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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath-Free Study Guide-MonkeyNotes Online BookNotes
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Doctor Gordonís private hospital appears as a pristine resort, but no one strolls outside on the lawn. The silence is enormous. The house is disturbing in its seeming normalcy while Esther knows it is full of "crazy people." In the waiting room, Esther sees people in summer clothes sitting around card tables and in arm chairs, but they are all moving so slowly that she at first thinks they are perfectly still. A man counts out cards over and over. A woman plays with a string of beads. A girl sits at the piano and ducks her head crossly when Esther looks her way.

Esther is following Doctor Gordon upstairs. She had tried to get him to tell her what shock treatment was like, but when she tried, no words came to her. Upstairs she hears a woman shouting. A woman is dragged past them. She is telling the nurse over and over that she is going to jump out of the window. The nurse grins and tells Esther the woman canít jump because the windows are barred. Esther notices the bars on the windows and the fact that all the drawers are locked shut.

Esther lies on the table while the nurse takes her jewelry and hair pins. The nurse swabs her temples with greasy stuff while the doctor wheels a machine to the head of the bed. The nurse tells her not to worry, that everyone is afraid to death their first time. Doctor Gordon fits metal plates on the sides of her head, buckles them and puts a wire in her mouth for her to bite. After a silence, she feels as if something reaches down and grabs hold of her and shakes her "like the end of the world." She wonders what terrible thing she has done to deserve this treatment.

Now she sits in a chair drinking tomato juice. Her watch is back on her arm, but upside down. Esther remembers an old metal lamp in her fatherís study. One day she had tried to move the lamp and had been electrocuted. She is being asked how she feels. She says all right, but she really feels terrible. Doctor Gordon asks which college she went to and responds the same way he did the first time he asked her, by exclaiming over the WAC station.

Esther notices that her motherís knuckles are white as she sits waiting for Esther to come out. Doctor Gordon speaks to her through the window telling her Esther will have a few more shock treatments and then she will be wonderfully improved. Doctor Gordon leads them out the door. Esther hangs back and turns around and thumbs her ears at the girl who had been sitting at the piano frowning at her earlier. Outside, she sees Dodo Conwayís black station wagon. It looks like a hearse. A wealthy woman had ordered it black, but when it came in, she refused to buy it. The Conways bought it at a discount. In the car, she feels "dumb and subdued." She cannot think straight. When they leave Dodo, she tells her mother to call Doctor Gordon and tell him sheís not coming back. Her mother smiles and says, "I knew my baby wasnít like that. I knew youíd decide to be all right again."

Headline: "Starlet succumbs after sixty-eight hour coma." Esther digs through her purse. She sees the blue box containing nineteen razor blades. She takes out a snapshot she took of herself at a booth and puts it next to the picture of the dead starlet of the newspaper article. She tells herself she will sit on the park bench for five minutes and then get up and go do it. "I summoned my little chorus of voices." One voice is Jay Ceeís asking her if her work doesnít interest her. Another is Buddy Willard telling her sheís neurotic. Another repeats, "Youíll never get anywhere like that." She remembers kissing an "ape-shaped" man who afterwards told her she would be a prude at forty. A creative writing professor had written "factitious" on her story. When she looked up the word she found out it meant "artificial, sham."

Now she hasnít slept for twenty-one nights. She looks at the band- aid on the calf of her leg. That morning she made a start. She had filled the tub full of warm water and had taken out a razor blade. She had remembered the story of an ancient Roman senator who said he would die by opening his veins in a warm bath. When she looked at her wrists, however, she couldnít do it. "It was as if what I wanted to kill wasnít in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, a whole lot harder to get at." She also thought of the difficulty of slitting her wrists since it would take two motions. Then she had decided to "spill a little blood for practice." She crossed her ankle over her leg and cut her calf. She had thought of getting into the tub then, but the time was gone and her mother would be home soon. Instead, she packed the blades and caught a bus to Boston.

She asks someone for directions to the subway that would take her to the Deer Island Prison. The man tells her there is no subway out there since itís on an island. She begins to cry. The man in the ticket booth asks if she has some relative in prison there. She says itís her father. The man tells her how to get there.

At the prison, a man in uniform stops her from going through the gates. He tells her she canít go any farther. The prison is on the beach line and she has been walking up the beach. She walks over to the hut where he is sitting. She tells him he has a nice place there. She tells him she used to live near there. She looks at the prison grounds. The buildings are small red brick and look like buildings on a seaside college. She sees pigs and chickens in the yard. She thinks if only she had stayed living in that town she could have married this prison guard and had several children by this time. She asks him how to get into the prison. He says by a pass. She asks how does a person get locked in. He laughs and says they steal cars or rob stores. He says there are no murderers there. Sometimes, on the first day of winter, old homeless men vandalize buildings to get a warm place to stay during the cold months. She walks away and waves back at him.

She sits on a log that smells of tar. It sits on a sandbar that curves out to the sea. When the tide comes the sandbar will be submerged. She remembers the sandbar very well. It has a particular kind of shell that can be found no where else. It looks like a small conch. She hears a child telling its mother about her sitting there for so long. She hadnít thought about the beach being full of people. Itís been ten years since sheís been to the town. It has changed for the worse since then. She is the only woman on the beach wearing a skirt and heels. She had taken off her shoes and left them behind. She likes the idea of her empty shoes sitting on the beach after she is dead. Then she remembers she needs a hot bath for this form of suicide. She thinks of renting a room, but without luggage, she would create suspicion.

A boy tells her she shouldnít stay out on the sandbar since the tide is coming in. She tells him to go home. His mother starts calling him. He leaves. A wave touches her bare foot and she shivers. She thinks of the bottom of the sea where the bones of dead fish wash around like gravestones. She starts back feeling cowardly.


This chapter shows Estherís desperate alternatives--shock therapy or suicide. The shock therapy is horrible and inhumane as Esther experiences it at Doctor Gordonís private hospital. Worse, his form of psychotherapy seems to involve deceit and callous regard. Doctor Gordon doesnít know anything about Esther and doesnít seem to feel the need to. He has found a simple remedy for all kinds of psychological ailments and he uses it as if he were using a pill, giving the recipient no warning, no explanations, treating them as if they were automatons and smiling reassuringly all the while. The alternative of suicide seems much preferable to Esther. She can control what happens to her, how it happens, and how it will feel. Her hesitation at committing suicide is suggestive. She goes back to a resort where apparently her family spent summers before her father died. She wishes she had never left this place so she could have married the prison guard and lived a simple life. This passing fantasy shows that Esther still has some hope that life could be good in some place or time. Her going back to a childhood place indicates she wants to retrieve something she feels she lost. Recall her earlier insight that the last time she remembers being happy was when she was nine years old. Often peopleís search for death in suicide cloaks a search for life.

Estherís mother is not drawn in very full terms. She only gets a few lines in the book, but they are powerful ones. Her mother is unaware, as many people of the time were, of the tenacity of psychological problems. She believes they are voluntary, a sort of self-indulgence. She obviously tries her best to do what she can to help her daughter. She follows Doctor Gordonís advice because she knows nothing to do on her own. She obviously finds it wrong, against nature, and horribly frightening, but she has been taught to follow the authority of professionals, especially men professionals. When Esther says she wonít go back, however, Mrs. Greenwood reveals her ideas about the validity of psychological treatments and about the validity of her daughterís problems: She tells Esther, "I knew youíd decide to be all right again."

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