The Bell Jar Summary – Chapter 1-2
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.
Chapter 1-2 Analysis
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.”
The Bell Jar Summary – Chapter 3-4
Some days or weeks later, Esther attends a lavish banquet put on for the staff of Ladies’ Day, the magazine she works for. Esther, who loves food, eats cold chicken and caviar with great relish, followed by avocado and crabmeat salad. She is in low spirits. She had intended not to go to work that day but stay in bed instead. However, she had been summoned to the office by a phone call from her boss, Jay Cee. Jay Cee asked her if she was interested in her work, and Esther replied that she was, although this is not really true. When Jay Cee asked her what she planned to do when she graduated from college, Esther replied that she did not know. After Jay Cee reproached her, Esther said she would go into publishing. Jay Cee told her she should learn French and German, but Esther knows there is no time in her college schedule to learn languages.
Esther continues to eat at the banquet. She thinks back to the first time she ever saw a finger-bowl. It was at the home of Philomena Guinea, a wealthy alumnus of the college, and a novelist. Mrs. Guinea also provided the scholarship that has enabled Esther to attend the college. Mrs. Guinea invited Esther to her home for lunch, where Esther mistook a finger-bowl full of water for a bowl of soup, and ate it. Mrs. Guinea does not point out her error.
After the luncheon banquet, Esther and some of the other girls to go watch a movie. The movie bores her with its predictable plot, and she also starts to feel ill. She decides to return to the hotel. Betsy, one of the other girls, does not feel well either, and leaves with Esther. During the cab ride to the hotel they both vomit. When Esther gets back to her room she feels even worse. She goes to the bathroom and vomits again. She hears someone pounding on the bathroom door, and loses consciousness.
The next thing she knows is that someone is helping her back to her room. It is the hotel nurse, who tells her that all the girls at the banquet are suffering from food poisoning. Later, Doreen, who missed the banquet, brings her some soup, and she starts to feel better. Doreen tells her that it was the crabmeat that caused the problem. Ladies’ Day has sent the girls a present, a book called The Thirty Best Short Stories of the Year, to make up for their ordeal.
Chapter 3-4 Analysis
The key element in these chapters is that Esther does not know what she will do after she graduates from college. Her old confidence has broken down. She used to think she would get a scholarship to graduate school, or a grant to study in Europe, or be a professor and poet or editor. She had always excelled at studying, always receiving As for her work, so her sudden inability to chart her way forward is disconcerting for her. The reader must remember that the story is set in the 1950s, when opportunities for women were not as plentiful as they are today, and the ideal role for a woman was considered to be getting married and staying at home raising children. In these chapters, two examples are presented of women who have been successful in their careers, but neither of them serves as an inspiring role model for Esther. The first is Jay Cee. The first is Jay Cee. She is a no-nonsense type, the “best editor” at the intellectual fashion magazine, but physically unattractive. As she is about to go out to a lunch date with some writers, “She looked terrible, but very wise,” thinks Esther, hardly an appealing figure for a young girl to try to emulate. The second successful woman is Philomena Guinea, the novelist, who is unmarried. Again, the message is that women who choose to concentrate on their careers run the risk of sacrificing their femininity. Or at least that is how society views them.
The Bell Jar Summary – Chapter 5-6
Early the following morning Esther receives a telephone call from a man named Constantin, an interpreter at the United Nations. He has been given her number by the mother of Buddy Willard, a Yale medical student who is a friend of Esther’s. Constantin invites Esther to lunch, and she agrees to go.
But before the lunch date happens, she lies in bed in the morning feeling lonely and weak, thinking of her relationship with Buddy. Everyone expects them to marry, but she knows they will not. Buddy is at the moment recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium in New York State. Esther looks back at their relationship, thinking of the time he took her to the Yale Junior Prom. On a Saturday morning in March, he visited her at her college, saying he was there because he was taking a girl called Joan to the Sophomore Prom. Esther was cold to him because she didn’t like the idea that he was seeing someone else. But before Buddy left, he gave her a letter. When she opened it she discovered that it was an invitation from him to the Junior Prom. She was surprised and delighted. But at the prom he treated her like a friend or cousin, and she was very disappointed. She had hoped he would fall in love with her. After the prom they went for a walk and he kissed her. She was less than inspired by this little kiss, but was pleased when Buddy said he could manage to see her every third weekend. But when she visited him at medical school the following fall, she found out that he had been a hypocrite for all the years she had known him.
