Summary and Analysis
Struck with inertia, unable to choose anything constructive to do with her summer in the Boston suburbs, Esther is in limbo. Chapter 11 begins with a description of Dr. Gordon's waiting room, and Chapter 12 begins with a description of the waiting room of his private hospital. Esther is waiting, waiting for the verdict, the diagnosis of her life. But who will give the verdict, the diagnosis? Certainly not the suave, handsome doctor, nor can Esther's dutiful but befuddled mother.
"Suppose you try and tell me what you think is wrong," Dr. Gordon asks Esther. But Esther cannot even figure out the question, much less answer it. Esther is suffering from extreme depression and has symptoms of a variety of other mentally ill states. She is not sleeping. She has not washed her hair nor her clothes since returning from New York City, and she is still wearing Betsy's borrowed clothes. She wants Dr. Gordon to be fatherly, and when he is not, she cannot relate to him. She writes to Doreen, then tears the letter into little pieces. Indecision. She goes out with a sailor but tells him that her name is "ElIy" and says that she is an orphan from Chicago. Thus, she wants another identity. When a woman resembling Mrs. Willard walks by, she becomes anxious and paranoid.
On her second trip to Dr. Gordon, he suggests electro-shock treatments on an out-patient basis. He assures Mrs. Greenwood that she'll "have her daughter back" soon. Meanwhile, Esther is reading lurid scandal sheets and is intrigued by the story of a man who almost commits suicide by jumping from the seventh floor of a building; he is finally helped to safety by a policeman.
Esther analyzes in detail the matter of killing oneself by leaping. The seamy sides of life and violence and death fascinate her, partly because all her family ever read was the Christian Science Monitor, a newspaper that Esther claims treated such things as "if they didn't happen." Even when Esther goes to Boston's Public Garden, she analyzes things in the most negative light. She decides that the Weeping Scholar Tree must have come from Japan, and then she goes into a long reverie on the merits of disembowelment. However, she concludes, she hates the sight of blood.
All of Esther's thoughts lead to suicide, it seems. And then, to make matters worse, Dodo Conway and Esther's mother drive her to Dr. Gordon's hospital in the Conways' hearse-like car. Gray images have now turned to black. Significantly, we only get the description of the Conway car after Esther has received her first shock treatment. We, as readers, almost wish that Esther had run away to Chicago, or that she had started hitchhiking somewhere. However, Esther always returns home after her fantasies of escape — and thus she continues to be "a dutiful girl," following Dr. Gordon's plans, and doing as her mother and society think best.
One of the reasons why Esther always goes back home is that she feels she is "hopeless at stars" — and although she can find directions on a map, she can't understand them when she is lost. She also tends to lose track of time and frequently discovers that it is "too late." Her depression is now complicated by a definite sense of disorientation.
Dr. Gordon's private office is decorated in monochromatic beige, with green plants. The private hospital is also very chic and makes Esther think of a guesthouse in Maine. This sense of fashion is attractive to her. But both places have an air of unreality. The office is icily air-conditioned and windowless; the private hospital, in spite of its secluded drive, is white with quahog shells, and its light, summer resort appearance is peopled with motionless human bodies, who have almost uniform-looking faces. Finally, Esther sees that some of the people in this institution are making "small, birdlike gestures," yet her final conclusion is that she is in a department store, surrounded by mannequins.
As Esther follows Dr. Gordon and prepares to undergo her first electro-shock treatment, she sees a shouting, struggling woman being dragged along the hall by an unsympathetic nurse with a medicinal smell. This wall-eyed nurse tells Esther that everyone is "scared to death" before their first shock treatment. When it is time for Esther's treatment, her temples are covered with grease, and Dr. Gordon fits two metal plates, one on each side of her head, with a strap. When Esther bites down on the wire that he gives her, she is shot through with "air crackling with blue light," and the jolts and flashes that split her body make her wonder "what terrible thing it was that I had done." Later, as Esther sits in a wicker chair holding a glass of tomato juice, after her "punishment," she remembers the time when she received a blue, flashing shock from a defective cord on a lamp beside her mother's bed. The scream that she emitted then was "like a violently disembodied spirit." Dr. Gordon asks her how she feels, and Esther lies and says, "all right." She can remember which college she goes to, and he is satisfied. Her disembodied spirit is not strong enough to rebel against him, to reject the institutions that ultimately seem to fail to protect and help her. On the way home in Dodo Conway's car, Esther experiences a feeling in which her mind seems to be sliding off into empty space, and after she is home she tells her mother that she is not going back to the hospital. Her mother, in classic denial fashion, smiles and says, "I knew my baby wasn't like that."
