The Bell Jar – Chapters 11–12

Summary: Chapter 11
Esther visits Dr. Gordon, a psychiatrist. She has not
changed clothes or washed her hair for three weeks, having decided
such chores are silly, and she says she has not slept for seven
nights. She hopes that Dr. Gordon will help bring her back to herself,
but she immediately distrusts him because he is good-looking and
seems conceited. On his desk he keeps a picture of his attractive
family, which makes Esther furious. She thinks he keeps the picture
there to ward off her advances, and assumes such a handsome man
with such a lovely family could never help her. Esther tells Dr.
Gordon that she cannot sleep, eat, or read, though she does not
tell him of her difficulty writing. That morning, she had attempted
to write a letter to Doreen, but could not write legibly. He asks
her where she goes to college and comments on how pretty the girls
were when he worked there during the war. When Esther tells her
mother that Dr. Gordon expects to see her the next week, Esther’s
mother sighs because Dr. Gordon charges twenty-five dollars an hour.
Esther flirts with a sailor on the Boston Common, pretending
she is Elly Higginbottom, an orphan from Chicago. She thinks she
sees Mrs. Willard approaching, but is wrong. When the sailor asks
what has upset her, she says she thought the woman was from her
orphanage in Chicago. The sailor asks if the woman was mean to her.
She says yes and cries, momentarily convinced that this horrible
woman caused everything unhappy in her life.
During her second visit to Dr. Gordon, Esther tells him
that she feels the same and shows him the torn-up letter she tried
to write to Doreen. He does not examine the scraps of paper, but
asks to see her mother, and tells Mrs. Greenwood that Esther needs
shock treatments at his hospital in Walton. Esther starts thinking
about suicide while reading a tabloid account of a man prevented
from jumping off a ledge. She finds she can read tabloid papers,
because their short paragraphs end before the letters start jumping
and sliding around. The next day Dodo Conway will drive Esther and
her mother to the hospital for the shock treatment. Esther considers
running away to Chicago, but realizes the bank will close before
she can withdraw bus fare.
Summary: Chapter 12
Esther goes to Dr. Gordon’s hospital for her shock treatment.
The hospital waiting room looks like part of a summer hotel, but
the inhabitants sit listlessly. They remind Esther of store mannequins. On
the way to her treatment, Esther encounters a woman who threatens
to jump out of the window, which she cannot do because bars across
the windows would prevent her. A nurse wearing thick glasses hooks
Esther up to the shock machine, and a jolt shakes Esther “like the
end of the world.” She wonders what awful thing she did to deserve
this punishment. The treatment reminds her of the time she accidentally
electrocuted herself with her father’s lamp. Dr. Gordon again asks
her what college she attends, and again remembers the nurses who
were stationed there during the war. Esther feels dreadful, and
tells her mother she is through with Dr. Gordon. Her mother says
that she knew Esther was not like those people at the hospital and
feels sure she would decide to get better.
Later, Esther sits in the park, comparing a picture of
herself to a newspaper picture of a starlet who has just died after
lingering in a coma. She thinks they look the same and imagines
that if the starlet’s eyes were open, as hers are, they would have
the same “dead, black, vacant expression” as her own. She decides
to sit on the park bench for five more minutes, and then go and
kill herself. She listens to her “little chorus of voices,” which
repeats critical remarks that people such as Buddy and Jay Cee have
made to her. That morning, she had tried to slit her wrists, but
could not bring herself to harm the fragile skin of her wrist and
practiced on her calf instead. After failing to slit her wrists,
she took a bus to Deer Island Prison, near her childhood home. She
talked with a guard and imagined that if she had met him earlier
and married him, she could have been living happily with children.
She went to the beach and again considered slitting her wrists,
but realized she did not have a warm bath to sit in afterward. She
sat on the beach until a small boy told her she should move because
the tide was coming in. She considered letting herself drown, but
when she put her foot in the water, she could not bear its frigid
temperature, and went home.
Analysis: Chapters 11–12
Esther’s illness becomes more severe. She cannot read,
because the letters appear to literally slide and dance when she
focuses her eyes on them. She seems to become delusional, instantly
hating her doctor and crying about the stranger in the park as if
she actually believes the unknown woman caused all of her problems.
Esther increasingly distrusts the medical establishment.
This distrust first appears in Chapter 6,
when she visits Buddy at medical school and watches a woman giving
birth. She recoils at the idea that a drug can erase a woman’s memory
of pain. Now Dr. Gordon and her mother encourage her to forget her
pain instead of understanding or easing it. Dr. Gordon does not
seem to hear Esther when she describes her symptoms. He demonstrates
that he has not really listened to her when, after her shock treatment,
he asks her for the second time where she goes to college and repeats
his inane comment about the pretty girls stationed there during
the war. He does not attempt to understand her suffering—rather,
he merely attempts to make her normal again with a shock treatment
that increases rather than diminishes her pain. Esther’s mother,
although well-meaning, also fails to understand her daughter’s suffering.
Esther says she will not need more shock treatment, and Esther’s
mother expresses relief, saying she knew Esther would decide to
be normal. Esther’s mother thinks of her daughter’s state as a passing
perversity or rebellion, not as a true illness. The numb and inactive
patients Esther sees at the hospital reinforce the idea that mental
illness is seen as a defect to be hidden, sanitized, and denied,
not an illness to be discussed, understood, or cured.
Her mother and doctor having failed her, Esther works
on her own cure, suicide. For the most part, she thinks not about why she wants
to kill herself, but about how to kill herself.
Her desire to take her life is careful and controlled, not wild
or desperate. She thinks rationally about the method, time, and
location for her act. In fact, she sounds at her most lucid when
thinking about taking her life. Her calm focus on the means of death
rather than the reason for death suggests that Esther wants to destroy
herself simply because it seems like the only way to stop her pain,
not because she irrationally hates herself. Her identification with
the dead starlet in the picture suggests she already feels dead,
and killing herself will simply bring her body in line with her
However, Esther realizes on some level that killing her
body will not provide satisfaction. After failing to slit her wrists,
for example, she explains, “It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t
in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb,
but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, a whole lot harder to get
at.” Esther understands that her body is not the enemy. The schism
between her mind and the world she inhabits is the true enemy, but
it is an enemy that Esther cannot reach. She feels that her only
choice is to shut down her mind by shutting down her body. We can
see the faultiness of this logic—Esther wants to save herself by
destroying herself. The novel, however, narrated from Esther’s perspective,
forces us to understand Esther’s point of view and see that, viewed
from some angles, her actions seem almost reasonable.