On her visit, he took her on a tour of the hospital sights. She sat and watched as he and his friends cut up four cadavers. Then he took her to a lab where there were bottles full of babies that had died before they were born. In the afternoon they went to see a baby born. The baby was delivered by Will, a third-year student who had to deliver eight babies before he could graduate.
They went back to Buddy’s room, where he drank wine as she read poetry to him. She asked him whether he had ever had an affair with anyone. When he admitted that he had, she was shocked. He told her that he was seduced by a waitress at the hotel where he worked as a busboy during the summer at Cape Cod. They made love twice a week for the remainder of the summer. When Esther heard this, she froze up. She thought he was a hypocrite for pretending to be pure and telling her she was very sexy. She thought he had been leading a double life.
Some while later, Esther was determined to ditch Buddy for good, when she received a phone call from him. He said he had been diagnosed with TB and had to go to a sanatorium. Esther felt only relief that she didn’t have to announce to her college friends that she had broken off with him. Instead, she told everyone that Buddy had TB and that they were practically engaged. This meant she could stay in her room studying on Saturday nights without the other girls making sarcastic remarks about her wasting her college years by studying too hard.
Chapter 5-6 Analysis
These chapters draw attention to the stereotypical gender roles in the 1950s that Esther finds so unattractive. Mrs. Willard’s maxim, “What a man wants is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from” is rooted in a traditional view of the differences between men and women and the roles that are appropriate for each. The women’s liberation movement that began in the 1960s challenged these stereotypes, but that is a decade too late for Esther, who has to deal with things as they are in 1953.
The conservative sexual morality of the 1950s also explains the importance attached to virginity. Buddy’s mother thinks it is wrong for either a man or a woman to have sex before marriage. Whenever Esther goes for supper at their house, Mrs. Willard “gave me a queer, shrewd, searching look, and I knew she was trying to tell whether I was a virgin or not.” As the next chapters make clear, however, different standards are applied to men and women regarding sexual morality.
The scene in which Esther views the birth of a baby debunks one of the myths about the joys of motherhood. Esther has always held a romantic view of childbirth: “I had always imagined myself hitching up on to my elbows on the delivery table after it was all over . . . smiling and radiant, with my hair down to my waist, and reaching out for my first little squirmy child and saying its name, whatever it was.” But the actual reality she witnesses, which is described in all its messy and painful physical details, gives a very different picture. Esther is discovering in many ways that reality is rather different from what she has been encouraged by society to believe.
The Bell Jar Summary – Chapter 7-8
Constantin takes Esther for a tour of the UN, and she sits in the auditorium, listening to a female Russian interpreter. The interpreter and Constantin seem so efficient that Esther starts to think about her own inadequacies. She cannot cook, she does not know shorthand, she cannot dance or sing, and has a terrible sense of balance. She cannot ride a horse or ski, or speak other languages. All she can do, she reflects, is win scholarships, and those days are coming to an end.
But she enjoys the lunch at the restaurant Constantin takes her to, and feels so good that she decides she will allow Constantin to seduce her. Ever since Buddy told her about the waitress he had slept with, Esther had wanted to lose her virginity, to even up the score. She thinks Constantin is a good choice because he seems mature and considerate. However, although Constantin invites her up to his apartment, he shows no desire to seduce her. They lie on the bed together, but nothing sexual happens. Esther falls asleep and wakes at 3 a.m. Constantin is asleep beside her, still dressed. She reflects on how she does not want to get married, to Constantin or anyone else, because the terms of the marriage are always dictated by men, and would result in a dreary and wasted life for her.
