The Bell Jar

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Themes and Colors
Mind vs. Body Theme Icon
Purity vs. Impurity Theme Icon
Women and Social Expectations Theme Icon
Personal Ambition Theme Icon
Medicine Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Bell Jar, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Medicine Theme Icon

From Buddy’s medical school laboratory to Esther’s ritzy private mental asylum, The Bell Jar surveys various medical practices in 1950s America and considers their effectiveness. Buddy embodies the ideals and attitudes of modern medicine at the time. He is active, physically fit, hardworking, committed to science, dismissive of the arts (he scoffs at Esther’s poetry), and rigorously unemotional (he has no qualms about manipulating new mourners into donating their loved ones’ corpses to medical schools). He is also arrogant, insensitive, and naïve, as evidenced by his disastrous bravado teaching Esther to ski (which results in her broken leg) and his obliviousness towards Mrs. Tomolillo’s excruciating childbirth pains. Buddy thinks only of how modern medicine’s drugs will wipe Mrs. Tomolillo’s memory clean of the pain she must nevertheless endure in labor. However, once Buddy contracts TB, he has to confront his own weakness and is thereby forced to mature. When Esther meets him again at novel’s end, she finds that Buddy’s illness has taught him the patience and humility he lacked at novel’s start.

Esther’s own experiences showcase the state of 1950s psychiatry. As a psychiatric patient, Esther is subjected to a slew of treatments, some helpful, some not. She resents her sessions with the unsympathetic and arrogant psychiatrist Dr. Gordon and encounters many chilly, condescending doctors before being genuinely helped by talk therapy with the nurturing and perceptive Dr. Nolan. She bristles and worsens under the crudely restrictive conditions of the psychiatric ward at a city hospital, then thrives in the supportive, open environment of a private asylum. Throughout, she is haunted by her imagination of brutal tortures at the state psychiatric hospital and is glad not to have to endure them. She experiences multiple iterations of electric shock therapy, as wrongly and excruciatingly performed under Dr. Gordon, then as correctly and effectively performed under Dr. Nolan. She receives insulin and suffers a side effect of drastic weight gain before having the intended “reaction,” with ephemeral results. Alongside her own treatments, Esther also hears about other contemporary psychiatric practices. Through her mother’s account of doctors asking questions about Esther’s “toilet training” and through Joan’s chatter about “Egos and Ids,” Esther encounters snippets of the theories of Sigmund Freud, a crucial foundation for psychiatry at the time. Esther remains grateful that her own psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, practices a talk therapy free of theoretical terminology and abstraction.

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Medicine ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Medicine appears in each chapter of The Bell Jar. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Medicine Quotes in The Bell Jar

Below you will find the important quotes in The Bell Jar related to the theme of Medicine.
Chapter 5 Quotes

I remember the day [Buddy] smiled at me and said, “Do you know what a poem is, Esther?’ ‘No, what?’ I said. ‘A piece of dust.’ And he looked so proud of having thought of this that I just stared at his blond hair and his blue eyes and his white teeth—he had very long, strong white teeth—and said ‘I guess so’.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Buddy Willard
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Esther is recalling bitterly a conversation that she had with Buddy about poetry, which is Esther’s passion. Buddy had told her condescendingly that a poem was “just a piece of dust,” implying that his occupation (medical student) was superior to hers. Esther remembers Buddy saying this with a smile and with obvious pride that he had come up with this idea, and his attitude betrays both his disrespect of Esther and his own self-aggrandizement. To belittle Esther, somebody Buddy supposedly loves, while only being concerned with his own cleverness is almost sociopathic in its blatant disregard for human emotion. There’s a deep irony here, since Buddy believes that medicine is more important than poetry because it cares for people’s bodies, but Buddy seems indifferent to taking care of Esther’s emotions. This would certainly validate Esther’s claim that Buddy is a hypocrite. Furthermore, this passage shows the ways in which traditionally male professions (like medicine) come with a kind of respect that feminized professions (poetry) lack. Esther has a good argument for why poetry might be more important than medicine (bodies are dust, and a good poem will last longer than any body), but it doesn’t carry much weight in her society.


