The Bell Jar

by: Sylvia Plath

Chapters 11–12

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.