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The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

Chapters 13–14

Chapters 11–12

Chapters 15–16

Summary: Chapter 13

Esther goes to the beach with her friend Jody, Jody’s boyfriend Mark, and a man her age named Cal. She and Cal talk about a play in which a mother considers killing her son because he has gone mad. Esther asks Cal what method he would use if he were going to kill himself, and he says he would shoot himself. This answer disappoints her; she thinks shooting oneself a typically male way of committing suicide, and decides that not only would she have little chance of getting a gun, but she would not know where to shoot herself even if she did get one. She decides to try to drown herself in the ocean. Cal swims out with her, but decides he cannot make it to the rock that is their destination. Esther continues swimming, thinking she will continue until she tires, and then let herself drown. As she swims, the mantra “I am I am I am” thuds in her mind.

She thinks of that morning, when she tried to hang herself. She removed the cord from her mother’s bathrobe and walked around the house looking for a place to hang the rope. She could not find a suitable place, however, and tried to kill herself by pulling the rope tightly around her neck, but every time she started to feel woozy, her hands weakened and loosened their hold on the rope. She thought of going to a doctor again instead of killing herself, but then imagined living in a private hospital and impoverishing her family with the cost of her care, and ending up in a state hospital.

Esther decides not to swim to the rock, as she thinks her body will rebel and regain its strength by resting on the rock, and she decides to drown where she is. She pushes herself down through the water, but every time she dives, her body bobs to the surface.

Her mother says that Esther should pull herself out of her depression by thinking of others, so Esther volunteers at the local hospital. On her first day, she must deliver flowers to women who have just given birth. Esther throws out the dead and dying flowers and rearranges the bouquets, which displeases the women. They complain, and Esther runs away from the hospital. Esther considers becoming Catholic, thinking the Catholics could talk her out of suicide, or let her become a nun, but her mother laughs at the idea of a conversion to Catholicism. Esther goes to visit her father’s grave for the first time. After some effort, she finds his stone and begins to weep. She realizes she has never cried about her father’s death; she did not see his corpse, and she was not allowed to attend his funeral, so his death never seemed real to her. Her mother never cried either, but smiled and said he would rather die than be crippled for life.

Esther decides on her method of suicide. After her mother leaves for work, she writes a note saying she has gone for a long walk. Then she retrieves her sleeping pills from her mother’s lockbox. She hides herself in a crawl space in the cellar, takes about fifty pills, and drifts off to sleep.

Summary: Chapter 14

Esther wakes, semiconscious, in darkness. She feels wind and hears voices, and light begins to pierce the darkness. She calls out for her mother. She does not realize she is in a hospital, and when she says aloud that she cannot see, a cheerful voice tells her she can marry a blind man. Soon a doctor visits her and says her eyesight is intact and a nurse must have been joking with her—she cannot see because bandages cover her head. Esther’s mother and brother come to visit. She wishes her mother would leave, and tells her brother that she feels as she did before she tried to kill herself. She denies calling out for her mother. A young doctor who is an old acquaintance, George Bakewell, visits Esther and she sends him away. She does not really remember him, and thinks he only wants to see how a suicidal girl looks. She asks to see a mirror, and when she sees her bruised face and shaved head, she drops the mirror. The broken mirror angers the nurses, and Esther is moved to a hospital in the city.

In the new hospital, Esther has a bed next to a woman she believes is named Mrs. Tomolillo. When she tells Mrs. Tomollilo that she tried to kill herself, Mrs. Tomollilo asks the doctors to draw the curtain that separates the beds. Esther’s mother comes to visit and reproaches Esther for not cooperating with the doctors. Esther thinks she sees Mrs. Tomolillo imitating her mother, and feels certain that the doctors give out false names and write down what she says. She asks her mother to get her out of the hospital, and her mother agrees to try. One day during mealtime, a woman named Mrs. Mole dumps green beans everywhere. The new attendant behaves rudely to Esther when she tells him not to clear the plates yet. She becomes convinced that he has served two kinds of beans in order to test their patience. When the nurse is not watching, Esther kicks him in the calf. Another day, a nurse rests her tray of thermometers on Esther’s bed, and Esther kicks it to the floor. The nurses move her to Mrs. Mole’s old room, and she pockets a ball of mercury along the way.

Analysis: Chapters 13–14

After many nervous and tentative attempts at suicide, Esther makes a serious attempt to kill herself. This drastic climax seems strangely anticlimactic, however. Esther does not carry through her first suicide attempts because of fear and practical considerations, and we begin to wonder how serious she is about killing herself since she seems so easily dissuaded by small obstacles. When Esther finally makes her nearly successful attempt, nothing in her tone warns us that this attempt will be decisive. Only after the near finality of her attempt do we realize that she has stopped speculating about killing herself, or warming up to do it, and has actually found a practical way of committing suicide. Her matter-of-fact tone as she procures the sleeping pills, pulls herself into the basement crawl space, and takes the pills makes us almost forget that she is doing something momentous in actually trying to take her own life. Again, she focuses not on why she wants to commit suicide, but on how she can achieve this goal, and she coaxes us into thinking in the same way she does.

Plath suggests that despite the many stresses in Esther’s life, she attempts suicide because of mental illness, not because of external factors. Those external factors are numerous. Esther cannot be the ideal 1950s woman, chaste, cheerful, and subordinate to her husband. The darkness of life disturbs her—the execution of the Rosenbergs, the suffering and death she witnesses at Buddy’s medical school, and the abandonment, distrust, and violence that mark her experience with men. She views the future with apprehension. Family problems exist for Esther too. She lost her father at a young age and, particularly in these chapters, she complains of a cruel mother who laughs at her daughter’s desperate desire to become a Catholic, and smiles at the death of her husband. Still, none of these problems seem insurmountable. Esther has mustered the strength to stand up to Buddy. Her mother, although imperfect, clearly loves her, and the adult Esther suggests that the youthful Esther is crazed and misinterprets her mother’s actions as sinister. Esther’s numerous academic successes seem to outweigh her perfectly normal fears about the future. Therefore, Esther’s own mind, not the difficult events of her life, spurs her desire to kill herself. This lack of motive is the most frightening element of Esther’s suicide attempt, for her mental illness is mysterious, complex, and completely beyond her control.

After her attempt, nothing changes. She feels equally despairing and begins to feel even more paranoid, worrying that the doctors are giving out false names and recording her conversations.

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