Constantin wakes up and takes her back to her hotel room, where she lies awake until seven.
Esther recalls the occasion when she and Buddy’s father went to visit him at the sanatorium. It was the day after Christmas. On the journey, Mr. Willard hints that he expects Esther and Buddy to marry. When they arrive at the sanatorium, Esther is surprised to find that Buddy has got fat. He explains that they are given too much food and take too little exercise. Mr. Willard soon leaves, and Esther and Buddy are left alone. Buddy asks her to marry him. He assures her that he will soon recover and be back in medical school, but Esther replies that she is never going to marry. Buddy seems undeterred by this, and he takes Esther skiing on Mount Pisgah. He spends all morning teaching her, but then when she descends from a hill she falls and breaks her leg in two places.
Chapter 7-8 Analysis
These chapters show how 1950s America was a man’s world as far as sexual morality was concerned. When Esther reads “In Defense of Chastity,” an article in Reader’s Digest by a woman lawyer, she finds that it is mainly about women’s chastity, not men’s. Men want their wives to be virgins (“They wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex,” as Esther summarizes it), but do not apply the same standards to themselves. And yet they do not, according to the woman lawyer, respect the girls they persuade to sleep with them. Esther astutely notes that “the one thing this article didn’t seem to me to consider was how a girl felt.” This is so even though the author of the article is a woman. It is as if she has internalized the male point of view.
Esther has learned from Buddy that men have double standards when it comes to sex, and she strongly objects to it: “I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.”
In addition to her questioning of prevailing sexual morality, Esther’s dissatisfaction with the social role ascribed to women is clear from the fact that she rejects marriage. She does not want the passive, uncreative role that she fears would be her lot if she were to marry. She thinks of what being married to Constantin might be like. She imagines spending her time at home cooking and cleaning while her husband goes off to his “fascinating, lively day.” His would be stifling for her. As she puts it, “The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”
Esther also learns in her encounter with Constantin that the most attractive, suitable men are not always the ones who most want to seduce her, and vice versa (as she will learn further in chapter 9).
The Bell Jar Summary – Chapter 9-10
Back in the present, Esther is almost at the end of her internship. She is in Jay Cee’s office, reluctantly having her photograph taken for the magazine. All the interns are having their photos taken and have to pose with a prop that illustrates what they want to do with their lives. Esther, who still does not know, blurts out that she wants to be a poet, so she poses holding a paper rose, which is supposed to show where her poetic inspiration comes from.
But Esther is unhappy and feels like she is going to cry. When the photographer tells her to smile she cannot hold back the tears and buries her face in the loveseat. Tactfully, Jay Cee and the photographer leave. When Jay Cee returns after a decent interval, she brings some manuscripts for Esther to read.
The day before Esther is due to leave New York and take the train home, Doreen persuades her to go to a country club dance somewhere in the wealthy suburbs. At the dance, a dark man in an immaculate white suit, named Marco, gives Esther a diamond in a stickpin. Marco has a sinister quality about him, and Esther realizes he is a woman-hater. When she tells him she cannot dance to South American music he seizes her drink and throws it away. Then he forces her to dance a tango with him, even though she does not know the steps. During an interval in the music Marco takes her into the garden. Something she says provokes him, and he throws her to the ground. Then he falls on her, ripping her clothes and calling her a slut. She bites him and gouges his leg with the heel of her shoe, and then punches him on the nose. She begins to cry, and Marco sits up. His nose is bleeding. She starts to walk off but he demands that she give him back his diamond. At first she says she does not know where it is, but when Marco threatens to break her neck, she tells him it is in her evening bag, which is somewhere on the muddy ground. She leaves him on his hands and knees, looking for the bag. In the parking lot, she manages to get someone to give her a ride back to Manhattan. Back in her hotel room just before dawn, on her last night in the city, she opens the window and piece by piece throws all her wardrobe out.
