A week later, Esther lies on a beach with her friend Jody, Jody’s boyfriend Mark, and Cal, a boy Jody’s set Esther up with. Esther had expected the others to notice that she “didn’t have a brain in [her] head,” but so far everything’s been normal. She and Cal discuss a play in which a mother has to decide whether or not to kill her insane son (Esther notes that she’s forgotten everything she’s ever read, except for everything she’s ever read about insane people). Esther shifts the conversation towards the best way to commit suicide. When Cal says he’d kill himself with his father’s gun, Esther asks if his father lives in Boston. (He doesn’t).
Esther expects her mental distress to transform her physical appearance and to be visible to Jody, but this isn’t the case. Esther’s old ambitions have been recalibrated to suit her mental illness. She now focuses all her energies on contemplating insanity and suicide.
It’s now been four weeks since Esther has slept and she Jody, Mark, and Cal’s company tests her nerves, which she feels emitting smoke “like the smoke from the grills. The whole landscape…quavered in front of my eyes like a stage backcloth.” She thinks she might soon snap and start babbling about her sleeplessness and inability to read or write. She announces she’s going for a swim and Jody urges Cal to accompany her. Esther challenges him to swim out to a far rock. After a while, Cal turns back, exhausted, but Esther keeps on, thinking she’ll swim until she’s too tired to swim the return. She hears her heartbeat in her ears “like a dull motor…I am I am I am.”
Plath’s metaphors render the abstract concrete by transforming strained nerves—a psychological state—into a smoking grill and the conceptual fact of existence into a physical, audible rhythm played out by the body’s heartbeat (“I am I am I am”).
Esther recalls how she’d tried to hang herself that morning. She’d made a noose from the cord of her mother’s bathrobe but then couldn’t find a place in the house to hang the rope from. Then, she’d tried to pull the cord with her hands to strangle herself, but her hands kept loosening their grip at the crucial moment of her own accord. “I saw the body had all sort of little tricks,” Esther had thought, “which would save it, time and again, whereas if I had the whole say, I would be dead in a flash.” She realizes that she’ll have to “ambush” her body “with whatever sense I had left, or it would trap me in its stupid cage for fifty years without any sense at all.”
Esther’s alienation from her body has reached a new extreme. She now sees her body as a direct antagonist to her mind, an enemy that she will have to plot against (“ambush”) in order to get what she wants (death). Through the warped perspective of her mental illness, death appears a victory, an escape from psychological distress, rather than a tragic loss of life.
Esther has discovered, from reading abnormal psychology paperbacks and comparing her own symptoms, that her case is incurable. Though she considers turning herself over to an asylum, the memory of Dr. Gordon’s horrible shock therapy prevents her from doing so. She thought how, institutionalized, she would be gradually moved into worse and worse hospitals, from private to public as her family’s money ran out. She imagines being locked in a basement with the other incurable cases. “The more hopeless you were, the further away they hid you.”
Esther trusts the pop psychology paperbacks she reads but they are of dubious medical authority. Where Esther once felt hopeful that psychiatry could help her, Dr. Gordon’s horrific care has made her think of psychiatry as a danger to be avoided, a practice specializing in painful, forced entrapment.
Still swimming towards the rock, Esther watches Cal swim back to the shore and walk up the beach, a “worm…among dozens and dozens of other worms.” She realizes that, if she reaches the rock, her “body would take that excuse to climb out...gathering strength to swim back.” Esther tries to drown herself right there, diving down again and again. Again and again, she resurfaces. “I knew when I was beaten,” Esther thinks, and swims back.
Esther’s alienation from her own body alienates her from other human bodies as well: they look like worms to her. When she tries and fails to drown herself, Esther’s language (being “beaten”) emphasizes her understanding of her body as her mind’s enemy.
Another day, Esther goes to visit her father’s grave. On the way, she thinks how she’d like to become a Catholic so that the other Catholics might persuade her not to kill herself. Esther had asked her mother about becoming a Catholic nun, which her mother had laughed at, explaining that you needed to meet many requirements to be a nun. Esther imagines going to a Boston priest so that her hometown priest wouldn’t know she was contemplating suicide.
As when she considered becoming a non-honors English major, Esther discovers that she in fact lacks the qualifications to do something that she’d previously assumed was easy.
Reaching the cemetery, Esther thinks how strange it is that nobody has ever come to visit her father’s grave. Her mother had not even let Esther come to his funeral, since she’d been just a child then. Because she’d missed the funeral, her father’s death “had always seemed unreal” to Esther. Of late, she’s longed to begin tending his grave. She searches for it, wearing the black raincoat she bought with the last of her savings from her New York salary. She’d decided to kill herself once she exhausted those savings. At last, she finds her father’s grave, crowded beside another grave. She kneels to place wild flowers on it. Esther thinks, “I couldn’t understand why I was crying so hard. Then I remembered that I had never cried for my father’s death. My mother hadn’t cried either.” She weeps.
Because she hasn’t ever had the opportunity to confront her father’s grave (the physical testament to his death) Esther has always felt his death to be somehow abstract, “unreal.” Yet seeing the grave now drives the fact of his death home to her. Her tears surprise her, producing another instance of her estrangement from her body. Yet these tears are also the long-delayed recognition of a grief that has been denied expression since her childhood.
Next day, Esther leaps up as soon as her mother leaves for work. She has a suicide plan and leaves a note on the table telling her mother she is going for a long walk. She retrieves the bottle of sleeping pills from where her mother keeps them hidden in her closet. She takes a glass of water with her down to the cellar and crawls into an old “earth-bottomed crevice” whose mouth opens on the cellar. She replaces the logs to cover the mouth of the crevice. In the dark, she lies, “wrapping my black coat round me like my own sweet shadow,” and swallows each pill with a sip of water. As she reaches the end of the bottle, she sees lights flash and passes out.
This suicide attempt seems much more successful than her previous ones, and Esther is well on her way to “winning” the battle against her body. The physical symbolism of the underground crevice emphasizes Esther’s mortal intention: crawling into it, she is crawling into her own grave.