Back home, Esther becomes fixated on stories about a starlet who committed suicide, and her own demonic voices begin to chide her about her work and her neuroses. She is afraid that she'll never get anywhere so she toys with her package of Gillette razor blades. She goes to the bathtub because a Roman philosopher had said it would almost be pleasant to open his veins in a warm bath. But Esther can't slit her own white, defenseless skin, so she packs up her blades and catches a bus to Boston.
Esther seeks directions to go to Deer Island. She weeps a few honest tears, and she finally gets the proper instructions. Before Esther's father died, the family lived on this island. It was an island then, but it is now connected to the mainland. Only a prison is out there now. Esther meets a guard and ponders how her life would be if she'd married him and had a large family. As she sits by the sea, a small annoying boy comes up to talk to her. She is about to bribe him to go away when his mother calls. Esther is left to think about a cold sea death. But as the icy water reaches her ankles, she winces and picks up her things and leaves.
Chapter 13 begins with another beach scene. This time, Esther is lying on a brightly colored towel beside a boy named Cal. She thinks that her mother telephoned Jody and that's how this blind date was arranged. Cal is discussing what appears to be an Ibsen play; the chapter begins with Cal saying, "Of course his mother killed him."
Esther, however, is only interested in the play because there is a mad character in it, and she remarks, "Everything I had ever read about mad people stuck in my mind, while everything else flew out." Cal is intrigued with his "Yes" interpretation of the play while Esther wants only to know what the mother is going to use to kill the son. (She remembers, of course, but she wants Cal to say it — another case of Esther's intellectual dishonesty — "morphia powders.") Then Esther asks Cal how he would kill himself if he were going to do it. He says that he'd blow his brains out with a gun. This disappoints Esther because his answer is "just like a man," and she knows that she can't get a gun. She then reviews all the pro's and con's of using a gun and decides against that.
Jody and her boyfriend are happy together and that so unnerves Esther that she talks Cal into swimming with her. She wants to swim out to a rock, but Cal thinks that she is crazy and turns back. Esther keeps swimming, saying "I am I am I am." At this point, we learn that Esther tried to hang herself that morning and failed because ceiling beams and light fixtures in the house were unavailable. She returns again to thoughts of the past and to thoughts about her grandmother's house, where there were high ceilings. We also learn in this reverie of Esther's that she has been reading paperbacks about abnormal psychology and thinks that her case parallels the most hopeless cases. She worries about her family's lack of money and now, because she is a hopeless mental case, she fears that she'll end up in a terrible state hospital, hidden away. She tries to drown herself in the sea, but she keeps bobbing to the surface, as if the depths will not take her. She gives up and turns back to join her companions.
At this stage, Esther is unable to do anything right; she can't even kill herself with any of the traditional methods. When Esther's mother gets her a job as a volunteer in a hospital, Esther botches that too. She hopes that she will be assigned to work with some pathetic cases so that she can begin to feel that she herself is lucky — as her mother has moralized. However, Esther is, ironically, put in charge of handing out vases of flowers in the maternity ward. Here again, we see the theme of babies and children, a matter that depresses Esther very much. Esther tries harder at her job (but Esther has always tried harder and, for that reason, she is now mentally ill); and she rearranges the flowers, throwing out the dead ones and making all the vases look more attractive, and she practically starts a riot in the ward. She louses up one woman's yellow roses and throws out another's dead larkspurs. But instead of arguing her point with the women, Esther runs away and discards her green uniform as she goes.
