Sitting in Dr. Gordon’s office waiting room, Esther notices everything is beige and there are no mirrors or pictures, only framed certificates from medical schools. There are no windows, either, which makes Esther feel safe.
The medical office décor foregrounds cerebral over aesthetic values, displaying academic achievements (degrees) and forgoing attractive design (color, pictures, and natural lighting).
Esther hasn’t slept for a week. She is still wearing Betsy’s clothes and hasn’t washed them or herself since returning from New York three weeks ago because Esther thinks it seems “silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next…I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.” She sees days as a series of “bright, white boxes” separated by “sleep, like a black shade,” but now that she isn’t sleeping, she can see straight ahead through time’s “white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.”
Esther’s sleeplessness has made her a stranger in her own body, suddenly seeing its existence as a long, barren prison, a row of connected boxes containing her. As she becomes estranged from her body, she also ceases to observe social conventions of bodily hygiene, seeing no point in washing herself or changing her clothes.
In Dr. Gordon’s office, Esther is disappointed to find the young, handsome doctor conceited and unhelpful. She had hoped for someone “kind, ugly, intuitive” who could have explained why she could no longer read, eat, sleep, or value human life (since every one only ended in death), and could have helped her “step by step, to be myself again.” Esther is annoyed by Dr. Gordon’s displayed family photo (as if to dissuade patients’ attempts to seduce him) and by his suggestion that her problems are just in her head. Esther decides not to show him evidence of her newly demented handwriting, which she had discovered when trying to write a letter to Doreen that morning and which, of all her symptoms, troubles her “most of all.” Dr. Gordon reminisces about the “pretty bunch of girls” he once knew at Esther’s college, then dismisses her, telling her to return next week. In the parking lot, her mother sighs at the news of another appointment since Dr. Gordon is expensive.
Though Esther had had high hopes for a psychiatrist’s ability to help her, she is utterly disappointed by Dr. Gordon. He is no help at all. Instead of trying to understand Esther’s psychological condition, Dr. Gordon seems to assume that that condition is simply made-up and unworthy of his attention. He uses Esther’s presence to focus egotistically on his own reminiscences about girls at her college. Esther’s inability to make her hand write in her old handwriting further demonstrates her loss of control over her body.
On Boston Common a few days later, Esther is approached by a flirtatious young sailor. She tells him her name is Elly Higginbottom and she’s from Chicago and allows him to put his arm around her and stroke her hip. Inwardly, Esther thinks she should go to Chicago, change her name to Elly Higginbottom, discard her old identity and be a simple, “sweet, quiet” orphan everyone is fond of and nobody expects great things from. She could marry a mechanic and have lot of kids like Dodo Conway.
Assuming an alternate identity, Esther attempts to free her mind from the strictures of her old self. Where she used to aspire to academic achievement and excellence, she now aspires to a life free of those old aspirations.
Suddenly, Esther sees Mrs. Willard approaching on the Common and leaps back from the sailor, pretending just to be asking him directions. But the woman passes and is not, in fact, Mrs. Willard. Esther explains to the sailor that the woman was from her Chicago orphanage and begins to cry, comforted by the sailor. She thinks how that “awful” passing stranger was, unbeknownst to her, “responsible for my taking the wrong turn here and the wrong path there and for everything bad that happened after that.”
As she distances herself from her old identity and old ways of thinking, Esther also seems to lose track of the identities around her, first mistaking a stranger for Mrs. Willard and then mistaking that stranger for the instigator of her troubles. Mrs. Willard expects Esther to be virginal and prudent and would not approve of her flirting with a strange man.
Back in Dr. Gordon’s office, Esther tells an “unimpressed” Dr. Gordon that she feels the same (she hasn’t slept in fourteen days now) and shows him the scraps of her demented handwriting, letting the pieces of torn up letter ”flutter on to [his] immaculate green blotter.” Dr. Gordon asks to speak privately to Esther’s mother. Esther waits in the car. Her mother returns crying, telling Esther Dr. Gordon recommends electric shock treatments at his private hospital. Esther is intrigued, “as if I had just read a terrible newspaper headline about somebody else.”
Though Esther tries to communicate her condition to Dr. Gordon, he does not take the opportunity to initiate talk therapy and instead decides to prescribe electric shock treatments.
The day before she is scheduled to receive shock therapy, Esther sits in the park reading an article in a tabloid about a suicidal man talked back from the ledge of a building. She studies the man’s face, feeling “he had something important to tell me, and that whatever it was might just be written on his face.” But the image dissolves under her gaze. Tabloids, Esther reflects, are the only things she can read these days, the only writing whose letters don’t “get cocky and wiggle about.”
As she studies the suicidal man’s face, Esther presumes she can find psychological information inscribed on physical appearance. This assumption hearkens back to her belief that it is possible to perceive a person’s lost virginity in that person’s eyes.
Esther notices children in a swan boat and sees in her mind’s eye herself and her little brother riding a swan boat as children, “as if through the keyhole of a door I couldn’t open.” She walks through the park and, upon seeing a Weeping Scholar Tree from Japan, thinks how the Japanese “understood things of the spirit” by disemboweling themselves “when anything went wrong.” She constructs an elaborate mental image of self-disembowelment.
As Esther grows more and more alienated from her present adult identity, she is also estranged from her past childhood identity. The Japanese custom Esther approves of unites body and mind by inflicting bodily wounds to reflect psychological (mental) wounds.
Thinking about going to shock therapy the next morning with her mother and Dodo Conway driving, it occurs to Esther to run away to Chicago and she walks to the bus terminal. There, she realizes her bank is closed so she can’t withdraw the money for a Chicago ticket. When she hears the announcement for a bus that stops next to her house, she hurries on to it.
Esther’s personal ambitions stay muddled and contradictory. Though she wants to go to Chicago and avoid shock therapy, she freely elects to ride home, knowing she’ll be driven to the hospital the next day.