It’s January and Esther will soon return to college. She has only to pass next week’s interview with a board of doctors and she’ll be free to go. Dr. Nolan has warned her frankly that most people at college will act awkwardly around her or avoid her altogether, treating her “like a leper with a warning bell.” Her mother has visited and invited Esther to put the past away like “a bad dream.” But, Esther thinks, “to the person in the bell jar…the world itself is the bad dream” and she can’t forget any of the experiences of her mental illness, that they are her “part of [her]” now. Later Esther wonders what the real difference is between girls at Belsize and the girls at college, who also “sat under bell jars of a sort.”
As Dr. Nolan points out, Esther’s time spent in mental health institutions will forever brand her in society. Esther knows this to be true even though many other people who have never been institutionalized may share similar psychological conditions or experiences with those who have been officially institutionalized. The girls at Esther’s school, she knows, sit under their own bell jars.
Buddy comes to the asylum to visit Esther. She expects to feel some twinge at seeing him, but feels nothing. His car is stuck in a snowdrift and she digs it out for him, though, when she first offers to, he looks at her with “the same compound of curiosity and wariness” that Esther detected in the eyes of all her guests at the asylum. She laughingly reminds Buddy that she’s “all right” and that it’s he, not she, who shouldn’t exert himself.
Buddy’s wariness about Esther digging out the car confuses physical and mental health—Esther’s sickness, unlike his own, was purely psychological and has thus left her perfectly capable of physical exertion.
Over tea, Buddy asks Esther the question he’s come to ask, wanting to know if she thinks that there’s something about him that “drives women crazy.” His manner is newly “grave, even tentative,” lacking his old confident bravado. Esther thinks it is the face of a man “who often does not get what he wants.” She assures him that he is not at fault for her or Joan’s illness. Inwardly, Esther recalls Dr. Nolan angrily reprimanding her for blaming herself for Joan’s death. Dr. Nolan had assured her that even “the best of psychiatrists has suicides among their patients” and that Joan was the only person responsible for her death.
Where Buddy used to be chauvinistically confident and authoritative, he has unlearned the bravado that 1950s sexist society once trained him to cultivate. Wise as always, Dr. Nolan emphasizes the distinction between psychiatric care/concern for another person and each individual’s essential psychic independence.
The day before her interview, Esther walks the asylum grounds, bidding farewell to Valerie’s “calm, snow-maiden face behind which so little, bad or good, could happen.” Esther wonders if the bell jar will descend on her again on the future. She worries, too, who she will marry now that she’s been institutionalized, thinking back to Buddy’s question which he’d asked on his visit “as if to revenge himself for my digging out the car and his having to stand by, ‘I wonder who you’ll marry now, Esther.’”
Even though Esther is reentering her old life at college, she knows that she is irreversibly transformed. Her old notions of what she would do with her life and who she might marry are no longer applicable. And she will forever afterwards be wary of future mental illness, of recurring descents of the bell jar.
Esther calls Irwin to remind him to pay the bill for her Emergency Room visit after their affair. When he asks when he’ll get to see her again, Esther tells him ‘Never,’ and feels “unaccountably weak-kneed and relieved” at being “perfectly free.”
Empowered as a woman and a sexual free agent, Esther acts with confidence in her own best interests.
Esther remembers how she had attended Joan’s funeral and thought of the hole in the ground where “that shadow would marry this shadow, and the peculiar, yellowish soil of our locality seal the wound in whiteness and yet another snowfall erase the traces of newness in Joan’s grave.” She had heard her own heart make its “old brag…I am, I am, I am.”
Compared to Esther’s thoughts about death during her mental illness, her thoughts now are peaceful and serene. Even as she sees death in terms of “shadow” and “wound,” she sees it also in terms of purity, of “whiteness” and “newness.”
Preparing to enter her interview, Esther has none of the certainty and knowledge she’d hoped to have upon leaving the asylum. She sees the asylum librarian, an alumna of the asylum, and wonders “how she knew she had really graduated at all.” Esther thinks that there should be “a ritual for being born twice.” As she is trying to think of one, Dr. Nolan gestures into the room. Approaching the familiar faces and eyes of the doctors, Esther steps into the room.
Esther acknowledges her mental illness and experiences at the asylum as a permanent, inescapable part of her life, but her return to the healthy world nevertheless feels to her like a purifying ritual, a kind of second birth.