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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath-Free Study Guide-MonkeyNotes Online BookNotes
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THE BELL JAR - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS

CHAPTER 15

Summary

Esther is riding with her mother and brother in the back of Philomena Guineaís car. She is waiting for the right moment to escape out of the car and jump over the rail of the bridge. Mrs. Guinea had telegraphed Estherís mother from the Bahamas where she was staying. She had read about Esther in the newspapers and wanted to help, but first she had to make sure there was no man involved "in the case." Estherís mother had telegraphed back, "No, it is Estherís writing. She thinks she will never write again." Mrs. Guinea flew to Boston and has taken Esther out of the hospital ward in the city and is taking her to a private hospital for wealthy people. She promises to pay Estherís expenses until she gets well. Estherís mother has told her to be grateful. She has used all her money on Estherís hospital bills and without Mrs. Guineaís help, Esther would have to go to the state hospital. It is located in close proximity to the private hospital. Esther cannot fee grateful. She wouldnít have been happy even if Mrs. Guinea had given her a free trip to Europe. No matter where she would be, she "would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air." As they cross the bridge, Esther gets ready, but her mother and brother cover the door handles with their hands. She sinks back into her seat, feeling like "the air of the bell jar wadded round [her] and [she] couldnít stir."

At the new place, she has her own room. It looks like a room in Doctor Gordonís place, but it has no bars on the windows. Sheís on the first floor and outside her window is a wooded yard surrounded by a red brick wall. She feels unnerved by her failure to jump off the bridge as the car crossed over it. She thinks that even if her mother and brother hadnít been there, she would not have jumped. When she gets enrolled in the main building, she meets her new doctor, a woman named Doctor Nolan. Esther is surprised to have a woman psychiatrist. When she gets back to her own building, called Caplan, many other doctors visit her, all men. The doctors enter her room one by one and introduce themselves. She canít understand why there are so many of them and why they need to introduce themselves to her. She becomes wary, thinking they are testing her. The director of the hospital comes in last. He talks to her for a long time about the Pilgrims and the Indians who had lived on this land, and the people who had settled on it after them. He tells her who had built the first hospital and other information until Esther thinks he must be testing her as well because she thinks it is all untrue about the Pilgrims and Indians. Then she thinks some might be true, but before she can figure out whatís true and whatís not, he leaves.


Esther gets out of bed and walks down the hall. She sees the dining room where a maid is setting the tables. She notices there are real glasses. In the city hospital they had used paper cups and had no knives to cut their meat. She walks further until she arrives in a big lounge. She sees one young woman sitting in an armchair. She introduces herself as Valerie, but Esther acts like she doesnít hear. Esther walks to the next wing. She asks the nurse where everybody is and the nurse only says "Out." The nurse is writing "E. Greenwood" on all of Estherís things. The nurse tells her the people are all out playing badminton and golf. Esther goes back to the lounge and sits beside Valerie. Valerie is reading a copy of Vogue magazine with great interest. Esther canít see whatís wrong with her that she should be in the hospital.

In her therapy session with Doctor Nolan, the doctor asks her if she can smoke. Esther doesnít mind and wants Doctor Nolan to smoke, thinking it may make her stay longer. Doctor Nolan asks Esther what she thought of Doctor Gordon. Esther is wary, thinking all the doctors were "in it together" and that this hospital probably has a shock therapy machine also. Nevertheless, she says she did not like Doctor Gordon at all. She says she did not like what he had done to her when he had shocked her. Doctor Nolan tells her Doctor Gordon had made a mistake, that the shock therapy was not supposed to work like that, and that "if itís done properly, itís like going to sleep." Esther promises she will kill herself if anyone does it to her again. Doctor Nolan tells her she wonít have shock treatments there, but if she does, she will tell Esther in advance. She adds that some people like the treatments. When Doctor Nolan leaves, Esther finds that she left a box of matches. Esther tries to strike one but it crumples. She thinks it must be a test. She plans her answer if they ask her what sheís done with the matches. Sheíll tell them she thought they were candy and ate them.

A new woman moves into the room next to Estherís. Esther thinks this woman wonít know how bad she is as the rest of the patients do. She decides to go in and make friends, but when she introduces herself, the woman refuses to answer. She wonders if Valerie or another patient had told this woman how stupid she is. A nurse comes in and calls the woman Miss Norris. Esther sits looking at the woman for a long time. Finally Miss Norris gets out of bed and leaves the room. Esther follows her to the dining room, where Miss Norris sits at the table. On the way there, Miss Norris walks very carefully, placing her feet only in the center of the roses on the carpet. A cook calls out that supper isnít for another hour. Miss Norris doesnít respond. Esther pulls up a chair opposite her and sits silently.

Esther is in her room. The nurse gives her an injection. Esther is wearing her pajamas under her skirt because she doesnít like to have to change into and out of them all the time. Her bottom is full of bruises from the injections. She gets an injection three times a day. Valerie tells her sheís lucky to be on insulin. Esther tells her nothing happens to her after the injections. Valerie assures her it will happen and that Esther should tell her when she gets a reaction. Esther never seems to get a reaction. She gets fat, however.

Valerie shows Esther the scars on the sides of her head from a lobotomy. She and Valerie are out walking in the asylum gardens with the Sports Therapist. She is being given more and more privileges. Miss Norris never gets to go out. Valerie tells Esther Miss Norris should be at Wymark, the building for worse people. Valerie tells Esther that since her lobotomy she feels fine. She is not angry any more and she gets to live at Caplan and have many privileges to go to town visits. When Esther asks her when she is leaving, Valerie says she is not leaving because she likes it there.

A nurse announces that Esther is moving. Esther worries that they are moving her to Wymark, but the nurse says sheís moving to the front of the house where thereís more sun. Esther notices they are moving Miss Norris also. She has been keeping watch on Miss Norris, giving up all her usual diversions to stay and stare at Miss Norrisís mouth, hoping to be there when Miss Norris speaks. She thinks she would be praised for encouraging Miss Norris and get many new privileges as a result. She finds out Miss Norris is being moved to Wymark. Esther, on the other hand, is "moving up."

When she gets to her new room, the nurse announces a surprise. Somebody she knows lives in the room next to her. She is surprised to see Joan.

Notes

Chapter 15 is important for giving the routine of the new hospital, a private asylum for psychological treatments. One of the interesting elements here is the perception Esther has of her mental illness. Instead of seeing herself as sick, she thinks of herself as bad and stupid. We have seen her mother using the same language of morality to talk about mental illness. Even the hospital staff members use this kind of language. They say Esther is moving up, as if she is moving up a grade in school. Esther gets rewarded for good behavior by getting walking privileges. When Esther first tries to make contact with Miss Norris, she is hopeful of starting fresh with her, Miss Norris not having heard about how "bad" she is. Estherís bad behavior is not altogether apparent. She does some strange things: she wears her pajamas around the clock, under her clothing, she follows Miss Norris around, staring at her hoping to be the one to see her talk, and she is paranoid of the doctors being in collusion against her.

Esther is on insulin shock treatment, an alternative to electric shock treatment. The three treatments for treating psychosis and severe depression are electric shock treatment, insulin shock treatment, and lobotomy. This is at a time before psychotropic drugs had been discovered.

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