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Chapter 6 Quotes

I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Esther recalls visiting Buddy at medical school and witnessing childbirth. Buddy explained that the woman had been given a drug that makes women forget the pain of childbirth, and this passage is Esther's response. An important distinction here is that the woman is visibly in pain--she is making horrible noises--so we know that this drug does not take pain away in the present, it only one makes women forget it later. Esther says that this sounds "like the sort of drug a man would invent" because it does not relieve a woman of her pain in the moment, but instead serves the purpose of making her forget something terrible so that she will continue to have more children without thinking of the pain they will cause. Here, medicine is seen as something deployed by men for utilitarian, rather than humanitarian, purposes, and Esther is scared and even resentful of it. This passage is also metaphorical for the damage wrought by structural sexism. While women might not be able to account for everything damaging that has happened to them (Esther would not, for instance, be able to articulate that she has not been taught, like her male peers were, to capitalize on defined career goals), there is a part of each woman that is a "long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain."

Chapter 11 Quotes

“Suppose you try and tell me what you think is wrong.” I turned the words over suspiciously, like round, sea-polished pebbles that might suddenly put out a claw and change into something else. What did I think was wrong? That made it sound as if nothing was really wrong. I only thought it was wrong.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Dr. Gordon (speaker)
Page Number: 129-130
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes from a conversation between Esther and Dr. Gordon (the male psychiatrist with whom Esther is meeting, whose manner makes Esther deeply uncomfortable). This passage shows, first, how estranged Esther has become from something (words) that was once a source of joy for her (since she was a poet). Esther does not trust the doctor's words, not simply because he seems to be a dubious person, but because the things that Esther once took to be stable are now, in the midst of her illness, betraying her (a "claw" could emerge from the "pebbles" of the words at any moment). This passage also begins to address the stigma in medicine and society against mental health. Esther's doctor is supposed to heal her, and in order to do that he needs to make her feel comfortable, but he phrases his question in a way that implies that Esther's problems are not real. In verbally undermining the seriousness of Esther's mental health problems, Esther's doctor makes Esther feel angry and self-doubting, and he thereby diminishes his efficacy as a doctor.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant. I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker)
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is Plath's description of Esther's electroshock therapy under the care of Dr. Gordon. While this is supposed to be a therapeutic experience that helps Esther recover from her mental breakdown, the description is anything but therapeutic. Plath describes that it is "like the end of the world" and that Esther "thought [her] bones would break." The experience seems to be one of terror and incredible pain, and it leaves Esther wondering "what terrible thing it was that [she] had done," as though this were a punishment instead of a treatment. This passage clearly recalls the childbirth that Esther and Buddy watched together, in which a woman endured unbelievable pain at the hands of a male doctor. In both of these instances, medicine is used in a way that seems punishing rather than relieving. This passage also illuminates some of the stigma surrounding mental health that Esther experiences. Though Esther seems reasonably aware that her illness is not her fault, she still wonders what she has done that she is being punished for, which indicates a lingering socially-imposed guilt over her symptoms.

Chapter 17 Quotes

I felt the nurse had been instructed to show me my alternatives. Either I got better, or I fell, down, down, like a burning, then burnt-out star, from Belsize, to Caplan, to Wymark and finally, after Doctor Nolan and Mrs. Guinea had given me up, to the state place next-door.

Related Characters: Esther Greenwood (speaker), Dr. Nolan, Philomena Guinea, The night nurse
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point, Esther has been put in Belsize, the part of the hospital reserved for the patients who are closest to recovery. However, Esther feels conflicted about whether she belongs there--she still feels ill, and she does not fit in with the other patients. Medicine is here, again, portrayed as something menacing and manipulative. The hierarchy of patients that the hospital system creates makes Esther feel that her self-worth is wrapped up in the same kinds of achievements that governed her life in school. An environment in which Esther is judged or looked down on for the speed of her recovery, though, does not seem conducive to healing. Furthermore, the nurse who explains Esther's possible trajectories to her seems to be threatening that if Esther doesn't get better as expected, something bad will happen to her (like ending up in the state-run hospital, in which conditions are not as good). While Dr. Nolan has been caring and helpful, other aspects of Esther's treatment seem to be less concerned with her well-being.