The Bell Jar Chapter 17 and 18 Summary

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath Menu

Chapter 17 Summary

One morning she’s informed by a nurse she’s being moved to Belsize, apparently another step up. She panics – she thinks she’s not ready to move up. Joan was already at Belsize, and had all sorts of extra privileges, like walking, shopping and town privileges. Esther is actually quite bitter about all of Joan’s progress and secretly hopes Joan will be gone by the time she gets there. At least, she thought, she wouldn’t have to worry about the threat of shock treatments at Belsize.

Even the patients were different at Belsize; they were dressed better, wore make-up and some were even married. Esther feels out of place, and as if all the women are staring at her like she’s some lower life form. That evening when they’re all sitting around in the lounge, one of them, DeeDee, is playing the piano, Esther joins them. She has just started a conversation with one of the women when Joan holds up a magazine and asks Esther if that’s her in the pages. Esther describes the picture: “The magazine photography showed a girl in a strapless dress.grinning fit to split, with a whole lot of boys bending in around her.” She maintains the picture is not of her.

A few of the women get a bridge game together, and talk a nurse into being the fourth. It turns out the nurse works two places – at this asylum and at the state hospital which she describes in pretty dismal terms. The way the nurse looks at her, Esther knows the nurse doesn’t think she belongs at Belsize.

The next morning Esther wakes up as a nurse walks in her room and realizes immediately the nurse is not carrying a breakfast tray; it must be some mistake, she thinks. She gets up and heads down to the kitchen herself and asks for her tray; she’s told it’s not a mistake – she isn’t scheduled to have breakfast that day. She knows what this means: shock treatments. She hides in an alcove of the hall, furious with Dr. Nolan. Dr. Nolan appears herself, saying she hadn’t told her ahead of time because she didn’t want her to stay awake the whole night before worrying. But the doctor promises to take her over herself and stay with her the whole time.

Esther is terrified: she walks into the treatment room with her eyes half-closed – she can’t even bear to look. The technician, Miss Huey, readies her for treatment. Miss Huey puts something on Esther’s tongue and in a panic she bites down; just then, “darkness wiped me out like chalk on a blackboard.”

Chapter 18 Summary

Esther wakes up disoriented, but feeling deeply rested. Doctor Nolan is there and immediately leads her outside into the fresh air, and Esther feels surprisingly at peace: “The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.” Dr. Nolan asks, it was like I told you, wasn’t it? Esther says yes; Dr. Nolan tells her she’ll be having shock treatments three times a week. As Esther eats breakfast, she looks at the knife on the table and can’t remember why she had loved knives before, what their purpose would have been.

Some time passes, and one day Joan sticks her head in Esther’s room and announces she’s received a letter; Esther mumbles a noncommittal reply. While Esther has been rapidly improving, earning more privileges, Joan seems to be doing worse – they’d taken her books away and lately she’d been confined to grounds. It turns out both Esther and Joan have received letters from Buddy – he’s better and out of the hospital. Joan asks Esther if she’s going to marry him. She replies, “No, are you?” Joan grins and says no; she never liked Buddy much anyway, she preferred his family. They were so nice and happy, unlike her own. But Joan didn’t see them once Esther started dating Buddy. Esther is surprised Joan liked the Willards so much, since she had despised them. She wonders if she should let Buddy come visit; Joan hopes she does, so she can see Mrs. Willard again. Esther puzzles at this attraction; she thinks back to earlier that morning when she’d gone into DeeDee’s room to borrow some sheet music; she knocked and went in, thinking no one was there, and she interrupted DeeDee and Joan in bed. Esther looks at Joan; in spite of a creepy feeling, Joan fascinated her, like a warty toad. Sometimes she wondered if Joan was just a figment of her own mind, someone who would appear at regular intervals in her life and go through similar crises.

In her interview with Dr. Nolan that day, Esther asks her what women see in other women. Dr. Nolan pauses, and then replies, “Tenderness,” which shuts Esther up. Esther remembers back to college when there had been some gossip about two women, that someone had walked in on them embracing. “But what were they doing?” Esther had demanded. When she was told one was just stroking the other’s hair, she was disappointed – she’d expected a juicy revelation. She also thought of a famous poet who lived at her college with another woman; one time she’d horrified the poet by saying she might just get married and have a pack of children. Why did she attract these weird old women, Esther thinks?

Joan declares that she likes Esther; Esther replies that she doesn’t like Joan: “You make me puke, if you want to know.” She leaves the room, Joan still lying on her bed.

The scene shifts, and Esther is at a doctor’s office to be fitted for a diaphragm. Dr. Nolan had provided her with a referral and she’s used some of the money from Mrs. Guinea to pay for it. She sits in the gynecologist’s waiting room looking at parenting magazines, wondering about women and motherhood. Why was she so unmaternal? If she had to care for a baby all day, she thought, she’d go mad. The whole time she is on the examination table, she thinks how this means freedom for her. She was her own woman; now she just had to find the right man.