The Bell Jar – Chapters 17–18

Summary: Chapter 17
Esther gets moved from Caplan, her current ward, to Belsize,
a ward for the women closest to release. She does not feel much
improved, but feels relieved that the threat of shock treatments
has diminished. The women at Belsize behave fairly normally, playing
bridge and gossiping. Esther sits with them, and Joan, who was moved
to Belsize earlier, finds a picture of Esther in her fashion magazine.
Esther says it is not her.
The next morning, the nurse fails to bring Esther a breakfast
tray. Esther thinks a mistake has been made, for only girls who
are to have shock treatments miss their morning tray. But the nurse
confirms that Esther will not receive her breakfast until later.
Esther hides in the hall and weeps, terrified by the prospect of
the treatment, but even more upset that Dr. Nolan did not warn her
as she promised to do. Dr. Nolan arrives and comforts her, saying
she did not tell Esther about the treatment the day before because
she did not want her to worry all night, and she will take Esther
to the treatment herself. Miss Huey, the nurse who administers the
treatment, speaks kindly to Esther. As soon as the treatment begins,
Esther falls unconscious.
Summary: Chapter 18
Esther wakes from her shock treatment to find Dr. Nolan
with her. They go outside, and Esther notices that the metaphorical
bell jar has lifted and she can breathe the open air. Dr. Nolan
tells her she will have shock treatments three times a week. Later,
when Esther cracks an egg open with a knife, she remembers she used
to love knives. When she tries to remember why, her mind “slipped
from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the center
of empty air.”
Both Joan and Esther receive letters from Buddy Willard,
who wants to come visit. Joan, who used to date Buddy, explains
that she liked Buddy’s family more than she liked him—they seemed
so normal compared to her own family. Joan wants Buddy to come visit and
bring his mother. Earlier Esther hated the idea of his visit, but now
she believes that it may allow her to close that part of her life.
Earlier that morning, Esther had come upon Joan and DeeDee, another
patient, in bed together. She asks Dr. Nolan what women saw in each
other, and Dr. Nolan responds, “Tenderness.” Now Joan tells Esther
that she likes her better than she likes Buddy. Esther recalls other
lesbians she has known, two college classmates who caused a small
scandal, and a professor. She roughly rebukes Joan and walks away.
Esther had told Dr. Nolan that she wants the kind of
freedom that men have, but she feels that the threat of pregnancy
hangs over her. She told her about the pamphlet on chastity her
mother sent her, and Dr. Nolan laughed, called it propaganda, and
gave her the name of a doctor who would help her. Esther goes to
the doctor to get fitted for a diaphragm. In the waiting room, she
observes the women with babies and wonders at her own lack of maternal
instinct. The doctor is cheerfully unobtrusive, and as he fits her
Esther thinks delightedly that she is gaining freedom from fear
and freedom from marrying the wrong person. Her birth control acquired,
Esther wants to find the right man with whom to lose her virginity.
Analysis: Chapters 17–18
Esther finds a mother figure in Dr. Nolan. When faced
with the prospect of shock treatment, Esther’s greatest fear is
not the therapy, but the possibility that Dr. Nolan has betrayed
her. She explains, “I liked Doctor Nolan, I loved her, I had given
her my trust on a platter and told her everything.” Dr. Nolan hugs
her “like a mother” and regains Esther’s trust by explaining her
actions. Dr. Nolan is the only character in the novel whom Esther
claims to love, and the only person she seems to trust entirely.
Esther’s ability to form such a loving relationship is an important
sign of her healing. She has formed what Freud called a “transference”
relationship with her psychiatrist, transferring the feelings that
she would normally have for her mother onto her doctor. In Freudian
theory, this relationship marks the beginning of healing, because
now Esther can explore her feelings about her actual mother in the
safe space of a surrogate relationship.
A combination of talk therapy, insulin treatment, and
shock therapy (shock therapy was standard treatment for mental illness
at the time) helps Esther feel less depressed and causes her to
forget her suicidal desires. The contradictory nature of the world
she must inhabit has not changed, but Esther is better able to deal
with it, both because of her own improved mental health, and because
she finds that some authorities support her views. Dr. Nolan confirms Esther’s
rejection of the sexual role that women are expected to play, dismissing
the article on chastity given to her by her mother as “propaganda.”
The male doctor who gives Esther a diaphragm is kind and does not
ask invasive questions about why Esther wants birth control. Esther
continues to sort out her feelings about men, recognizing the truth
of what Dr. Nolan says: many women lack tenderness in their relationships
with men. Esther continues to feel she needs to lose her virginity
in order to mark her rejection of the conventional expectation that
she will remain “pure” for her husband.