The Bell Jar Chapter 11 and 12 Summary

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath Menu

Chapter 11 Summary

Esther is in the waiting room at the psychiatrist’s office. The room, decorated all in beiges and plants, feels very safe to Esther. She realizes suddenly that was because the room had no windows. She was still wearing Betsy’s clothes; she hadn’t washed her clothes or her hair in the three weeks and hadn’t slept for seven days. She hadn’t washed anything because it seemed so pointless, the future seem filled with dull repetition of acts.

She hates the doctor, Dr. Gordon, the second he walks in the door. He is young and good-looking and she immediately thinks he’s conceited. On his desk is a photograph of himself and his family, looking very happy and this picture infuriates Esther. When he asks, she tells him about the not eating and not sleeping and not reading. But she doesn’t tell him about the handwriting: the other day she had tried to write a letter to Doreen and when she picked up her pen she somehow could only manage to write a few letters which looked like they’d been written by a child. Dr. Gordon doesn’t ask about this, of course, because he couldn’t know, but Esther feels sort of satisfied with herself all the same, like she’d tricked him. He asks her about college, which perplexes her, and then tells her he’ll see her next week. When her mother hears this, she just sighs, as the appointments cost twenty-five dollars an hour.

The scene switches, and Esther is at Boston Common, and is approached by young sailor. When he asks, she says her name is Elly and that she’s from Chicago. They walk around the Common, him with his arm around her, as she wonders what it would be like to actually change her name and move to Chicago. She asks him about his goals after getting out of the Navy, and is suddenly struck by how young, handsome and innocent-looking the sailor is. He asks if he can kiss her; but out of the corner of her eye she think she see Mrs. Willard, so she pretends to ask him the way to the subway. It turns out the woman in brown is not anyone she knows; she tells the sailor the woman reminds her of someone she knew in Chicago, and that she’s an orphan. She cries hysterically in the sailor’s arms and thinks it’s all the fault of the woman in brown.

The scene changes again, back to Dr. Gordon’s office. She tells him she feels the same as the previous week and now hasn’t slept in fourteen days. She takes out the torn pieces of the letter she tried to write and threw them on his desk; to her surprise, he doesn’t say anything about the letter, but instead asks to see her mother. When her mother emerges, she’s been crying; she tells Esther the doctor says he thinks she should have some shock treatments at a hospital in Walton.

The next section opens with a newspaper account of a man who was rescued from a ledge, from where he threatened to jump. Esther is sitting in the Public Garden, thinking about this story – the trouble with jumping, she thought, is if you didn’t pick the right number of stories, you’d still be alive when you hit bottom. She looked around and remembers when she and her younger brother used to come to this park and play. She sees her favorite tree, the Weeping Scholar tree, which she thinks comes from Japan. In Japan, she thinks, they disemboweled themselves when anything went wrong. How would that work, exactly? She thinks, “It must take a lot of courage to die like that.”

The next morning she is going to Walton, and she considers running away, but doesn’t have any money and isn’t sure where she wants to go. She goes to the bus station and ends up just taking a bus home.

Chapter 12 Summary

When they arrive at Dr. Gordon’s hospital, Esther is bothered that everything there looks so normal, since she’s sure the place is filled with crazy people. Then she realizes that none of the people there were moving – some of them were as young as she was, but “there was a uniformity to their faces.” Then she sees they are moving, with tiny birdlike gestures, dumbly repeating the same activity over and over.

She’s not able, for some reason, to ask Dr. Gordon what the shock treatment will be like. As he leads her down the hallway, she sees another patient, a shaggy-haired woman in a dressing gown who is yelling, threatening to jump out the window.

She’s taken to a small room, where she lays down on the bed. Dr. Gordon and a nurse prepare her for the procedure. The nurse reassures her that everyone’s scared the first time. The doctor fits two metal plates on either side of her head and gives her a wire to bite. There’s a brief silence, “like an indrawn breath” and then something takes hold of Esther and shakes her violently: “it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant. I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.”

When she wakes up, she’s sitting in a chair, with a glass of juice in her hand, being asked how she feels. She remembers when she was younger and had moved an old lamp of her father’s, she had accidentally been electrically shocked. She answers that she feels fine, which isn’t true at all.

The doctor walks her out to the waiting room, where her mother is sitting, white knuckled. He tells her mother she’ll need a few more treatments, but after that she should notice some improvement. On the ride home, Esther doesn’t say anything for a long time. Every time she tries to concentrate, her mind glides off. Finally she tells her mother she isn’t going back again. Her mother smiles, responding she knew Esther wasn’t like that. Like what, Esther asks? Like all the awful dead people at the hospital her mother responds.

The scene changes, again opening with a headline from the newspaper: “Starlet succumbs after 68-hour coma,” it reads. Esther takes out a snapshot of herself taken earlier in the day at a photo booth and compares it to the picture of the woman in the paper; they match exactly. In her head she hears a little chorus of voices, criticizing, predicting, asking her about her future. Now she hasn’t slept in twenty-one nights. She thinks the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadows, in bureaus and under houses and on the night side of the earth.

She looks down at her calf and sees two Band-Aids forming a cross. That morning she “had made a start.” She had locked herself in the bathroom, run a tub full of warm water and gotten out the Gillette blade. She imagines this as a very beautiful sort of death, the surface of the bath would be “gaudy as poppies.” But when she looks at the skin on her wrists, she just can’t do it. She imagines how it might work, practically – would she have enough strength when the first hand has to cut the second? She decides she’ll spill a little blood for practice first, which is when she cuts her leg. She’s vaguely thrilled by the flush of blood this produces. But then she thinks she’s wasted too much of the morning and will be discovered by her mother; she bandages the cut and catches a bus to Boston.

She wants to go out to Deer Island Prison, as she had used to live near there when she was younger. When she gets there, the guard at the gate tells her she can’t walk along the beach; she notices his little homey guardhouse and the pretty “campus” of the prison. She thinks if she and her family hadn’t moved away, perhaps she would have married the young, good-looking guard and they would have kids by now. She asks him how you get into the prison – he explains the system of passes; she says he’s misunderstood -what does one have to do to get locked in? Steal a car, rob a bank, he says. What about a murder, she asks? Murderers are sent to a different prison, he explains. She sets back off in the opposite direction.

She goes to the part of the beach people are allowed on, and is a little annoyed that it is overrun by summer people. She is the only girl on the beach in high heels and a skirt, and it occurs to her that she must stand out. She fingers the razors in her pocket and thinks of renting a room and killing herself here by the seaside; but then she remembers she’d have to share a bathroom with others, hardly the place for a solitary suicide. She sits on her favorite sand bar and watches the tide come in. She sits a little longer, seeing if the sea will make the decision for her; but the water is too cold. She gets up and walks to where she left her shoes.