She returns home by train to the suburbs of Boston, and her mother picks her up at the railway station. Esther is immediately disappointed when her mother tells her that she has not been accepted on a summer writing course at Harvard that she had applied to.
The following morning, after her mother has left the house to go to her job as a teacher of shorthand and typing, Esther looks out of the window and watches as a neighborhood woman named Dodo Conway wheels her black baby carriage down the street, accompanied by two or three children. Dodo has six children and is pregnant with her seventh. She looks up at Esther’s window as she passes, and Esther crawls back into bed. She pulls the covers over her head and pretends it is night. She can see no point in getting up.
But she does get up to answer the telephone. It is her friend Judy, from Cambridge, with whom she had been planning to live while on the writing course. She explains to Judy that she will not be coming. Judy tries to persuade her to take another course instead, but Esther says no.
She opens a letter from Buddy, who has invited her to stay with him and his mother in the Adironbacks for the month of July. He also says he is probably falling in love with a nurse who also has TB, but he thinks it is probably just an infatuation. Esther writes on the back of his letter that she is engaged to an interpreter and never wants to see him again because she does not want her children to have a hypocrite for a father.
She decides she will spend the summer writing a novel. She writes a few sentences but spends hours staring into space. She eventually decides that she does not have enough experience of life to write a novel.
In the evening, her mother convinces her that she should study shorthand in the evenings. But Esther cannot visualize herself doing a job in which she used shorthand. She decides instead to spend the summer reading James Joyce’s novel, Finnegans Wake. But she still has no idea of what to do with her future.
When she tries reading Finnegans Wake she cannot concentrate on it. She decides she will drop her honors program and become an ordinary English major. But that would involve taking a course in the eighteenth century, which does not interest her. She just does not know what to do. She thinks of becoming a typist or a waitress, but cannot stand the thought of either.
The family doctor puts her on sleeping pills, but Esther complains after a week that they do not work anymore. Teresa, the doctor, sends her to see Doctor Gordon, a psychiatrist.
Chapter 9-10 Analysis
Esther’s violent encounter with Marco serves her as some kind of initiation as if she has been through a rite of passage. She is left with two diagonal lines of dried blood on her face but she makes a deliberate decision not to wash them off. The blood image will return later, also in connection with men and sex, and suggests that Esther’s progress through life is marked by suffering.
It is in these chapters that Esther first shows signs of clinical depression. She has crying fits (in Jay Cee’s office, for example), she cannot concentrate, and in spite of all her academic success, she has feelings of inadequacy. She even thinks she is on the wrong program at college, but she is unable to make any decisions and stick to them. When she pulls the bed sheet over her head and sees no point in getting up in the morning, it is clear that she needs medical help.
One of Esther’s problems is that she does not really know who she is. She cannot decide on an identity. When she throws all her clothes out of the hotel window, she is rejecting the false self that she had presented at the magazine, but she has no other self to replace it with. This is symbolized several times in the novel when she looks in a mirror and does not recognize what she sees as a reflection of herself: “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian,” she says on the train journey home.
The Bell Jar Summary – Chapter 11-12
Esther sits in Dr. Gordon’s office, wearing clothes that have not been washed for three weeks. She has not washed her hair for three weeks and she has not slept for seven nights. She immediately takes a dislike to the doctor, thinking him conceited. He asks her to tell him what she thinks is wrong, but she omits certain details. She does not tell him one of her most alarming symptoms, that when she tried to write to Doreen, she could not form the letters properly. Dr. Gordon appears to reach no conclusions, merely shaking Esther’s hand at the end of the session and saying that he will see her the following week.
One day, walking on the Common, Esther meets a young sailor. She tells him her name is Elly Higginbottom, and that she comes from Chicago. She also tells him she is thirty years old and an orphan. He comforts her as she cries.
At her next appointment with Dr. Gordon she says she has not slept for fourteen nights, and she cannot read or write or swallow very well. Dr. Gordon arranges to speak to her mother, and she tells Esther that the doctor thinks she should have electric shock treatments at a private hospital.
