The next day, Esther arrives at Dr. Gordon’s private hospital for shock therapy and is surprised to see that the hospital is just a “normal,” quiet house with unbarred windows and no signs of insanity. At first, the people sitting around the living-room look normal too, but then Esther realizes that “there was a uniformity to their faces” and that they either don’t move or move in small, strange, “birdlike gestures.” Sitting waiting among them, Esther feels she is in a window display of a huge department store and the patients around her “weren’t people, but shop dummies, painted to resemble people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life.”
The appearance of the hospital and its residents provides a stark example of the divide between mind and body. Though the hospital and its patients present a physically normal appearance, that appearance belies their highly abnormal internal character.
Dr. Gordon leads Esther to another wing of the hospital for her shock treatment. She had tried to ask questions about the treatment but found no words would come out of her mouth when she tried. On the walk there, she sees the windows in this part of the house are indeed barred and encounters a ranting woman restrained by a nurse. Esther lies down in the room for shock treatment and Dr. Gordon fits her head with metal plates and a wire bit. The shock treatment feels like intensely violent and jolting, “the end of the world.” Esther wonders “what terrible thing it was that I had done.”
Plath’s prose captures the horrifying pain that electric shock treatments could inflict. Esther’s anguished thought, wondering what she has done wrong, expresses a disturbing medical dynamic whereby patients feel they are being punished rather than treated.
In Dr. Gordon’s office, Esther lies and says she feels fine when she feels wretched. She remembers getting electrocuted in childhood by an old lamp. Dr. Gordon asks about Esther’s college and reminisces once again about his own past experience with it. He tells Esther’s tense mother that a few more shock treatments will yield “a wonderful improvement” in Esther. One of the mental patients in the living room sticks her tongue out at Esther and, when her mother and Dr. Gordon can’t see her, Esther pulls a face at the girl. On the ride home, Esther feels “dumb and subdued,” unable to concentrate on anything. She tells her mother to call Dr. Gordon and tell him she’s through with his treatments. Esther’s mother is relieved, saying she knew Esther wasn’t like “those awful dead people at that hospital” and that Esther would “decide to be all right again.”
Dr. Gordon continues to reveal his own ineptitude and insensitivity as a psychiatrist. Esther chooses to engage with the other mental patients rather than considering herself above their antics, as Dr. Gordon and her mother do. Though she means well, Esther’s mother fundamentally misunderstands the nature of mental illness, thinking that it is a matter of choice and ‘deciding’ to be well rather than the involuntary disease it actually is.
Another day, Esther sits in the park in Boston reading a tabloid article about a dead starlet. She takes out a snapshot of herself she’d taken in a photobooth that day and holds it next to the newspaper photo of the dead starlet: “it matched, mouth for mouth, nose for nose.” She is sure that, were they open, the starlet’s eyes would match her own “dead, black, vacant expression” in the snapshot.
Once again, Esther looks to others’ bodily appearances for indications of psychological affinity. As when she sought out the image of the suicidal man, Esther feels connected to someone else’s damaged body and unstable mind.
Esther thinks about how she’d tried to slit her wrists that morning. Her mind echoes with Jay Cee and Buddy’s discouraging assessments of her character: “the perfect set-up of a true neurotic”; “you’ll never get anywhere like that.” She hasn’t slept for three weeks. That morning, she’d tried but hadn’t been able to cut her wrist, whose skin “looked so white and defenseless.” Esther had thought, “It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.” Standing there in the bathroom, she’d tried standing in front of a mirror, thinking, “if I looked in the mirror while I did it, it would be like watching somebody else.” Still, “the person in the mirror was paralyzed and too stupid to do a thing” and she’d simply dropped the razor on her calf, seen the blood, and realized it was too late to kill herself (her mother would be getting home soon). Then she’d caught the bus to Boston.
Esther’s suicide attempt demonstrates her alienation from her body while also showing her intractable connection to that body and that body’s wellbeing. She is affected by the vulnerability of her own flesh and recognizes that her flesh itself is not what she wants to kill. Rather, she seeks out something “deeper, more secret” lingering behind the skin. She thinks that looking at her mirrored reflection (rather than her flesh itself) might help her to feel more stoic towards her body and make suicide easier. Yet, as often, Esther’s limbs seem unable to carry out the task her mind wants them to perform.
Esther gets a transit worker to explain to her how to get to Deer Island Prison by crying desperately and saying that her father is in the prison. When she gets to the beach in front of the prison, a guard stops her from walking it and she chats with him about the prison, which looks “friendly, like the buildings of a seaside college.” She tells him she used to live in the town by the prison, which is where he was born too. She thinks how nice it would have been to grow up and marry this prison guard. She asks him what it takes to get locked in the prison and he tells her that homeless people in Boston often break a store window at the start of winter in order to spend a few months in prison, protected from the cold. “That’s nice,” Esther says, and walks off down the beach.
As the mental hospital’s physical appearance seemed out of line with its function, so too does the prison’s cheery look contradict its grim purpose. Esther’s thought that it would have been nice to marry the prison guard, and that it might even be nice to spend a winter in prison, represents a new understanding of what is “nice” and worth aspiring to, an understanding she would not have related to in the past.
Further down the beach, Esther sits on a log on a sandbar she remembers from her childhood. The beach is overrun with summer people, though Esther stands out as the only person in skirt and high heels. She contemplates slitting her wrists with the razors in her purse but realizes she has no warm bath. Esther is approached by a nagging little boy, Arthur, who warns her the tide is coming in, then pretends not to have been talking with her when his mother calls for him. He leaves. Esther sits still, “as if the sea could make my decision for me.” The freezing tide reaches her feet. “My flesh winced, in cowardice, from such a death,” Esther thinks, and rises to retreat back up the beach.
Esther’s physical appearance sets her apart from the other beachgoers and makes her seem questionable, strange—the kind of person Arthur wouldn’t want his mother to see him talking to. Though Esther is mentally attracted to the prospect of letting the sea rise over and drown her, her body would not be able to sit still for such a death.