As they ride along in the luxurious car, Esther’s mother sits on one side and Esther’s brother sits on the other; thus, Esther is prevented from jumping out of the car. Esther sinks back into her feelings of nothingness and tells us about her “bell jar,” where she is trapped. She believes that she’d be in her own sour air in this bell jar, even if she were in Bangkok. We learn that the private hospital where she is going is adjacent to the big state hospital. This is our first clue about her new treatment. And it is not long before we see that Esther is still plotting new ways to kill herself.
When we meet the director of the hospital, we realize that Esther is again to be subjected to an institution that will try to mold her and train her. Two chapters later, Esther tells us herself that at least she is comfortable here, implying that the new treatment is perhaps no more effective than at the state hospital. Here, the patients seem to have more golf and badminton, and more attention is paid to fashion magazines. Is this, then, only a class difference? Dr. Nolan, Esther’s new doctor, is a pleasant, understanding woman who assures Esther that her previous electro-shock therapy was not done properly. We discover that Esther is to be given insulin therapy, which will make her fat, and, at some point, it is suppose to induce a reaction somewhat like electro-shock. Is this enlightened medical practice?
Esther has met two patients here. One is Miss Norris, who never speaks, and one is Valerie, who, we soon learn, has had a lobotomy. It is clear that “all of the most sophisticated treatments” are used in this hospital. At the end of Chapter 15, we find Esther moving up to the front of the ward where there is more sunlight. Miss Norris is moving back to Wymark. She is not progressing. And progress is the key to comfortable quarters. Esther has kept Miss Norris company for many hours, and yet this lady has never said a word. Into all this gloom, a person from Esther’s past recognizes Esther and calls out. It is Joan Gilling, who is also a patient at the hospital.
Chapter 16 gives us an account of Joan’s illness, and we see that she has had many experiences like Esther’s and also that many of their perceptions are similar. In addition, Joan has collected newspaper clippings that tell about Esther’s disappearance and attempted suicide and rescue. They are like two little girls in a conspiracy with each other against a cruel and insensitive world. Joan has collected her clippings in much the same way that Esther collected yellow journalism articles.
Esther has her first insulin reaction, and Dr. Nolan tells her that she will not be plagued by any more visitors. Esther then tells us that on her birthday, Mrs. Greenwood brought her roses; she threw them out, then told Dr. Nolan that she hates her mother. Dr. Nolan replies, “I suppose you do.”
Chapter 17 begins with Esther’s being told how lucky she is. She is moving up to Belsize. Esther feels, however, that she is not ready for that. Belsize is a hospital where the patients dress fashionably, where they play bridge, but even if it is more comfortable, the competition is fierce. One of the patients is a Mrs. Savage, who has been to Vassar. Plath could not have told us much more about Belsize in many pages of description. “Savage from Vassar” is all we need to know.
It is at Belsize that Esther experiences her first treachery from the chic, cigarette-smoking Dr. Nolan. One day, Esther does not receive breakfast. She fears that this means that she is due for electro-shock treatment. But, she goes to the kitchen to protest the mistake and claim her meal. When it becomes clear that there is no mistake, she is furious because Dr. Nolan has promised to tell her and discuss the treatment with her. Dr. Nolan arrives, early, to take Esther up for the treatment. The trust between the two women is temporarily lost, however, because Dr. Nolan wanted Esther to sleep.
Esther now feels that she is in a white cocoon, unlike the dark one after her suicide, and the electro-shock treatment does not seem as painful and terrible as before. This time, Esther goes into a sleep, and she tells Dr. Nolan afterwards that the treatment was just like the doctor said it would be. Somehow, the reader is not so convinced of the humanity of these treatments.
The college dormitory atmosphere of Belsize shows us that Esther is still struggling with institutions, for when we see Esther coming out of her treatment with Dr. Nolan at her side, we remember Jay Cee and the Ladies’ Day editorial offices. Esther has met these successful, helpful women before, but she has never been helped. Even Valerie, the girl scout-type with the lobotomy, reminds us of girls from other phases of Esther’s experience. Are each of these serial experiences, dealing with one kind of institution or another, rather like the one before? Are the new shock treatments just another program for Esther, not so different from the classes at college or the fashion workshops in New York? When will real learning or real change take place? Is Esther not only caught in the sour air of her own bell jar, but also in the sour air of failing institutions and failing cultural ideals that, somehow, cannot give her true sustenance, cannot give her any real support at this fragile time of her life?
