The Bell Jar

by: Sylvia Plath

Chapters 15–16

Summary Chapters 15–16

Analysis: Chapters 15–16

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.