The Bell Jar

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The Bell Jar Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Some days later, Esther is being driven in Philomena Guinea’s chauffeured car to a private mental asylum. Her mother and brother sit on either side of her in the back seat. Her mother has explained that Philomena Guinea read about Esther’s story in a paper and telegrammed to find out if there was “a boy in the case.” When Esther’s mother explained that Esther was driven mad by fear that she might never write again, Philomena Guinea flew back from Barbados and sponsored Esther’s move to a private hospital. Philomena Guinea had, apparently, herself been institutionalized at the height of her career. Esther’s mother urges her to be grateful, but Esther is numb. She feels that no matter where she is, she “would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
With Philomena Guinea’s sympathetic assistance, Esther will be spared the frightening, brutal environments of public psychiatric facilities. Still, Esther feels unable to appreciate this assistance. Her mental illness traps her in the warped space of her own mind, a condition she compares to being placed under a bell jar, unable to relate to or interact meaningfully with the world around her.
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Esther is surprised by how open and unsupervised the new hospital is, and suspects that the other patients (cheerfully reading magazines and playing badminton) might not actually be crazy. She is introduced to her (female) doctor, Dr. Nolan, and to a bunch of (male) doctors, of whom there are so many, that she suspects the introductions are a test.
Accustomed to the more restricted environment of the city hospital, Esther suspects that the plush, liberated environment of the private asylum is a sham. In psychiatry, as in many professional careers of the 1950s, men far outnumbered women.
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Later, Dr. Nolan visits Esther in her room and asks about her experience with Dr. Gordon. At first, Esther is reluctant to tell the truth, wary that “the doctors must all be in it together.” But when she tells Dr. Nolan her honest feelings, Dr. Nolan comforts her, assuring Esther that Dr. Gordon’s painful treatments were a mistake, that electric shock (performed properly) isn’t painful, and that she will personally tell Esther beforehand if she ever has to get shock treatments again. When Dr. Nolan leaves behind her matchbox, Esther wonders if Dr. Nolan is testing her. She stores the matches in her bathrobe hem.
It’s immediately apparent that Dr. Nolan is a superior psychiatrist to Dr. Gordon. She actually listens to Esther, considers Esther’s perspective, and promises to honor Esther’s health and happiness. In so doing, she wins Esther’s trust.
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In her first weeks at the new hospital, Esther visits a new patient on her ward, Miss. Norris, who is polite but silent and seems as oblivious to Esther’s presence as she is convinced that there are large barriers she must step over to get through each doorjamb. Esther fattens as she receives thrice-daily insulin injections, administered so she can have “a reaction” that never seems to come. Esther walks the grounds with Valerie, another patient in her ward (Caplan) who used to be very angry and in a more restrictive ward for more serious cases (Wymark). Then Valerie got a lobotomy (she shows Esther the scars), became calm-mannered, and has enjoyed freedoms to visit town or go shopping ever since. When Esther asks when she thinks she’ll get out Valerie, laughing, responds she isn’t leaving because she likes it at the hospital.
Like Esther’s, Miss Norris’ mental illness manifests as a disassociation of body and mind. She is oblivious to the actual physical characteristics of her environment and seems unable to make herself speak. Insulin injections and lobotomies were popular psychiatric treatments of the era. Yet the seeming ineffectiveness of the insulin injections on Esther and the frightening consequences of Valerie’s lobotomy (she now has no desire to reenter the healthy world) call the usefulness of these treatments into question.
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Some time later, Esther is moved into a sunnier room in Caplan the same day that Miss Norris (over whom Esther has kept frequent, futile vigils, hoping to hear her speak) is getting moved to Wymark. A nurse tells Esther that a friend has come to Caplan and urges Esther to visit. Esther complies and is flabbergasted to find Joan Gilling.
Within the hierarchy of the asylum, Esther is moving up (being shifted to a nicer room) while Miss Norris is descending (being shifted to Wymark, the house for more serious cases).
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