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Free Study Guide for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath BookNotes

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Esther is struck by the predominant use of beige in the furnishing of Doctor Gordonís office. She is still wearing Betsyís clothes, unwashed for three weeks. She also hasnít washed her hair for three weeks and she hasnít slept for seven nights. Her mother has argued with her, telling her not sleeping for so long is impossible. She has stopped washing because it seems pointless to wash only to have to wash again and again. "I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it."

Doctor Gordon sits at a huge desk across from her and tells her that he has heard from her mother that she is upset. Esther hates him. He is so pretty when she had imagined an ugly, but intuitive man encouraging and understanding her. Then she would have been able to say how afraid she is "as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out." Then this fantasy psychiatrist would tell her what the problem was, why she canít sleep, read, or eat, and why everything everyone does seems so silly to her. This doctor would help to her be herself again. Doctor Gordon, instead, is young and good-looking and conceited. He has a picture of his family turned so the patient can see it. It makes Esther furious. She first thinks he has the picture there so she wonít get any romantic ideas about him. Then she thinks itís impossible for this man with this family "haloing him" to help her.

When he asks her to tell him what she thinks is wrong, she suspects that he is not going to believe her as if what she thinks and what is reality are two separate things. She tells him about the inability to sleep, eat, and read. She doesnít tell him about the handwriting, her most disturbing symptom. When she had tried to write a letter to Doreen that morning, to ask if she could come live with her for the summer, her "hand made big, jerky letters like those of a child." She had torn the paper into little pieces and put them into her purse in case the doctor wanted to see them. She feels pleased at her cleverness in not telling him about this. She wants to control the picture he has of her. When she finishes talking, Doctor Gordon asks her where she went to college. At her answer, he gets a reminiscent smile on his face and says he was there during the war. He wants to know if they had a WAC (a womenís unit in the armed services) station there. He says, "My, they were a pretty bunch of girls" and laughs. Then he rises and shakes her hand saying heíll see her next week.

Outside, her mother waits in the car for her. She looks anxious. She tells her mother that Gordon only said heíd see her next week. She knows the cost of the visit is hard on her mother.

Esther is walking down the street when a sailor calls out to her. She tells him her name is Ellie Higginbottom and that sheís from Chicago. She thinks of Chicago as the "sort of place where crazy, mixed-up people would come from." He puts his arm around her waist. She thinks she will actually re-name herself Elly Higgenbottom if she ever moves to Chicago. Then she will be able to hide her failures: throwing away a month in New York and rejecting a medical student for a husband. "In Chicago, people would take me for what I was." She would tell people she was an orphan. They would love her for her "sweet, quiet nature." One day she might marry a garage mechanic and "have a big cowy family." She asks the sailor if he ever thought of becoming a garage mechanic. He hasnít. She tells him sheís thirty years old. He tells her they should go around behind some stairs so they can kiss. Esther notices a woman who looks like Mrs. Willard. She acts like the sailor is a stranger, asking him the way to the subway. She tells him to take his hands off her. The woman passes and itís not Mrs. Willard, after all. She tells the sailor she thought it was a woman from the orphan home where she grew up. He comforts her and she begins to cry.

The next week in Doctor Gordonís office, she tells him she feels the same. She tells him again, this time more angrily, of her symptoms. He seems unimpressed. She takes out the scraps of paper from the letter she tore up and lets them fall onto his immaculate desk. He tells her he wants to speak to her mother. She picks up the pieces of the letter and leaves. When her mother comes back, she looks like sheís been crying. Her mother doesnít look at her. She says Doctor Gordon has recommended shock treatment at his private hospital in Walton. She worries that she will have to live there, but her mother says that is not planned for her.

Headline: "Suicide saved from seven story ledge!" Esther reads a newspaper account of a man, George Pollucci, who was talked down after two hours of standing on a ledge. Esther is sitting in the park eating peanuts she has bought to feed the pigeons. She looks closely at the picture of George Pollucci, but can find no answers in his features. The article tells her neither why George Pollucci was on the ledge nor how the police officer talked him down. She gauges the right number of stories for jumping from a building. If they were too few, the person might live. The newspaper is what her mother calls a scandal sheet. It is full of stories of murders, beatings, robberies, and half-naked women. These are all Esther can read these days. Her mother only gets the Christian Science Monitor, which never features stories of suicides, sex crimes, and crashes. As she sits on a park bench, she sees a boat shaped like a swan filled with children approach and then turn away. Everything seems very small. She pictures a memory of her and her younger brother climbing into a swan boat one time. They always got a swan boat ride if they were good at the dentistís. She walks around the park. She reads the name plaques on the trees. She especially loves the Weeping Scholar Tree, assuming it came from Japan where they "understood things of the spirit." She thinks of the old Japanese practice of committing suicide by disemboweling themselves. She thinks of the steps in the process and then says her trouble is that she hates the sight of blood.

She wishes she could spend the night in the park. The next morning Dodo Conway will drive her and her mother to Walton. She thinks of running away before itís too late. She notices that she doesnít have enough money in her purse. She doesnít dare go to the bank to draw money out because Doctor Gordon might have warned the bank clerk. She walks to the bus terminal to find out the cost of a trip to Chicago. She decides sheíll withdraw exactly the amount of money required so as to reduce suspicion. Then she realizes her bank would be closed and wouldnít open the next morning until too late. She gets on a bus headed for her home.


"Doctor Gordonís waiting room was hushed and beige," another of Plathís vivid chapter openings, full of wry irony. Doctor Gordon himself seems a little beige. The reader knows Esther has not slept in days or bathed in weeks, and yet Doctor Gordon can only respond to her by musing nostalgically about the pretty "girls" of his youth. While Estherís instincts about Doctor Gordonís ineptitude seem to capture reality accurately, she also projects a great many of her own fears onto him. Projection is a psychological phenomenon common to everyone. When a person feels overwhelmed with her/his own feelings, unable to deal with them, she/he will project them onto someone else and say it is this other person who has the problem and the best solution is to get away from that person or engage in a struggle with that person in an attempt to change her or his behavior. Esther projects her overwhelming problems onto Doctor Gordon. She locks onto the image of normative family life in his family photograph. It is just this patriarchal family, one that seems to be compulsory in her society, that Esther resists so strongly. In Estherís mind, Doctor Gordon becomes an ever-present threat in Estherís mind. He has control even over the bank teller.

Estherís suicidal thoughts are revealed only in her preoccupation with suicides: George Pollucci and the Japanese practice of hari cari. She is only able to read the lurid stories of out of the ordinary events, murders, rapes, and suicides, because the ordinary life which surrounds her is so impossible to deal with.

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