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Free Study Guide for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath BookNotes

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Esther notices that it is completely dark. She feels darkness and her head rises up, then some great weight smashes against her cheek and she loses consciousness again. She feels a cool wind. She feels as if she is being transported at a great speed through the earth. Then she hears voices in the distance. She feels a chisel crack down on her eye and she sees a slit of light, but then darkness falls again. She tries to get away from the light, but hands pull her back. She feels the chisel strike again and she is blinded by light. She hears a voice call out "Mother!"

She feels air move around her. It feels as though sheís in a large, airy room. She says she canít see and someone says cheerily that she will be fine being blind and will marry a blind man. The man with the chisel comes back to work on her eyes again. She tells him itís no use. Then she sees some light. He tells her that her sight is intact. Later, a nurse announces someone to see her. Itís her mother and brother. Her mother looks "loving and reproachful." Her mother is holding back from crying. When her brother asks how she is, she answers that sheís the same. Another visitor comes. Itís George Bakewell. He looks at her as if she were a zoo animal. He tells her he goes to her church and that she once dated his roommate in college. She tells him to get out and not come back.

Another day she asks a nurse for a mirror. At first the nurse tells her she cannot and then she gives in and hands her one. What Esther sees looks like a picture of someone whose gender is undeterminable because the head is shaved and sprouts in tufts. One side of the face is purple and bulges out. The mouth is brown. Esther smiles. The mouth in the mirror also smiles. She drops the mirror and another nurse rushes into the room. She scolds the first nurse for having let her see the mirror. The other nurse stands there and smugly says, "Seven years bad luck." Esther tells her thatís only a superstition. Then she hears the nurse say, "At you-know-where theyíll take care of her!"

Esther is riding in an ambulance with her mother and brother on either side of her. They are moving her from the hospital in her home town to the city hospital. Her mother says they want her in a special ward. When she complains, her motherís mouth tightens and she says, "You should have behaved better, then." Her mother attributes the move to the fact that she broke the mirror. Esther knows better.

In bed in the new hospital, Esther wants to get out of bed, but is not allowed to until the ward rounds have taken place. She shares a room with another woman, who giggles at her and wants to know why sheís there. She tells Esther sheís there because she canít stand her mother-in-law. When she had come for a visit, this womanís tongue stuck out and she couldnít stop it. She doesnít think she belongs in the ward "along with the nuts." When the woman asks Esther whatís wrong with her, Esther tells her she tried to kill herself. When the doctors come in on rounds. They ask her cheerfully how she is doing. She tells them she canít eat, sleep, or read. She realizes she has eaten very well since she came back to consciousness and they tell her she slept the night before. The doctors move on to the other woman in the room. Her name is Mrs. Tomolillo. She whispers to them and they pull the partition between her and Esther.

Esther is sitting outside in an exercise yard of the hospital. Her mother is with her. Every time Estherís mother moves, Mrs. Tomalillo imitates her. Ether tells her mother not to move because she is being imitated, but when her mother turns to look, Mrs. Tomalillo drops the pose. Many doctors come up and introduce themselves to Esther. Then they stand nearby and, she thinks, take down notes on what she is saying to her mother. She whispers in her motherís ear. Her mother is exasperated with her and asks her why she wonít cooperate. She tells her mother she needs to get out. She thinks if she gets out she can work on her motherís sympathies like the mother in the play so her mother will agree to let her die. Her mother agrees that she will try to get her out, but only to a better place. She makes Esther promise to be good.

An African-American man wheels a cart into the patientsí dining room. He is new on their ward. Esther can tell she and the other patients "were his first crazy people" by the way he stares at them. He puts the bowls on the table and he and the nurse stand back waiting to see if anyone will lift the lids. Mrs. Tomllillo had been doing it, but she has been sent home. Esther finally lifts the lid of one of the bowls. The nurse praises her and asks her to take some beans and pass the bowl to the others. She passes the bowl to a red-haired woman who is being allowed in the dining room for the first time. Esther has seen her at the end of the corridor yelling and laughing. This woman grabs the bowl of beans and turns it upside down on her plate. The nurse calls her Mrs. Mole tells her she will have to eat in her room. As she is being led off, she turns around and makes faces at those at the table. The African-American attendant comes back to begin to take the plates of those who had not finished eating yet. Esther tells him they arenít finished yet. He calls her "Miss Mucky-Muck" under his breath. Esther lifts the other lids and finds another kind of beans. She thinks the man is trying to bother them by serving two kinds of beans. As Esther is leaving, she walks around the table and gives the man a hard kick in the leg. He jumps back and says she shouldnít have done that. She tells him thatís what he gets.

Someone is asking Esther to get up out of bed. The nurse has just taken her temperature and says itís normal. Esther thinks that if only something were wrong with her body, it would be much better than having something wrong with her head. The nurse sets her tray down on Estherís bed in order to take the pulse of the person in the next bed. Esther kicks the tray off the bed, acting as if it were an accident. Esther is wheeled down to Mrs. Moleís old room. Esther grabs a ball of mercury before they get her out of the room. In the new room she rolls the mercury around her palm. She wonders what happened to Mrs. Mole.


The nurses in the first hospital seem a particularly callous lot. One tells Esther, a woman who just committed suicide, that she would have seven years bad luck. Another hints darkly about the psychiatric ward "fixing" her as if she were a naughty child in need of correction. Even her mother reduces Estherís severe depression and suicide attempt as misbehaving. Sheís so surrounded by ignorance and incompetence, the reader is fearful that these medical people will make matters even worse for her. When she gets to the Boston hospital, the staff seems better trained. Plath singles out only one orderly as a problem for Esther. Esther refers to him as "the Negro," indicating that her own ideas of race inform her paranoia.

Chapter 14 is primarily concerned with describing life in psychiatric wards from the point of view of someone who is herself an unreliable narrator because her view of reality is compromised by her illness. The reader is thus called upon to judge what is real and what is paranoia in Estherís account of the ward. Plath does an excellent job of giving the reader enough information to let her or him see whatís real and whatís not. When Esther worries about where Mrs. Mole was taken, the reader sees that her fear is justified, since she has just followed Mrs. Mole to the special room for problem patients. When Esther thinks the African-American orderly purposefully breaks the rules of culinary propriety by bringing two kinds of beans for the same meal, the reader sees that this man would not have control over the menu at the hospital.

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