[W]herever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.
Philomena Guinea, the sponsor of Esther’s college scholarship, pays for Esther to go to a private mental hospital. Guinea had once been in an asylum herself. She writes, asking if a boy spurred Esther’s attempt on her life, and Esther’s mother writes back that Esther worries she will never write again. In response, Guinea flies into Boston and drives Esther to a posh hospital that resembles a country club. Esther’s mother tells her she should be grateful, since the family had used up almost all of its money on the hospital bills. Esther knows she should feel grateful, but cannot feel anything. The bell jar of her illness traps her, and everything seems sour. Esther plans to leap from the car and jump from the bridge when they cross the Charles River, but her mother and brother sit on either side of her and grasp the door handles so that she cannot make a move. She admits to herself that even if her family had not been there, she probably would have refrained from jumping.
At the hospital, Esther meets her new psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan. Esther did not know women psychiatrists existed. She finds herself free to wander about the hospital, and encounters a friendly girl named Valerie. During her first visit with Dr. Nolan, Esther explains how much she hated her electroshock treatment. Dr. Nolan says that the treatment was done incorrectly, and that if Esther has to go through electroshock treatment again, it will be different. An older patient, Miss Norris, moves in next door to Esther. Miss Norris never speaks, and Esther watches her carefully. She follows her to the dinner table and sits next to her in silence, enjoying her company.
Three times a day, the nurse injects Esther. Valerie explains that the injections are insulin, and says she may have a reaction one day. Esther has had no reaction; she just grows plump. Valerie shows Esther the scars at her temples and explains that she has had a lobotomy. She says she used to be angry all the time, and now she feels fine. She has no desire to leave the hospital. Esther gets moved into a sunnier room, and Miss Norris gets moved to Wymark, a ward considered a move down in the process of recovery. Then the nurse tells Esther that a recently admitted patient knows her. Esther goes next door to investigate and sees Joan Gilling, a college acquaintance.
Joan says she came to the asylum after reading about Esther. Esther asks her what she means, and Joan explains it started with a terrible job that gave her painful bunions on her feet. She began wearing rubber boots to work, a habit that strikes Esther as crazy. Joan says she stopped going to work, stopped answering the phone, and began to consider killing herself. Her doctor sent her to a psychiatrist, but the psychiatrist kept her waiting and then decided to allow his students to observe the appointment. Joan was forced to describe her symptoms in front of nine people. She left the room while they discussed her case, and then the doctor informed her that she needed group therapy. Joan left in disgust, and that day saw an article about Esther’s disappearance.
Joan shows Esther newspaper clippings. The first one reports Esther missing. The second reports sleeping pills missing along with Esther, and shows photos of men and dogs searching the woods. The last article describes how Esther’s mother was doing laundry when she heard moaning, and discovered her daughter. Esther’s case inspired Joan to go to New York and kill herself. She stayed with her old college roommate, and tried to slit her wrists by shoving her hands through her roommate’s window.
One night, Esther wakes up in the middle of the night to find herself beating on her bedpost with her hands. She has had a reaction to her insulin treatment, and feels better. To her delight, Dr. Nolan tells her she will have no more visitors. Esther dislikes the visits she receives from old teachers and employers, who get nervous or say her depression is imaginary. She especially dislikes visits from her mother, because her mother begs to know what she did wrong. When her mother visits on Esther’s birthday she brings a dozen long-stemmed roses, which Esther throws in the trash. She tells Dr. Nolan she hates her mother, a statement that pleases the doctor.
The treatment Esther receives at the richly appointed asylum contrasts sharply with the treatment she received from Dr. Gordon. Unlike Dr. Gordon, Dr. Nolan listens to Esther and gains her trust. When Esther admits that she hates her mother, she assumes Dr. Nolan will berate her—instead, Dr. Nolan acts satisfied.
Esther continues to act selfishly, sometimes recognizing her own bad behavior. She realizes that she should feel grateful to Philomena Guinea, but despite this knowledge she plots to hurl herself from the moving car of her patron and commit suicide by jumping off the bridge. This suicidal act would, of course, horrify Guinea. Esther behaves cruelly to her mother, telling her to save the roses for her funeral, and then throwing away the flowers in her mother’s presence. This treatment seems particularly heartless because Esther has seen the newspaper clippings that demonstrate the horrible worry her mother endured: Esther went missing, the police searched for her with dogs, and finally she heard her daughter whimpering in the basement. The mother’s ordeal strikes us as terrifying, but Esther never seems to consider what her mother suffered. Neither does she consider the fact that her behavior actually inspired Joan to go to New York and attempt suicide.
At the same time, however, some signs point to Esther’s improvement. She ceases to focus obsessively on killing herself, even admitting that she would not have jumped over the bridge if given the opportunity. Even if she does not feel grateful to Guinea, she knows she should feel grateful. She behaves cruelly to her mother, but in part this cruelty serves a useful purpose in recovery, for Esther has begun to confront her feelings and acknowledge some of the things that exacerbate her desire to kill herself. She shows healthy anger for the first time in Chapter 16, to the delight of Dr. Nolan. Although Esther demonstrates selfishness in her interactions with Joan, at least she finds herself able to listen to Joan’s story, and even empathize with Joan’s feelings. Such sympathetic responses to another person eluded Esther in the days before her suicide.
Esther mentions the bell jar for the first time in Chapter 15. She says that even if she went on a cruise, or traveled to Europe, “[She] would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in [her] own sour air.” A bell jar is an inverted glass jar used to cover objects, trap certain gases, or contain a vacuum. Esther feels that a bell jar separates her from the world of the living. In it, she breathes “her own sour air,” or lives in a vacuum in which she cannot breathe at all. By likening her sickness to a bell jar, Esther suggests that she has no control over its descent. The illness does what it likes, trapping her inside.