While the first half of The Bell Jar introduces the reader to the character of Esther and the world she inhabits, the second half truly allows the reader to witness firsthand how Esther’s mind unravels as depression takes its toll on her. Esther meets Dr. Gordon, who insists on administering shock therapy when talking results in no improvements. The experience of shock therapy feels like slumber when done correctly, but Esther’s consciousness during parts of the shock therapy leaves her traumatized despite her external appearance of recovery.
Life goes on, but Esther’s depression lingers as she is consumed by suicidal thoughts. She contemplates and half-plans a variety of attempts: cutting herself in the bathtub with a razor blade, drowning in the depths of the sea, hanging herself with her mother’s bathrobe drawstring. She becomes aware of her body’s physiological desire to live, and its resistance to her suicide attempts. Finally, she finds her answer in her mother’s sleeping pills, and she overdoses within the comfortable confines of the cellar.
Miraculously, her groans give away her hiding spot and Esther’s mother finds her. She is initially admitted to the state hospital, but her sponsor Philomena Guinea has her transferred to a better private hospital. While taking insulin injections, Esther spends time with Valerie and Miss Norris before Joan, the girl that Buddy once took to a school dance, is admitted as well. She establishes a good relationship with Dr. Nolan, and gets moved up to Belsize with Joan, the final step before she reenters the real world. Although Dr. Nolan had initially assured her that she would not have to receive any more shock treatment, Dr. Nolan stands by Esther’s side and makes sure that it is done properly.
As winter semester draws nearer, Esther seems to be doing better. She gets fitted for birth control and loses her virginity to a professor named Irwin, but she feels pain rather than pleasure and bleeds tremendously. Joan helps her to the hospital, but this emergency seems to traumatize Joan for she hangs herself just a few days after. The novel draws abruptly to a close, just as Esther enters into a room full of doctors to demonstrate her readiness for restitution.
Although I knew that this was a book about mental illness, the intensity of Plath’s writing and the pain of experiencing Esther’s suicidal thoughts took me aback. My experiences of reading the novel in many ways seemed to parallel Esther’s experiences of coping with mental illness as embodied by the metaphor of the bell jar. There were times, particularly as she described her elaborate suicide schemes, where I felt as though a bell jar was enclosing around me. I was overwhelmed by the naked honesty and bold vulnerability of Esther (or Plath, if interpreted autobiographically) as she exposed her mind in such an unhindered way. Interspersed amongst these painful passages of depression were moments when Esther was doing better, and it was at these times that her personality shined through, other aspects of her character came to life, and I could feel the bell jar lift from around me. This speaks to Plath’s incredible success at capturing her experiences and illuminating mental illness by carefully crafting language.
- How does Esther’s depression manifest itself in the writing style of the second half of the novel?
- What is the role of supporting characters, particularly other psychiatric patients, in exposing the psychiatric ward? How do these interactions influence Esther?
- How does viewing the novel through an autobiographical lens illuminate certain aspects of the plot and the language and eclipse others? An illness narrative lens?