Esther spends more afternoons in the park. She still cannot read well, and buys a tabloid newspaper because the paragraphs and stories are short and she can read them. Reading about a man who was persuaded not to commit suicide, she wonders how many stories of a building you would have to jump from in order to ensure death. She decides on seven. Knowing that the next day she must go to the hospital, she thinks of running away to Chicago. She goes to the bus station but then realizes that it is already mid-afternoon and her bank will be closed, so she will be unable to withdraw any money to pay her fare. Instead, she takes a bus home.
She goes to the hospital and is taken to a part of the building where the windows are barred. A nurse and Dr. Gordon prepare her for the electric shock treatment. The doctor fits two metal plates on either side of her head, and gives her a wire to bite on. There is a blue flash and she is jolted by the electric shock until she feels her bones would break.
After the treatment she sits in a wicker chair, remembering an incident from earlier in her life when she received an electric shock from a lamp at home. When Dr. Gordon inquires how she is, she replies that she feels all right, even though she feels terrible. The doctor tells Esther’s mother that after a few more shock treatments, there will be a great improvement in Esther’s condition. Going home with her mother, Esther feels dumb and subdued and tells her mother that she will refuse to return for any more treatments. Her mother seems pleased, thinking that Esther has simply decided she is going to get better.
At this point Esther decides to commit suicide. She has not slept for twenty-one nights. One morning, she locks herself in the bathroom, runs a tub full of hot water and takes out a Gillette blade, intending to cut her wrists. But she cannot bring herself to do it, having the courage only to make a small cut in her calf, which she then bandages. Later that morning, she takes a bus to Boston, and then another bus to near the Deer Island Prison, where she walks along the beach and talks to a prison guard who has an observation booth there.
She sits on the beach wondering what to do. She contemplates drowning herself, but as the incoming tide washes over her feet, she realizes that she lacks the courage to do so.
Chapter 11-12 Analysis
Esther’s depression deepens. She sees no point in doing anything, even basic things like washing her clothes and hair. There seems to be no purpose in life at all, and she wonders why anybody bothers to do anything (“everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end”). These are classic signs of depression, and Esther conveys exactly how it feels. It is “as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out.” And again: “Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently.” The novel could almost be used as a textbook for symptoms of depression. It also reveals, in the attitude of Esther’s mother, a common belief that depression is just something one can “snap out of” if one wants to. Her mother thinks that Esther could simply make a decision to get well and she would be fine. But depression is in fact an illness that can no more be wished away than a serious physical illness can be banished by pretending it does not exist.
The electric shock therapy Esther receives was commonly used in the 1950s, and was found to be effective in the treatment of depression and other mental disorders. Sylvia Plath herself received such treatments, and the novel closely follows her own experience. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, there was a backlash against shock therapy, prompted by the discovery that it was often misused in mental hospitals to control rather than cure the patient. However, electric shock treatment is still used in America today.
The Bell Jar Summary – Chapter 13-14
Esther is at the beach with her friend Jody, Jody’s boyfriend Mark, and a boy named Cal, whom Jody told her she would like. Esther thinks that her mother asked Jody to suggest the outing, since otherwise all Esther does is sit in her room with the shades drawn. Esther and Cal discuss a play in which a mother debates whether to kill her brain-diseased son. Esther, who has now spend an entire month without sleep, still has suicide on her mind. She thinks drowning might be the kindest way to die; burning the worst. She goes off for a swim with Cal, but he gives up and goes back before they reach the rock that Esther has pointed out as the target.
Esther tells of how she had tried to hang herself that morning. She had wrapped a silk cord from a bathrobe around her head, but could find nothing in the house to attach the cord to. She knows she is mentally disturbed because she has made a point of reading books on abnormal psychology, and she thinks she is incurable.
As she swims to the rock, Esther decides to drown herself. She stops swimming and dives into the water. But each time she tries this, she comes straight back up again, and floats. Eventually she gives up and turns back to the shore.
