The Bell Jar

by: Sylvia Plath

Chapters 17–18

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.