Esther wakes from her shock treatment to Dr. Nolan’s voice calling her. She can see a woman’s torqued body on a bed near her but Dr. Nolan quickly ushers her out of the room. The treatment was, Esther agrees, as Dr. Nolan had promised: pain free. Esther feels “surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head.” Dr. Nolan assures Esther all the treatments will be this way and tells her she will be having them thrice a week.
In addition to being as painless as Dr. Nolan promised, the electric shock therapy is also as effective as Dr. Nolan promised. It has freed Esther from the bell jar of her mental illness.
Eating breakfast after treatment, Esther looks at her knife, trying to think what she “had loved knives for.” She can’t think of the answer. Her “mind slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the center of empty air.”
Still, despite its effectiveness, the shock treatment yields disturbing consequences. In its wake, Esther’s mind is slower moving, emptier.
Some days later, Joan visits Esther’s room to brag about a letter from Buddy. Esther is reading. Her shock treatments are over and she has town privileges now. Joan, who has been worsening, has been hanging about Esther as if to siphon some of Esther’s recovery. Esther shows Joan that she, too, has gotten a letter from Buddy. Buddy has asked both women if he can come and visit. Esther thinks she might let him, as it “would be a step” for her to renounce him even when she had no one, to face up to the truth. Joan says she will let him in order to see “wonderful” Mrs. Willard, who she always preferred to Buddy and who she will ask Buddy to bring along on the visit.
The system of privileges, like the system of houses, is another aspect of the mental asylum’s value system and hierarchy of achievement. Esther is attracted to seeing Buddy again because she feels that telling him the honest truth about her feelings would mark a personal accomplishment.
Esther thinks back to that morning when she’d walked into the room of another Belsize patient, DeeDee, thinking the room was empty and wanting to pick up some sheet music. In the dark room, she’d seen Dee Dee lying back on the bed pillows, barelegged and smiling, and Joan rising up from the bed, adjusting her hair. Now, Joan says she’d never liked Buddy, who “thought he knew everything about women…”
By exploring a lesbian affair, Joan challenges conventional societal expectations about female sexuality, virginity, and behavior.
Esther is slightly creeped out but mostly fascinated by Joan, whose “thoughts and feelings seemed a wry, black image of my own.” Esther wonders “if I made Joan up…if she would continue to pop in at every crisis of my life to remind me of what I had been, and what I had been through, and carry on her own separate but similar crisis under my nose.”
Again, Esther views Joan as a kind of strange mirror, “a wry black image” of Esther’s own behavior and circumstances.
That morning, during her session with Dr. Nolan, Esther had professed not to understand what a woman could find in a woman that she couldn’t in a man. “’Tenderness,’” Dr. Nolan had replied. Now, Joan tells Esther she likes Esther “better than Buddy.” She stretches out on Esther’s bed. Esther remembers a minor scandal about two unpopular girls having an affair in college. Esther had tried, back then, to get details about it, hoping to discover some “specific evil,” but to no avail. Esther also remembers the famous lesbian poet at her college’s appall when Esther suggested getting married and having children: “what about your career?” the poet had exclaimed. Now, Esther tells Joan flat out “I don’t like you. You make me want to puke,” and leaves the room.
Esther is intellectually intrigued by the prospect of lesbianism and the freedoms from male chauvinism and conventional female roles that life as a lesbian might offer. However, she is sexually uninterested in other women and makes that disinterest emphatically clear to Joan.
Some time later, Esther goes to get fitted for a diaphragm in Boston at the encouragement of Dr. Nolan, who has laughed off the abstinence injunctions Esther’s heard as “propaganda.” In the waiting room, Esther sits surrounded by women with babies, feeling bewildered by these women’s contentment. “If I had to wait on a baby all day,” Esther thinks, “I would go mad.” Esther has concocted an elaborate excuse to tell the doctor about why she needs a diaphragm but, when she sees his matter-of-fact, cheerful manner, she doesn’t tell it.
Esther is used to thinking about sex and virginity in terms of the obsession with purity and shame about sexuality that she has learned from her mother and from her society at large. Yet neither Dr. Nolan nor the doctor fitting her for a diaphragm give any weight to those conventional views.
Climbing up to the examination table, Esther thinks, “I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just because of sex, freedom from the…Homes where all the poor girls go who should have been fitted out like me.” She returns to the asylum with her diagram in a box, feeling independent and pleased with herself.
Esther understands that the physical freedom to engage in premarital sex is also a psychological freedom—not to be beholden to men, not to have to restrict one’s own experiences or police one’s virginity. She relishes it as a form of spiritual liberation.