At her mother’s suggestion, she becomes a volunteer at the local hospital. She is put on the maternity ward and told to deliver bouquets of flowers that have been sent to the patients. She takes it upon herself to remove the dead and dying flowers and then rearranges them to fill out some of the vases that are now only skimpily filled. But the women patients complain to the nurse that they are not getting the flowers they were promised. Disturbed by this reaction, Esther runs away and does not return to the hospital.
She goes to visit her father’s grave, where she has never been before. She has difficulty in finding it, but when she does she places flowers on it. Then she sits down and cries.
She finally decides on a suicide plan. She leaves a note for her mother saying that she has gone for a walk. She takes a bottle of sleeping pills and a glass of water and goes down into the cellar, where she hides in a crawl space. She takes all the pills and falls asleep.
Several days later, semi-conscious, Esther hears voices and briefly sees a light. She does not know it, but she has been found and is being rescued.
She finds herself in a hospital. One of her eyes is bandaged, but the doctor tells her that her sight is intact. Her mother and brother come to see her, and later she is visited by an old acquaintance named George Bakewell, who is the houseman at the hospital. Esther tells him to go away and not come back.
Esther asks the nurse for a mirror, but at first the nurse refuses, because, she says, Esther does not look very pretty. When the nurse does give her a mirror, Esther does not recognize herself. Her hair is shaved off, one side of her face is purple and misshapen, and the mouth is brown. She throws the mirror to the floor, breaking it. Two nurses rebuke her.
She is moved to a psychiatric ward in a city hospital. A young Italian woman in the next bed is initially friendly but stops talking to her when Esther tells her that she tried to kill herself.
Esther is visited by many young doctors. They consider her uncooperative, telling her mother that she will not talk to them and that she refuses to make anything in Occupational Therapy. She persuades her mother to try to get her out of the hospital. Meanwhile, Esther proves a difficult patient. She kicks an attendant who has mocked her and the other patients, and she deliberately knocks a tray of thermometers to the floor, to the annoyance of the nurses.
Chapter 13-14 Analysis
As Esther repeatedly tries to commit suicide, she is surprised by the fact that her body seems to have a will of its own to go on living, despite what her mind has decided she wants to do. When she tries to tighten the cord around her neck and strangle herself, her hands weaken and she lets go: “Then I saw that my body had all sorts of little tricks, such as making my hands go limp at the crucial second, which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash.” In this sense she regards her body as an enemy, no more than a “stupid cage” that she is trapped in.
At the beach, as she swims out to the rock planning another suicide attempt, she hears her heartbeat booming in her ears. “I am I am I am,” she interprets it as saying. The heartbeat represents the body’s will to go on living, its steady affirmation of its own life.
The same will of the body to survive manifests when Esther tries to drown herself. No matter how hard she tries, her body keeps returning to the surface like a cork. In this respect, the body is showing itself to be stronger than the disturbed mind that seeks to destroy it.
The Bell Jar Summary – Chapter 15-16
Thanks to the intervention of Philomena Guinea, Esther is taken out of the cramped city hospital to a more spacious private hospital that had golf courses and gardens. She has her own room. Her new doctor is a woman, Dr. Nolan. The doctor at first promises Esther that she will not receive any shock treatments but then adds that if she does, she will be told about it beforehand, and it will not be anything like the ones she had before, which had not been done properly. Esther’s new treatment involves regular insulin injections. She also gets fat.
Another patient, named Valerie, reveals to Esther that she has had a lobotomy and as a result, no longer feels angry. She likes being in the hospital. Esther also spends time with Miss Norris, a severely disturbed patient who never speaks. Esther is then surprised to discover that an old acquaintance Joan, who once dated Buddy Willard, has been admitted to the hospital and is in the neighboring room. Joan explained that she had felt suicidal and had seen a psychiatrist, who recommended group therapy, an idea which she detested and rejected. She went home and read about Esther’s case in the newspapers-Esther’s disappearance and dramatic discovery had made the news-and decided to fly to New York and kill herself. But her parents found her and took her home.
