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.
Medicine Quotes in The Bell Jar
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’.
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.
“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.
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.
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.