Esther regains consciousness in darkness, to the sound of somebody “moaning,” then crying “mother!” She feels a chisel periodically crack her eyelid to let light in “till the darkness clamped shut on it again.” Next she comes to consciousness on a bed, again in darkness, with “a cheery voice” telling her she’d “marry a nice blind man some day.” Next she comes to consciousness when a man “loosened something” above her eye, and she sees light again. He assures Esther she is not blind as she thinks she is.
Esther returns to consciousness utterly powerless over her body. The moaning and call presumably issue from her own mouth but she hears them as if uttered by someone else’s voice. She cannot even open her eyes and experiences vision as something someone chisels open or loosens on her face.
Esther wakes up in a hospital bed and receives an unwelcome visit from her distraught mother and brother, home from his summer in Germany. She denies her mother’s claim that Esther called for her. Esther receives another unwelcome visit from George Bakewell, a distant one-time acquaintance who is now a doctor. Feeling George doesn’t care about her but only wants to get a glimpse of an insane person, Esther orders him out of her room.
Though George Bakewell is a doctor, Esther senses that he is simply using his medical position as an excuse to ogle her condition, and bitterly resents him for it.
Later, Esther ignores the nurse’s warning and persuades the nurse to give her a mirror. At first, Esther thinks what she’s handed isn’t a mirror “but a picture” depicting a shaved and bloated head bruised multiple brilliant colors and raw with mouth sores. Esther smiles at the pictured face and the face smiles back. Esther drops the mirror, breaking it and causing commotion among the nurses who scold her and say she’ll get her due “at you-know-where.” Later, Esther is transported by ambulance to the psychiatric ward of the city hospital (the town hospital has no psych ward). Her mother rides with her, saying that, had she not broken the mirror, she might not have been moved.
Esther’s inability to recognize her own reflected face in the mirror shows just how wide the divide between her mind and body has become. The nurse’s scolding promises of punishment and her mother’s explanation of why Esther is being moved to the psychiatric ward infantilize Esther and treat her mental illness as if it were petulant misbehavior rather than the serious disease it is.
Later, Esther lies in bed in the city hospital psych ward. In the bed next to her lies an Italian woman who says she got admitted for sticking her tongue out at her mother-in-law. When she hears Esther tried to commit suicide, she stops conversing with Esther. A group of doctors enter to examine the patients and ask Esther how she feels. She says “lousy” and explains she can’t sleep or eat, but the doctors protest that she slept last night and she herself realizes she’s been “eating ravenously” ever since gaining consciousness.
Esther’s suicidal depression frightens the woman lying next to her, who apparently considers her own mental illness to be superior to Esther’s. Esther’s identity is again in flux as her suicide has distanced her from the non-sleeping, non-eating person she had become before trying to kill herself.
The group of doctors move on to examine the Italian woman and Esther hears them call her by an Italian name with many L’s, “like Mrs. Tomolillo.” From this point on, Esther refers to the woman as Mrs. Tomolillo. Mrs. Tomolillo points and whispers to the doctors about Esther and asks the doctors to close the bed-curtain between them, which they do.
Through the warped perspective of her mental illness, Esther conflates the identity of the woman she watched give birth at Buddy’s medical school with the identity of this woman in the psychiatric ward.
Another day, Esther sits on a bench outside the hospital with her mother. She sees Mrs. Tomolillo, sitting nearby, is imitating her mother but every time she tells her mother to turn around to see, Mrs. Tomolillo reverts to normal and Esther’s mother doesn’t believe her. Doctors keep coming up to Esther to introduce themselves. Esther thinks that some of them are too young to be doctors and suspects they are giving her false names. She thinks they are recording her conversation with her mother. She begs her mother to get her out of the hospital and, to Esther’s surprise, her mother agrees, on the condition that Esther promise to “be good” and start cooperating with hospital staff.
Esther’s extreme paranoia about Mrs. Tomolillo’s mimicry and the doctors’ false names is evidence of her own mental instability. Esther’s mother, as usual, does not understand the nature of mental illness and thinks that Esther is in voluntary control of her own behavior.
Later, in the psychiatric ward’s dining hall, Esther watches another patient, Mrs. Mole, get sent to her room for dumping a tureen of beans on her plate. Esther watches the new attendant gawk at them all, “his first crazy people.” He tries to clear away some of the patients’ plates before they’ve been served, and Esther tells him to wait. He mockingly calls her “Miss Mucky-Muck” under his breath. On her way out of the dining hall, Esther kicks him hard, saying “That’s what you get.”
Esther’s is as annoyed by the new attendant’s voyeuristic ogling as she was by George Bakewell’s. At first, she tries to preserve her and the rest of the patients’ dignity in his eyes by reasoning with him, asking him to treat them like deserving human beings. When he doesn’t respond, she resorts to physical violence.
Another day, as the nurse reads the thermometer she uses to take Esther’s temperature each day, Esther asks why they keep taking her temperature when it’s “normal.” Esther thinks, but doesn’t say, that she wishes something were wrong with her body: “I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head.” But she finds the idea too “wearisome” to articulate.
Though the medical establishment around her keeps on monitoring Esther’s physical health, Esther knows that her illness is not bodily but mental.
Seeing the nurse’s tray of thermometers propped on the covers over her feet, Esther slyly kicks the tray off and the thermometers shatter. The nurse is furious and doesn’t believe Esther’s claim that it was an accident. Esther manages to scoop up a ball of mercury before being hurried off and locked up in Mrs. Mole’s old room. The new attendant grins at her through the locked door. Esther ignores him and plays with her mercury. “If I dropped it, it would break into a million little replicas of itself,” she thinks, “and if I pushed them near each other, they would fuse, without a crack, into one whole again.” Esther doesn’t know what’s been done with Mrs. Mole.
Esther is punished by being put in solitary confinement, a common practice used to discipline misbehaving psychiatric patients at the time. Esther’s game with the mercury could be seen as a symbol for her fluctuating identity. The shiny, silver pieces of mercury resemble pieces of a mirror. Esther fractures and fuses them as she continues to fracture and recombine the pieces of her own identity.