Esther receives many visits from well-wishers who try to cheer her up, but she dislikes seeing anyone. When her mother brings roses, Esther dumps them in a wastebasket. It turns out that the roses were a birthday gift, but Esther did not even know it was her birthday. She is relieved when Dr. Nolan tells her that she is not to receive any visitors for a while.
Chapter 15-16 Analysis
These chapters show the extent of Esther’s illness, but also point the way to her recovery. The previous chapter showed that Esther was considered a difficult patient, and the presence of the patient named Valerie in the psychiatric ward is an ominous reminder of what might happen to Esther if she continues to be disruptive. Valerie has been lobotomized, which means that some of the nerves in the frontal lobe of her brain have been deliberately destroyed in an operation. The performing of lobotomies was a common treatment in mental hospitals in America in the 1950s, since it resulted in patients becoming more placid and manageable. Esther notes Valerie’s “perpetual marble calm.” The procedure was discredited, however, in the early 1960s, when it was realized that it did more harm than good. As with electric shock treatments, it was used more to control than to cure.
Esther is also exposed to the seriously ill Miss Norris, with whom she appears to have some empathy. But as far as other people are concerned, Esther is still locked in her own world and unable to feel much emotional connection with others. She dislikes having visitors, for example, and she is completely oblivious to the suffering of her mother. When her mother brings her roses on her birthday, she says, “Save them for my funeral,” an immensely cruel remark. In the meantime, however, Dr. Nolan is carefully winning her trust, emerging as a kind of surrogate mother to Esther. Dr. Nolan seems to understand her and does not condemn her, even when she blurts out that she hates her mother. Esther expects the doctor to rebuke her for this outburst, but instead, Dr. Nolan smiles at her as if pleased. Perhaps Dr. Nolan is encouraged that Esther is now speaking openly about her feelings, instead of hiding behind a wall of apathy.
The Bell Jar Summary – Chapter 17-18
Esther is moved into a different ward, named Belsize, which is where patients go when they are being prepared for release. They are given benefits such as shopping privileges. Esther knows that Joan has been moved to Belsize, and she also believes that now she does not have to fear more electric shock treatments.
Esther tries to mix with the other women in Belsize, but she does not really fit in. One of the patients finds the fashion magazine with Esther’s picture in it, but Esther denies that it is her.
One day the nurse does not bring her any breakfast, and she realizes to her horror that she is to have another electric shock treatment. She feels betrayed by Dr. Nolan and curls up with a blanket in an alcove. Dr. Nolan arrives and explains that she will be there throughout the treatment, so everything will be all right. Esther goes along with the doctor, apprehensive but unresisting. In the treatment room, a woman named Miss Huey prepares her for the electric shock.
When she wakes after the treatment, the first thing she sees is Dr. Nolan’s face. Esther is surprised at how peaceful she feels. The doctor tells her she will be having shock treatments three times a week. In fact, Esther has only five more treatments, and she begins to recover. She is given town privileges by the hospital.
One day Joan and Esther both receive letters from Buddy. He has recovered from his illness and wants to visit them both, but neither of them particularly wants to see him. Esther discovers that Joan is more lesbian than heterosexual, and when Joan says that she likes Esther, Esther reacts negatively and walks out of the room.
On one of her town visits, Esther goes to a clinic and gets fitted for a diaphragm. This gives her a sense of freedom from men; now she can seek sexual experience without having to worry about pregnancy. She has no maternal instinct and does not want children.
Chapter 17-18 Analysis
Esther is getting stronger and is able to think more clearly than before. As she begins to search for a stable sense of identity, she makes some constructive choices. She rejects Buddy because she still regards him as a hypocrite, and the conventional kind of marriage, in which she is housewife to a handsome doctor, does not appeal to her. She also rejects a possible alternative of homosexuality when she sees it in Joan. Lesbianism has no appeal for her.
