sees her own reflection in a mirror or some other reflective surface (as in the elevator in the hotel, for example), she does not recognize herself: "I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course."
The theme of death and rebirth is also sounded in chapter 2. Esther feels wretched, and death seems to be on her mind. The telephone sits "dumb as a death's head," and as she decides to take a long hot bath, she reflects that she takes a bath "whenever I'm sad I'm going to die." The bath acts like a restorative, and she has almost religious feelings about it: "I don't believe in baptism or the waters of Jordan or anything like that, but I guess I feel about a hot bath the way those religious people feel about holy water." The longer she stays in the water, the more pure she feels. Finally, when she steps out and wraps herself in a towel, "I felt pure and sweet as a new baby."