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Free Study Guide for The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath BookNotes

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CHAPTER 18


Summary

Esther wakes up to hear Doctor Nolan calling her name. Doctor Nolan leads her outside. "All the heat and fear purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air." Esther agrees that the treatment was like Doctor Nolan had told her it would be. Doctor Nolan tells her she will have them three times a week.

Esther is in the lounge eating a boiled egg. She hears Joan and DeeDee at the piano. DeeDee is teaching Joan how to play chopsticks. Esther thinks they are both sad cases, with Joan looking like a horse and DeeDee suffering from an unfaithful husband.

Joan comes into Estherís room announcing that she has a letter from Buddy Willard. Esther has gotten one too. Heís out of the hospital. Joan wants to know if Esther will marry him. Esther says no and asks if Joan will. Joan says she doesnít like him, only his family. They were so nice and happy that Joan used to go over to see them all the time until Esther came along. She had stopped when Esther and Buddy started dating thinking it would look funny. She says Mrs. Willard was a real mother to her. That morning Esther had caught Joan and DeeDee together in DeeDeeís room. Although it is not clear what they are doing, it is clear that Esther thinks they are lesbians. Joan tells Esther she never liked Buddy Willard because he always thought he knew everything about women. Esther is fascinated with Joan. She wonders if Joan will pop up during every crisis of her life to remind her of what she had been.

When she asked Doctor Nolan what a woman would see in another woman that she didnít see in a man, Doctor Nolan had answered, "Tenderness." Joan tells her she likes her much better than she likes Buddy. Esther remembers a scandal at the college involving two women who saw too much of each other. Esther canít imagine what gay people do for sex. When Joan repeats that she likes her, Ester tells her, "Thatís tough, Joan, because I donít like you. You make me want to puke, if you want to know." She leaves the room leaving Joan lying across her bed.


Esther waits for a doctor Doctor Nolan has recommended. She is there for something that is illegal in Massachusetts. When the receptionist asks her what her appointment is for, she hesitates. The receptionist guesses itís for a fitting. As she pays the bill, she feels like she is buying her freedom. She remembers telling Doctor Nolan that she hates the thought of being under a manís thumb, living, that is, with the fear of getting pregnant. Unlike a man who can enjoy sex without this fear, a woman has "a baby hanging over her head like big stick, to keep her in line." Doctor Nolan had asked if she would feel better if she didnít have to worry about a baby. Esther had told her about the article her mother had given her on the defense of chastity. Doctor Nolan laughed and said it was nothing but propaganda.

The waiting room is filled with pregnant women and baby magazines. It seems as though having babies is easy to these other women while for Esther it is hard. She wonders why she is so "unmaternal and apart." After her fitting, she rides back to the asylum in the bus feeling as if she were "her own woman. She thinks the next step is to find the right man.


Notes

Lesbian sexuality is treated contemptuously. The stereotype of ugly lesbians is fully exploited here. Esther is curious about what gay people do together, but not curious enough to ask. Like Plathís treatment of people of color, her treatment of gay people is full of committed ignorance. On the other hand, Doctor Nolan, the most positive character in the novel, doesnít condemn it and sees it as a way for women to get tenderness.

As for straight sexuality, Esther has not had great experiences so far, but still hopes for happiness in this direction. Doctor Nolan helps free her from the fear of pregnancy so she can explore sex without worrying about marriage. The reader might be surprised to know that forms of birth control like the diaphragm for which Esther getting fitted were illegal for unmarried women at this time. Plath is clearly making a feminist appeal for womenís self-determination of their bodies.


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