She still seeks to lose her virginity, which she regards as a millstone around her neck. Her acquisition of birth control represents a step toward emancipation from the limited, dependent role ascribed to her as a woman. As she confides to Dr. Nolan, who has become her ally, “What I hate is the thought of being under a man’s thumb . . . . A man doesn’t have worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line.” Now Esther is taking practical steps to achieve the life she wants, she is clearly on the road to recovery.
The Bell Jar Summary – Chapter 19-20
Esther has now been told that she can return to the college for the winter semester, but she has to stay in the asylum until the term starts. Joan is also about to be released, and she plans to live in Cambridge, sharing an apartment with a nurse.
Esther meets a young Harvard mathematics professor named Irwin. After coffee they go to his apartment in Cambridge, and then Esther gets permission from Dr. Nolan to spend the night in Cambridge. (Esther says that she is going to stay with Joan.) After dinner, Irwin takes her back to his apartment. She is eager to lose her virginity, but is disconcerted to discover that the sexual act hurts her and leaves her bleeding. Irwin reassures her, but the bleeding does not stop. Esther asks Irwin to drive her to Joan’s apartment, where she continues to bleed. Joan calls a taxi and Esther is taken to the Emergency Room, where the doctor tells her she is a one in a million case. But he is able to fix the problem.
Some time elapses. One night, after midnight, Dr. Quinn, who is Joan’s doctor, comes to Esther’s room asking if she has any idea of where Joan might be. Joan had been readmitted to the hospital several days after Esther’s trip to the Emergency Room. Dr. Quinn says that Joan had a permit to go to a movie in town, but has not returned. Esther has no knowledge of where she might be. At dawn, Dr. Quinn returns with the news that Joan has been found dead in the woods. She hanged herself.
In January, Esther is about to return to her college, although she first has to pass her interview with the board of directors. There is a heavy snowfall, and Buddy comes to visit her. She helps dig his car out of a snow drift. At afternoon tea in the asylum, Buddy asks her if there is something about him that drives women crazy, since he dated Joan and also Esther. Esther laughs at the question and assures him that he had nothing to do with their illnesses.
She calls Irwin, asking him to pay the bills for her treatment in the Emergency Room, and he agrees. She has not seen him since their one and only meeting, and she has no intention of seeing him again. She feels free.
She attends Joan’s funeral, and then prepares to attend the meeting of the board of directors, who must approve her release from the asylum. She is ready to begin her life again, and she appears to have plans for the future.
Chapter 19-20 Analysis
For her first sexual experience, Esther asserts her freedom by deliberately choosing a man in whom she has no particular interest and does not plan to see again. It is an impersonal thing for her, and in this respect, she manages to turn the tables on the customary casual man-woman relationship. Esther uses the man for sex, rather than the other way round. Later, when Irwin wants to see her again, she rules out the possibility, thus again affirming her freedom.
But as with all Esther’s significant transformative experiences, sex turns out to be difficult, not at all what she imagined. She imagines the “miraculous change” that sex will bring about in her, but in reality all it produces is pain and blood. For Esther, nothing is easy. Whatever wisdom she acquires is hard won.
Esther continues to recover her emotional balance. She shows she is aware of the suffering she caused her mother (“A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her.”) whereas before all she could feel was her hatred for her mother. She also recognizes that her mother has decided to forgive her, but she cannot accept her mother’s desire to act as if all Esther’s troubles have been a bad dream. She realizes that her experience of mental breakdown is a part of her experience of life: “They were my landscape.” They cannot simply be wished away. In this respect, Esther shows a more mature awareness than her mother. But while she recognizes continuity with her past, she also shows that she is ready to move on to a new phase. When Buddy visits her, for example, he seems “small and unrelated to me.”
Esther’s new affirmation of life is clear when at the funeral service for Joan, she listens “to the old brag of my heart. I am I am I am.” The last time the “I am” of the heartbeat was heard, it was when Esther was swimming in the sea, wanting to commit suicide, trying to outwit the will of her body to go on living. Now, she embraces life rather than protests against it. Mind and body both have a will to live.