Skip over navigation

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath

Chapters 17–18

Chapters 15–16

Chapters 19–20

Summary: Chapter 17

Esther gets moved from Caplan, her current ward, to Belsize, a ward for the women closest to release. She does not feel much improved, but feels relieved that the threat of shock treatments has diminished. The women at Belsize behave fairly normally, playing bridge and gossiping. Esther sits with them, and Joan, who was moved to Belsize earlier, finds a picture of Esther in her fashion magazine. Esther says it is not her.

The next morning, the nurse fails to bring Esther a breakfast tray. Esther thinks a mistake has been made, for only girls who are to have shock treatments miss their morning tray. But the nurse confirms that Esther will not receive her breakfast until later. Esther hides in the hall and weeps, terrified by the prospect of the treatment, but even more upset that Dr. Nolan did not warn her as she promised to do. Dr. Nolan arrives and comforts her, saying she did not tell Esther about the treatment the day before because she did not want her to worry all night, and she will take Esther to the treatment herself. Miss Huey, the nurse who administers the treatment, speaks kindly to Esther. As soon as the treatment begins, Esther falls unconscious.

Summary: Chapter 18

Esther wakes from her shock treatment to find Dr. Nolan with her. They go outside, and Esther notices that the metaphorical bell jar has lifted and she can breathe the open air. Dr. Nolan tells her she will have shock treatments three times a week. Later, when Esther cracks an egg open with a knife, she remembers she used to love knives. When she tries to remember why, her mind “slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the center of empty air.”

Both Joan and Esther receive letters from Buddy Willard, who wants to come visit. Joan, who used to date Buddy, explains that she liked Buddy’s family more than she liked him—they seemed so normal compared to her own family. Joan wants Buddy to come visit and bring his mother. Earlier Esther hated the idea of his visit, but now she believes that it may allow her to close that part of her life.

Earlier that morning, Esther had come upon Joan and DeeDee, another patient, in bed together. She asks Dr. Nolan what women saw in each other, and Dr. Nolan responds, “Tenderness.” Now Joan tells Esther that she likes her better than she likes Buddy. Esther recalls other lesbians she has known, two college classmates who caused a small scandal, and a professor. She roughly rebukes Joan and walks away.

Esther had told Dr. Nolan that she wants the kind of freedom that men have, but she feels that the threat of pregnancy hangs over her. She told her about the pamphlet on chastity her mother sent her, and Dr. Nolan laughed, called it propaganda, and gave her the name of a doctor who would help her. Esther goes to the doctor to get fitted for a diaphragm. In the waiting room, she observes the women with babies and wonders at her own lack of maternal instinct. The doctor is cheerfully unobtrusive, and as he fits her Esther thinks delightedly that she is gaining freedom from fear and freedom from marrying the wrong person. Her birth control acquired, Esther wants to find the right man with whom to lose her virginity.

Analysis: Chapters 17–18

Esther finds a mother figure in Dr. Nolan. When faced with the prospect of shock treatment, Esther’s greatest fear is not the therapy, but the possibility that Dr. Nolan has betrayed her. She explains, “I liked Doctor Nolan, I loved her, I had given her my trust on a platter and told her everything.” Dr. Nolan hugs her “like a mother” and regains Esther’s trust by explaining her actions. Dr. Nolan is the only character in the novel whom Esther claims to love, and the only person she seems to trust entirely. Esther’s ability to form such a loving relationship is an important sign of her healing. She has formed what Freud called a “transference” relationship with her psychiatrist, transferring the feelings that she would normally have for her mother onto her doctor. In Freudian theory, this relationship marks the beginning of healing, because now Esther can explore her feelings about her actual mother in the safe space of a surrogate relationship.

A combination of talk therapy, insulin treatment, and shock therapy (shock therapy was standard treatment for mental illness at the time) helps Esther feel less depressed and causes her to forget her suicidal desires. The contradictory nature of the world she must inhabit has not changed, but Esther is better able to deal with it, both because of her own improved mental health, and because she finds that some authorities support her views. Dr. Nolan confirms Esther’s rejection of the sexual role that women are expected to play, dismissing the article on chastity given to her by her mother as “propaganda.” The male doctor who gives Esther a diaphragm is kind and does not ask invasive questions about why Esther wants birth control. Esther continues to sort out her feelings about men, recognizing the truth of what Dr. Nolan says: many women lack tenderness in their relationships with men. Esther continues to feel she needs to lose her virginity in order to mark her rejection of the conventional expectation that she will remain “pure” for her husband.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us