The next scene shows Esther going to the graveyard where her father is buried, behind a Methodist church. She remembers that her mother had been a Catholic before his death, and Esther thinks that she wants to become a Catholic because the Catholic Church might have a way to persuade her not to commit suicide. Her mother, however, has laughed at Esther and said she would have to learn the Church's catechisms — one can't just suddenly "become a Catholic." Esther concludes that it's probably true; besides, priests are terrible gossips. Then she begins to remember a story about an insane nun. Her mind wanders back to her father and his neglected grave and all the things he would have taught her if he had lived. She can't find her father's grave and as she searches for it, she recounts her problem of trying to buy a waterproof raincoat that morning. She decided to buy a black one, but it is not waterproof and she is now damp and feels clammy. Finally, Esther finds her father's gravestone; there, she arranges a bouquet of azaleas that she picked near the entrance, and then she collapses in tears. She remembers that she has never cried for her father before. Her mother has not cried either; she has said that his death was all for the best because he would have rather been dead than a cripple. We see here how much Esther's mother has influenced her. Esther has not been able to mourn, and she has been pondering how she herself would be better off dead — than living in this less-than-perfect state. Perfection is all, it seems. "I laid my face to the smooth face of the marble and howled my loss into the cold salt rain."
However, Esther's tears come too late and perhaps are too few because in the next scene, she carries out a suicide attempt. She wants to join her father. And she actually goes through with this plan. She leaves a note stating, "I am going for a long walk," then she gets the key to unlock the strongbox where her sleeping pills are kept and seizes the new bottle (she'd plotted that it would take too long to save up enough, so this is the only way; Esther's mind is always cleverly plotting every detail), gets a glass of water, and goes down to the cellar, where she crawls under a breezeway addition to the house, and puts the logs back across the opening to lock herself in. She takes the pills, one by one, and finally she starts to see flashing red-and-blue lights. She sees the wreckage of her life in front of her, at the "rim of vision," then she is swept off, as if in a tide, to sleep.
Chapter 14 begins in darkness. Esther is in a cocoon-like silence; someone is moaning, and Esther feels cool winds and weights and then she feels a chisel on her eyes. Is she in an underground chamber? A voice cries, "Mother!" Then she feels warmth on her face. She opens her eyes but she can't see, and a cheery voice tells her that she'll marry a nice blind man someday. Later, when Esther tells the doctor that a nurse told her that she is blind, he says, "Nonsense," and tells her that she is lucky to be alive and will be fine. Esther's mother comes to see her because, she says, she had been told that Esther called out for her; then Esther's brother asks her how she is. Esther replies, "The same."
Esther's next visitor is the asylum's houseman, a fellow named George Bakewell, who was only slightly acquainted with Esther from her activities in church and at college. Esther becomes angry (at least, the reader thinks so), and she tells George to get out. But Esther is not angry; she has only turned her face to the wall because she thinks that George wants to see how a crazy girl looks. Esther then asks for a mirror, and against the nurse's wishes, she takes it and breaks it.
Esther is taken by ambulance to a state medical hospital where they have a "special ward" for her kind; it is implied that Esther is too violent to remain where she is. In this new institution, Esther encounters a Mrs. Tomolillo who has been hospitalized for sticking her tongue out continuously at her French-Canadian mother-in-law. When Mrs. Greenwood comes to visit Esther, this strange woman starts to mock Esther's mother, but Mrs. Greenwood doesn't notice. She is worried only about why Esther won't cooperate with the doctors — who are called Doctor Syphilis and Doctor Pancreas by Esther because she can't remember their real names. Esther tells her mother to get her out of this place, and her mother says that she'll try if Esther will promise to "be good." "I promise," Esther says in a loud, conspicuous voice.
The next two scenes give us a humorous but chilling view of a large state mental hospital. A black man is serving the patients some food out of tin tureens, and Esther perceptively sees that he has never encountered "crazy people" before. At the dinner table one day, Esther removes the lid from a container and takes some green beans; she passes it to the woman — Mrs. Mole — next to her, and then Mrs. Mole dumps the whole thing on her plate and then is led away by a nurse. The other foods they receive are baked beans and cold, sticky macaroni. When the black waiter and Esther exchange words, she kicks him in the leg.
In the next scene, Esther is in bed and doesn't want to get up. When a nurse sets a tray of thermometers on her bed, Esther (accidentally, on purpose) shoves them off so that they all break. This scene takes place just after Esther has thought how she'd like to explain that she'd rather have something wrong with her body than something wrong with her mind. But it seems too tiring to try to explain, and the medical personnel are only custodians, anyway. After they lock the door, Esther scoops up some gray mercury to play with. These little separate pieces of mercury can, seemingly, be pushed into a whole again. Esther smiles at the silver ball and wonders what they have done with Mrs. Mole, the lady who dumped the green string beans. The point is clear: people's minds are not as easy to make whole again as droplets of gray mercury are.
