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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 16

Summary

Esther is sitting in Joanís room. She thinks Joan is playing some kind of a trick on her and that she really doesnít belong in the asylum. Joan tells her how she got to Caplan. She had been working in a fraternity as a secretary. She had gotten bunions on her feet and they were severely painful. She finally quit the job and stayed at home with her phone in her drawer. Her doctor sent her to a psychiatrist. She had to wait for an hour since the doctor had gone to lunch at the time of her appointment. She had been asked if she minded a few students with the doctor. It turned out to be nine students. Joan was wearing a fur coat and thought the doctor was only concerned about her applying for the student rate. After she told him she wanted to kill herself, he told her she would benefit from group therapy. Joan was shocked and told him it was a crazy and inhuman suggestion. She went home and wrote the doctor a letter about his problems. The same day, Joan had read about Esther in the newspapers. She had read about how the police thought she was dead. Joan has saved the newspaper clippings. She shows them to Esther.

The first clipping shows a woman smiling and Esther has trouble recognizing it as herself. She thinks of it as a "tarty picture." The headline reads: "Scholarship girl missing. Mother worried." The article announced that she had disappeared on August 17 and left a note saying she was taking a long walk. When she didnít return by midnight, the article goes on, Mrs. Greenwood had called the police. The next clipping showed a picture of Esther with her mother and brother in their backyard smiling. The caption explains that Mrs. Greenwood had requested this picture be printed with the idea that it would encourage her daughter to return home. The next headline reads: "Sleeping pills feared missing with girl." The picture shows a group of people using bloodhounds to search for her. The last headline reads: "Girl found alive!" It shows the police and medical people loading her into an ambulance. The story tells that Estherís mother was doing laundry when she heard faint groans.


Joan tells Esther she can keep the clippings. She suggests that Esther put them in a scrapbook. Joan tells her that she had read about her and had taken the first plane to New York. She planned to kill herself in New York. She shows Esther her scars from shoving her fists through the window of her old college roommate who was then living in New York. Her roommate had written to her parents that she was acting strangely and they had come to get her.

That night after the evening meal, Esther wakes from a nap beating on the headpost of her bed and calling out the name "Mrs. Bannister" over and over. Itís the name of the night nurse, who quickly comes into Estherís room. Mrs. Bannister tells her she has had a reaction and that she will be better now. Mrs. Bannister brings Esther some hot milk. She drinks it "luxuriously, the way a baby tastes its mohter."

The next day in therapy, Doctor Nolan discusses her reaction with her. Esther has been very fearful that she will have to have shock therapy. She has been sitting mornings, afternoons and evenings acting like she is reading in hopes of making the staff think she is okay. Doctor Nolan tells her she will not have to have any visitors for a while. Esther is greatly relieved. That afternoon her mother had visited. Many people have visited Esther: her old boss, a Christian Science woman, her high school English teacher and Mrs. Guinea. Esther hates all the visits. One time the minister of her motherís Unitarian church had come. She told him she believed in hell and that she thought "certain people had to live in hell before they died, to make up for missing out on it after death, since they didnít believe in life after death, and what each person believed happened to her after she died." She hates the visits because she thinks the people are measuring the way she is now against the way they think she should be. Her mother is the worst visitor. She doesnít scold Esther, but begs her "with a sorrowful face to tell her what she had done wrong." She has gotten the idea that the doctors think she had done something wrong in raising Esther because they had asked her questions about Estherís toilet training. Esther tells Doctor Nolan that her mother had brought her red roses that afternoon for her birthday. Esther had thrown them in the trash. She tells Doctor Nolan that she hates her mother. Doctor Nolan smiles as if very pleased and says, "I suppose you do."

Notes

Plath delays telling the reader what happened to Esther after her suicide attempt until this chapter. It is told from a great distance. Joan, only an acquaintance in college, has read about Esther in the newspaper. Months later, Esther reads about how the world experienced her suicide attempt. It was in the sensational language of a murder mystery. She was depicted as lost child mourned by a loving family. The distance between this newspaper account of her suicide attempt and what the reader has already seen in chapter thirteen is stark.

Estherís reaction to the insulin shock is not explained any further than that she felt better for a short time. The reason for the treatment, what it was expected to accomplish is not said. In this way, the reader experiences the effect of being a patient, not told about the treatment, and having to trust the doctors. The details of Estherís psychotherapy are very sketchy. This chapter provides only a hint that she has issues to resolve about her mother. Reaching her deep feelings of anger at her mother is very important in Estherís therapy. Exactly what she is angry about, however, remains unsaid.

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