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The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

Chapters 11–12

Chapters 9–10

Chapters 13–14

Summary: Chapter 11

Esther visits Dr. Gordon, a psychiatrist. She has not changed clothes or washed her hair for three weeks, having decided such chores are silly, and she says she has not slept for seven nights. She hopes that Dr. Gordon will help bring her back to herself, but she immediately distrusts him because he is good-looking and seems conceited. On his desk he keeps a picture of his attractive family, which makes Esther furious. She thinks he keeps the picture there to ward off her advances, and assumes such a handsome man with such a lovely family could never help her. Esther tells Dr. Gordon that she cannot sleep, eat, or read, though she does not tell him of her difficulty writing. That morning, she had attempted to write a letter to Doreen, but could not write legibly. He asks her where she goes to college and comments on how pretty the girls were when he worked there during the war. When Esther tells her mother that Dr. Gordon expects to see her the next week, Esther’s mother sighs because Dr. Gordon charges twenty-five dollars an hour.

Esther flirts with a sailor on the Boston Common, pretending she is Elly Higginbottom, an orphan from Chicago. She thinks she sees Mrs. Willard approaching, but is wrong. When the sailor asks what has upset her, she says she thought the woman was from her orphanage in Chicago. The sailor asks if the woman was mean to her. She says yes and cries, momentarily convinced that this horrible woman caused everything unhappy in her life.

During her second visit to Dr. Gordon, Esther tells him that she feels the same and shows him the torn-up letter she tried to write to Doreen. He does not examine the scraps of paper, but asks to see her mother, and tells Mrs. Greenwood that Esther needs shock treatments at his hospital in Walton. Esther starts thinking about suicide while reading a tabloid account of a man prevented from jumping off a ledge. She finds she can read tabloid papers, because their short paragraphs end before the letters start jumping and sliding around. The next day Dodo Conway will drive Esther and her mother to the hospital for the shock treatment. Esther considers running away to Chicago, but realizes the bank will close before she can withdraw bus fare.

Summary: Chapter 12

Esther goes to Dr. Gordon’s hospital for her shock treatment. The hospital waiting room looks like part of a summer hotel, but the inhabitants sit listlessly. They remind Esther of store mannequins. On the way to her treatment, Esther encounters a woman who threatens to jump out of the window, which she cannot do because bars across the windows would prevent her. A nurse wearing thick glasses hooks Esther up to the shock machine, and a jolt shakes Esther “like the end of the world.” She wonders what awful thing she did to deserve this punishment. The treatment reminds her of the time she accidentally electrocuted herself with her father’s lamp. Dr. Gordon again asks her what college she attends, and again remembers the nurses who were stationed there during the war. Esther feels dreadful, and tells her mother she is through with Dr. Gordon. Her mother says that she knew Esther was not like those people at the hospital and feels sure she would decide to get better.

Later, Esther sits in the park, comparing a picture of herself to a newspaper picture of a starlet who has just died after lingering in a coma. She thinks they look the same and imagines that if the starlet’s eyes were open, as hers are, they would have the same “dead, black, vacant expression” as her own. She decides to sit on the park bench for five more minutes, and then go and kill herself. She listens to her “little chorus of voices,” which repeats critical remarks that people such as Buddy and Jay Cee have made to her. That morning, she had tried to slit her wrists, but could not bring herself to harm the fragile skin of her wrist and practiced on her calf instead. After failing to slit her wrists, she took a bus to Deer Island Prison, near her childhood home. She talked with a guard and imagined that if she had met him earlier and married him, she could have been living happily with children. She went to the beach and again considered slitting her wrists, but realized she did not have a warm bath to sit in afterward. She sat on the beach until a small boy told her she should move because the tide was coming in. She considered letting herself drown, but when she put her foot in the water, she could not bear its frigid temperature, and went home.

Analysis: Chapters 11–12

Esther’s illness becomes more severe. She cannot read, because the letters appear to literally slide and dance when she focuses her eyes on them. She seems to become delusional, instantly hating her doctor and crying about the stranger in the park as if she actually believes the unknown woman caused all of her problems.

Esther increasingly distrusts the medical establishment. This distrust first appears in Chapter 6, when she visits Buddy at medical school and watches a woman giving birth. She recoils at the idea that a drug can erase a woman’s memory of pain. Now Dr. Gordon and her mother encourage her to forget her pain instead of understanding or easing it. Dr. Gordon does not seem to hear Esther when she describes her symptoms. He demonstrates that he has not really listened to her when, after her shock treatment, he asks her for the second time where she goes to college and repeats his inane comment about the pretty girls stationed there during the war. He does not attempt to understand her suffering—rather, he merely attempts to make her normal again with a shock treatment that increases rather than diminishes her pain. Esther’s mother, although well-meaning, also fails to understand her daughter’s suffering. Esther says she will not need more shock treatment, and Esther’s mother expresses relief, saying she knew Esther would decide to be normal. Esther’s mother thinks of her daughter’s state as a passing perversity or rebellion, not as a true illness. The numb and inactive patients Esther sees at the hospital reinforce the idea that mental illness is seen as a defect to be hidden, sanitized, and denied, not an illness to be discussed, understood, or cured.

Her mother and doctor having failed her, Esther works on her own cure, suicide. For the most part, she thinks not about why she wants to kill herself, but about how to kill herself. Her desire to take her life is careful and controlled, not wild or desperate. She thinks rationally about the method, time, and location for her act. In fact, she sounds at her most lucid when thinking about taking her life. Her calm focus on the means of death rather than the reason for death suggests that Esther wants to destroy herself simply because it seems like the only way to stop her pain, not because she irrationally hates herself. Her identification with the dead starlet in the picture suggests she already feels dead, and killing herself will simply bring her body in line with her psyche.

However, Esther realizes on some level that killing her body will not provide satisfaction. After failing to slit her wrists, for example, she explains, “It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, a whole lot harder to get at.” Esther understands that her body is not the enemy. The schism between her mind and the world she inhabits is the true enemy, but it is an enemy that Esther cannot reach. She feels that her only choice is to shut down her mind by shutting down her body. We can see the faultiness of this logic—Esther wants to save herself by destroying herself. The novel, however, narrated from Esther’s perspective, forces us to understand Esther’s point of view and see that, viewed from some angles, her actions seem almost reasonable.

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