The Bell Jar – Chapters 13–14

Summary: Chapter 13
Esther goes to the beach with her friend Jody, Jody’s
boyfriend Mark, and a man her age named Cal. She and Cal talk about
a play in which a mother considers killing her son because he has
gone mad. Esther asks Cal what method he would use if he were going
to kill himself, and he says he would shoot himself. This answer
disappoints her; she thinks shooting oneself a typically male way
of committing suicide, and decides that not only would she have
little chance of getting a gun, but she would not know where to
shoot herself even if she did get one. She decides to try to drown
herself in the ocean. Cal swims out with her, but decides he cannot
make it to the rock that is their destination. Esther continues
swimming, thinking she will continue until she tires, and then let
herself drown. As she swims, the mantra “I am I am I am” thuds in
her mind.
She thinks of that morning, when she tried to hang herself.
She removed the cord from her mother’s bathrobe and walked around the
house looking for a place to hang the rope. She could not find a suitable
place, however, and tried to kill herself by pulling the rope tightly
around her neck, but every time she started to feel woozy, her hands
weakened and loosened their hold on the rope. She thought of going
to a doctor again instead of killing herself, but then imagined
living in a private hospital and impoverishing her family with the
cost of her care, and ending up in a state hospital.
Esther decides not to swim to the rock, as she thinks
her body will rebel and regain its strength by resting on the rock,
and she decides to drown where she is. She pushes herself down through
the water, but every time she dives, her body bobs to the surface.
Her mother says that Esther should pull herself out of
her depression by thinking of others, so Esther volunteers at the
local hospital. On her first day, she must deliver flowers to women
who have just given birth. Esther throws out the dead and dying
flowers and rearranges the bouquets, which displeases the women.
They complain, and Esther runs away from the hospital. Esther considers
becoming Catholic, thinking the Catholics could talk her out of
suicide, or let her become a nun, but her mother laughs at the idea
of a conversion to Catholicism. Esther goes to visit her father’s
grave for the first time. After some effort, she finds his stone
and begins to weep. She realizes she has never cried about her father’s
death; she did not see his corpse, and she was not allowed to attend
his funeral, so his death never seemed real to her. Her mother never
cried either, but smiled and said he would rather die than be crippled
for life.
Esther decides on her method of suicide. After her mother
leaves for work, she writes a note saying she has gone for a long
walk. Then she retrieves her sleeping pills from her mother’s lockbox.
She hides herself in a crawl space in the cellar, takes about fifty
pills, and drifts off to sleep.
Summary: Chapter 14
Esther wakes, semiconscious, in darkness. She feels wind
and hears voices, and light begins to pierce the darkness. She calls
out for her mother. She does not realize she is in a hospital, and
when she says aloud that she cannot see, a cheerful voice tells
her she can marry a blind man. Soon a doctor visits her and says
her eyesight is intact and a nurse must have been joking with her—she
cannot see because bandages cover her head. Esther’s mother and
brother come to visit. She wishes her mother would leave, and tells
her brother that she feels as she did before she tried to kill herself.
She denies calling out for her mother. A young doctor who is an
old acquaintance, George Bakewell, visits Esther and she sends him
away. She does not really remember him, and thinks he only wants
to see how a suicidal girl looks. She asks to see a mirror, and
when she sees her bruised face and shaved head, she drops the mirror.
The broken mirror angers the nurses, and Esther is moved to a hospital
in the city.
In the new hospital, Esther has a bed next to a woman
she believes is named Mrs. Tomolillo. When she tells Mrs. Tomollilo that
she tried to kill herself, Mrs. Tomollilo asks the doctors to draw the
curtain that separates the beds. Esther’s mother comes to visit and
reproaches Esther for not cooperating with the doctors. Esther thinks
she sees Mrs. Tomolillo imitating her mother, and feels certain
that the doctors give out false names and write down what she says.
She asks her mother to get her out of the hospital, and her mother
agrees to try. One day during mealtime, a woman named Mrs. Mole
dumps green beans everywhere. The new attendant behaves rudely to
Esther when she tells him not to clear the plates yet. She becomes
convinced that he has served two kinds of beans in order to test
their patience. When the nurse is not watching, Esther kicks him
in the calf. Another day, a nurse rests her tray of thermometers
on Esther’s bed, and Esther kicks it to the floor. The nurses move
her to Mrs. Mole’s old room, and she pockets a ball of mercury along
the way.
Analysis: Chapters 13–14
After many nervous and tentative attempts at suicide,
Esther makes a serious attempt to kill herself. This drastic climax
seems strangely anticlimactic, however. Esther does not carry through
her first suicide attempts because of fear and practical considerations,
and we begin to wonder how serious she is about killing herself
since she seems so easily dissuaded by small obstacles. When Esther
finally makes her nearly successful attempt, nothing in her tone
warns us that this attempt will be decisive. Only after the near
finality of her attempt do we realize that she has stopped speculating
about killing herself, or warming up to do it, and has actually
found a practical way of committing suicide. Her matter-of-fact
tone as she procures the sleeping pills, pulls herself into the
basement crawl space, and takes the pills makes us almost forget
that she is doing something momentous in actually trying to take
her own life. Again, she focuses not on why she wants to commit
suicide, but on how she can achieve this goal, and she coaxes us
into thinking in the same way she does.
Plath suggests that despite the many stresses in Esther’s
life, she attempts suicide because of mental illness, not because
of external factors. Those external factors are numerous. Esther
cannot be the ideal 1950s woman, chaste,
cheerful, and subordinate to her husband. The darkness of life disturbs
her—the execution of the Rosenbergs, the suffering and death she
witnesses at Buddy’s medical school, and the abandonment, distrust,
and violence that mark her experience with men. She views the future
with apprehension. Family problems exist for Esther too. She lost
her father at a young age and, particularly in these chapters, she
complains of a cruel mother who laughs at her daughter’s desperate
desire to become a Catholic, and smiles at the death of her husband.
Still, none of these problems seem insurmountable. Esther has mustered
the strength to stand up to Buddy. Her mother, although imperfect,
clearly loves her, and the adult Esther suggests that the youthful
Esther is crazed and misinterprets her mother’s actions as sinister.
Esther’s numerous academic successes seem to outweigh her perfectly
normal fears about the future. Therefore, Esther’s own mind, not
the difficult events of her life, spurs her desire to kill herself.
This lack of motive is the most frightening element of Esther’s
suicide attempt, for her mental illness is mysterious, complex,
and completely beyond her control.
After her attempt, nothing changes. She feels equally
despairing and begins to feel even more paranoid, worrying that
the doctors are giving out false names and recording her conversations.