The Bell Jar


Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Some days later, a nurse tells Esther that she’ll be moving to Belsize, the best house at the hospital (and the one from which people went back to their lives in the real world). Esther insists she’s not ready, but the nurse tells her not to worry. Joan, Esther knows, is already at Belsize, having swiftly escalated through the hospital hierarchy. “Joan was the beaming double of my old best self,” Esther thinks, “specially designed to follow and torment me.”
Esther now operates within the mental asylum’s value system where achievement is measured in terms of movement through the various houses. Joan’s experiences continue to serve as an eerie mirror to Esther’s own.
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At Belsize, Esther feels intimidated by the fashionable, poised women, who chat and joke and play the piano and bridge. Joan treats Esther “coolly, with a slight sneer.” Esther worries the women think “people like me” should be put in Wymark. In the evening, she sits politely on the sidelines of the women’s jolly activity.
Joan’s superior airs and Esther’s anxieties about the other women’s opinions reflect the evaluative hierarchy of the asylum. Joan feels “better than” Esther simply for having moved to Belsize sooner.
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Later in the evening, Joan discovers a picture of Esther from her New York days printed in a magazine. Joan and the other women ask Esther if the girl in the picture is her, and Esther insists it is not, even as the other women insist hopefully that it must be her. “It’s somebody else,” Esther tells them.
As with the photos in the newspaper clippings Joan showed her, Esther is unable to identify with the bodily image of her healthy self.
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A few minutes later, the night nurse joins some of the patients to play bridge and complains about her other job at the state asylum, which makes the private asylum look like a “country club.” Esther feels “the nurse had been instructed to show me my alternatives. Either I got better, or I fell, down, down, down…from Belsize, to Caplan, to Wymark and finally…to the state place next-door.”
Though Esther has grown used to the plush comforts of the private mental asylum, the night nurse reminds her of uncomfortable facilities in the public system.
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One morning, Esther is not served a breakfast tray, which terrifies her, as she knows that only patients scheduled for electric shock don’t get trays. She runs down the hall to hide, terrified and furious that Dr. Nolan, whom she loves and trusts, has broken her promise to warn Esther in advance about shock treatments. Dr. Nolan finds Esther crouched in an alcove and explains that she has come to warn Esther, that she didn’t realize Esther would discover the fact through the breakfast trays, and that she’s going to personally escort Esther to the treatment and will be there when Esther wakes up. She leads Esther to the treatment room and where Miss Huey, the attendant, soothingly assures Esther there won’t be pain. Indeed, as soon as the treatment starts, Esther blacks out without pain.
What at first seems like a breach of trust turns out to be a simple misunderstanding. Dr. Nolan is the compassionate, sympathetic psychiatrist she has always claimed to be. Indeed, she fulfills her promise to administer electric shock therapy correctly and painlessly, and Esther is able to experience the treatment in its ideal form (rather than in its misapplication by Dr. Gordon).
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