Esther has gone from inertia and depression into attempting suicide, and in four chapters we see in graphic detail how her mind is working — especially on various ways to kill herself and the features of her environment and the people around her. But Dr. Gordon's original question of "what is wrong" has not even begun to be answered. We see that Esther's father's death has affected her very deeply, and that her mother's nurturing is, for the most part, only an exercise in duty. But why cannot Esther get herself beyond the details and find a reason for an existence? The mercury may be silver, but things are still dull and gray for Esther — in spite of her cleverness.
In these chapters following Esther's terrible depression, we see that Esther is able to rebel a little by breaking the thermometers. She takes satisfaction in being a little mean and somewhat clever, and we are reminded of the earlier scene in the novel when Buddy looks at Esther's broken leg with some sadistic satisfaction. We are also reminded of the time when Hilda was so cruelly satisfied about the Rosenbergs' executions. Esther hates that kind of cruelty, yet her own kindness is more often than not just passivity. And certainly her summer of sickness is an exercise in masochism.
Since Esther's friends are not people whom she can genuinely admire or feel close to, Esther is often in need of intimates — but she has none. After her self-destructive period, her notions of how to be well are laced with actions of clever deviation. In the scene in which Esther tries to drown herself but keeps bobbing back up, she says, "I knew when I was beaten." Here, the implication is that she is beaten by nature, which is forcing her back up to life. Yet it is society — not nature — that has beaten Esther; it has encouraged her cleverness, but cleverness is not genuine intelligence, and Esther has not realized that, as a woman, she does not have to be a passive creature. How, we wonder, can Esther be such a clever dummy?
When she is taken to Dr. Gordon's hospital for an electro-shock treatment, she notices that the people do not look real, that they appear to be mannequins. This is, of course, extremely upsetting. The hospital that is supposed to help people is turning them into zombies. This is darkly ironic because Esther's problems come from being too passive already. She should have just hitchhiked to Chicago — but, instead, she went home, as always, "like a good girl." The complexity of her situation is not understood by her doctors, who also do not understand her illness very well — in medical or in psychological terms, for just as Esther had waited, waited passively, in Dr. Gordon's office, now she is waiting for others to treat her, to cure her. When she wakes up after her pill-taking suicide attempt, she thinks that she is blind. And in a way, Esther is blind because she doesn't know what to do, or which way to turn. Except for the pain of the electroshock treatments, she could easily become a zombie also. She is at the mercy of her caretakers, who do not understand her.
When Esther first talked with Dr. Gordon, she felt that she was in "a black, airless sack with no way out," but she couldn't tell him about it. It is in this section of the novel that Plath first tells us what a bell jar is, and we note immediately that Dr. Gordon's office is windowless. Esther is in a windowless place, suffocating, and the doctor is not helpful. It must be noted here that Esther's serious suicide attempt takes place after she sees Dr. Gordon and after her first electroshock treatment. Esther obviously does not feel that the doctor can help her, and she feels that she would rather die than be subjected to treatments that punish her body by making her feel that her bones are breaking and that her "sap" is flying out of her.
Again Esther is very worried about being hopelessly crazy and becoming institutionalized or being a "shop dummy" who will burden her family for life. Her thoughts of suicide go hand-in-hand with her reading yellow journalism articles on suicides and her conviction that she is a hopeless case. All of her attempts to feel better go awry. When she goes to the beach for freedom and solace, she discovers that she is on prison property. Windowless rooms, airless sacks, prison property, the bell jar. It is no wonder that Esther crawls into a hole and takes pills. Her life is a tomb anyway.
Ironically, one of the sickest people at the hospital that Esther is in, after her suicide attempt, is named Mrs. Mole, who turns the tureen of beans upside down on her plate and then is led away. Esther is left to wonder, "I couldn't imagine what they had done with Mrs. Mole." The real question, however, is: what will they do with Esther? Will her mother be able to help her? When will Esther take charge of her own life?