At this point, Joan appears with a letter from Buddy Willard. But Esther has already received a letter too. Joan liked the Willards, but she stopped seeing Buddy’s parents when Buddy started to date Esther. Esther thinks of telling Buddy that there is no one else — that he is simply the wrong one. We wonder if she has the strength to reject Buddy since having a boyfriend is so important to her.
Esther recounts the morning scene when she accidentally walked in on Joan and DeeDee in a lesbian embrace. Here, we learn that Joan has been Esther’s “secret sharer,” but now Esther discusses with Dr. Nolan the fact that she can’t understand homosexuality. She remembers a similar incident at college, and then she also recalls that when she told a female classical scholar that she might want to have children, this professor protested, “What about your career?”
Esther is clearly having many doubts and conflicts about her female role, but instead of thinking about that, she just goes and tells Joan that she doesn’t like her and that Joan makes her sick. The resolution, for the time being, is a visit to a gynecologist in order to purchase a diaphram. Dr. Nolan has referred her to a doctor after a discussion with Esther about chastity, the subject of an article written by a woman lawyer. Dr. Nolan says that this is all propaganda, and she tries to help Esther to gain some sense of freedom. Esther thinks if she does not have the notion of a baby hanging over her head like the blade of a guillotine, she can be as sexually free as a man; she will finally be able to get well. So Esther gets her diaphram, and she thinks that all she has to do is find the right man to aid her in getting rid of her virginity, as if her illness were caused by that.
What we see again in these four chapters is that Esther’s symptoms are being treated rather than her disease. Just as Esther’s mother had urged her to go to school or do volunteer work or take up shorthand, and just as Jay Cee had urged her to do her editing tasks, and just as the old-style feminist professor had urged Esther to pursue a “career,” now her liberated female psychiatrist has given her “humane” shock treatments and the latest insulin treatments. And now she has sent Esther off for the best contraceptive available. All this may help Esther to live, on the surface, more comfortably, but Esther’s real dilemmas and real troubles are never confronted.
The reader sees that there are only two short chapters left for Esther to find herself, for Esther to grow up, for Esther to begin to be well. Can she do it? Where are the resources to aid her in this task of coming back from a deep underground cocoon to life?
In these four chapters, Esther’s problems become more clearly defined, and we see the help that various people are trying to give her, however limited. Mrs. Guinea is paying for the best psychiatric care available but is also complaining that it is not doing Esther enough good. It is to be wondered, here, if money and privilege are really that advantageous. Are these treatments helping Esther that much?
Esther was living in a fog, in her “bell jar,” for some time before her suicide attempt, and we see that she had problems with disorientation. She was perceiving her existence in warped ways, and she was unable to function. But would she not have come out of this state as well by herself, as with the insulin and the electro-shock treatments? Did these treatments not prolong her dependence on institutions that did not understand her and increase her alienation? In any psychiatric situation, treatments that do not promote self-sufficiency are to be questioned. In addition, to believe that solutions to the problem are outside the individual rather than an internal process should also be suspect. Why was Esther not allowed to rest, just rest, after her suicide attempt?
We might say that these chapters show us not only Esther’s problems, but also society’s problems. There is a great deal of potential for good things to happen, but because of a lack of common sense, because of the emphasis on quick achievement and competition, much is lost — including Joan’s life, and we might add, eventually Plath’s.
Perhaps the most important minor figure here is the one named Savage, from Vassar. The spectacle of the well-bred, well-dressed, bright young woman achieving everything and at an incredible pace is one of the most destructive parts of Esther’s life. Nowhere in the novel does anyone suggest that Esther should be trained to slow down, to pace herself, to relax, to gently come to terms with herself — perhaps even over the years of a lifetime.
As helpful as some of the women characters try to be, their vision is not broad enough, nor does it encompass the best priorities. We never learn how, or why, Mrs. Guinea can cope with her life. She brings nothing to Esther except money; her “help” is negated by another message — namely, that success is the goal. But how? No one ever counsels Esther on how to survive. Jay Cee has advised concentrating on work and studying more languages, and even though we might agree that work can be helpful to people, Esther seems overworked and over-wrought from it. Dr. Nolan helps Esther get contraceptive advice, suggesting that she thinks that sexual anxiety is at the root of Esther’s problems. None of these solutions help the young Esther, however, and we might say that they actually encourage what is wrong with her — that is, compulsive ideas about success and sex.
When Dr. Nolan explains to Esther that women find tenderness in each other and that men do not give tenderness to women, we agree that that is a fairly valid observation, especially for the 1950s. But the women in this novel do not exhibit enough tenderness and understanding towards one another. They are only able to be partly supportive to Esther. And it is not because they lack the impulses for kindness. They lack wisdom and sense and true independence from society.