Election Day is November 3rd! Make sure your voice is heard

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath
Summary

Chapters 13–14

Summary Chapters 13–14

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.