Along with Jody and her boyfriend Mark, Esther goes to the beach with Cal, a baby-faced blond boy Jody wanted Esther to meet. While Jody and Mark swim, Cal and Esther discuss a play in which a young man finds that he has a brain disease on account of his father fooling around with unclean women, and in the end his brain snaps completely. Esther only remembers the play because it has a mad person in it, and everything about the insane sticks in her mind. Cal and Esther discuss how they would kill themselves: Cal would use his father's shotgun. Esther considers drowning the kindest way to die, burning the worst. That morning, Esther had tried to hang herself using the silk cord of her mother's yellow bathrobe, but her home has the wrong type of ceiling. While swimming with Cal, Esther tries to drown herself but finds herself unable.
Esther begins work as a volunteer at the local hospital, where she works on the maternity ward. She tries to help out by taking out dead flowers in the patients' rooms, but patients complain. Esther considers becoming a Catholic, despite the religion's conviction that suicide is a mortal sin and the fact that she doesn't believe in life after death or the virgin birth. She wants only to concentrate on her sin so that she could repent. Esther visits her father's gravestone and realizes that neither she nor her mother cried for her father's death.
Esther writes a note to her mother, claiming that she is going for a walk, then takes a bottle of pills. At first nothing happens, but Esther begins to see red and blue lights as she takes the pills one by one. Finally the bottle slides from her fingers and she lies down.
Esther's date with Cal reinforces several of the prevalent themes of the novel. The play that they discuss deals with several of these themes, including mental illness and problems of sexuality, and in fact explicitly states that the cause of this mental illness is the play's character's association with unclean' women. Plath, however, repudiates the assumption that deviant sexuality causes mental illness, for the problems that Esther faces are either entirely unrelated to sex (such as problems deciding on a career) or stem from a repressed, not a liberated, sexual atmosphere.
The suicide attempt that Plath has for so long foreshadowed comes to bear during this chapter, but the most successful attempt only occurs after Esther makes slight forays into attempting to kill herself. Her first tries, through drowning and hanging, prove unsuccessful, until Esther finally takes the sleeping pills at this chapter's end. There is no definitive explanation for what causes Esther to take these sleeping pills. However, the accumulation of details throughout this chapter give some greater indication for the rationale behind the decision.
While previous chapters have focused primarily on Esther's anxiety over the future and her sexual preoccupation, Plath suggests that there is a larger self-hatred and longstanding pain that underlies all of Esther's actions. This chapter certainly does continue to show Esther's anxiety over her sexuality, most clearly with Esther's experience working at the maternity ward, but religion and forgiveness also become prominent themes. Esther considers becoming a Catholic as a form of penance, although she has no concrete idea for what she must repent. For the first time, Plath indicates that it might be the death of Esther's father that promotes this constant pain that Esther feels; she has no sense of catharsis from her father's death and has not even cried for the loss of her father.
Esther is in complete darkness, and she feels as if she is being transported at enormous speed down a tunnel into the earth. She feels as if she is in an underground chamber, lit by blinding lights, and that people are holding her down. She cries out that she can't see, and hears a voice say that she'll marry a nice blind man someday.
When Esther regains consciousness, the doctor tells her that her sight is perfectly intact, and brings her mother and brother in to see her. Esther denies that she called out for her mother. Another visitor, George Bakewell, also visits. Although Esther does not remember him, he goes to her church and she dated his roommate at Amherst. He is houseman at the hospital. Esther tells him to leave and not to come back. Esther asks the nurse for a mirror, but the nurse refuses to give her one because she does not look very pretty. The nurse relents, but when Esther sees that her hair was shaved off and her face is purple and bulged, Esther breaks the mirror. As they clean up the glass, one nurse says that "at you-know-where they'll take care of her."
After the incident with the mirror, the nurses move Esther into a different ward, with Mrs. Tomolillo, a woman who claims she is there on account of her French-Canadian mother-in-law. Esther remains truculent in her new ward, even kicking the black worker who serves her food.
Sylvia Plath drastically alters the tone of this chapter to mirror Esther Greenwood's altered mental state. The imagery that Plath uses to describe Esther's initial awakening from unconsciousness is frightening and grotesque, part reality and part nightmare. It is here that the narrative voice of the novel is most unreliable; at least some of the details are imaginary, such as the voice claiming that Esther will marry a nice blind man, but some seem distorted but nevertheless grounded in reality, such as the blinding hospital lights.
The suicide attempt is a turning point for Esther Greenwood for obvious reasons, but the most visible change that it effects is in her personality. Esther becomes truculent and rude after her awakening; while previously listless and lacking sufficient interest or energy to confront others, Esther treats the visitors and nurses with complete contempt. There are several possible interpretation for this new behavior. This may be the first major step toward her recovery; she is now capable of feeling emotions, however negative they may be. This may also signal Esther's final abandonment of the societal norms that confined her before her suicide attempt; Esther knows that she is now a pariah and feels free to deviate from social norms, even simple polite behavior, as she wishes.
Although the suicide attempt is the most dire expression of Esther's problems, this does not necessarily mean the end of conflict for Esther. Plath foreshadows a difficult time at the asylum ("you-know-where," as the nurse refers to it) where Esther will soon be taken.
Philomena Guinea becomes interested in Esther's case, for she had read about her in a Boston paper. She returned to Boston and took Esther out of the city hospital ward and chauffeurs her to a private hospital that resembles a country club, where she would pay for Esther until the doctors make her well. Esther knows that she should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea, but she cannot feel a thing. She believes that no matter where she may be, should would be "sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air." A female psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, introduces herself to Esther. Dr. Nolan is a "cross between Myrna Loy and [Esther's] mother." Esther lives in a brick building called Caplan, where she has a room on the first floor. Valerie, a girl who reminds Esther of a Girl Scout leader, introduces herself to Esther, but she ignores her.
Dr. Nolan asks Esther her opinion of Dr. Gordon, and she claims that she dislikes shock treatment. When she describes the treatment, Dr. Nolan says that if it is done properly, it I like going to sleep. Dr. Nolan tells Esther that she won't have any shock treatments, and if she does, she'll tell her about it beforehand and promises that it won't be like she had before. Dr. Nolan claims that "some people even like them." Esther introduces herself to a new woman who moves into the room next door. The woman, Miss Norris, does not answer, but instead goes to the dining room. Although supper doesn't start for another hour, Miss Norris and Esther sit there silently until it begins.
Valerie tells Esther that she is on insulin, and she receives three shots daily. While on a walk with Valerie, she shows Esther her scars from a lobotomy. She tells Esther that she is not angry anymore, but before the lobotomy when she was in Wymark, a hospital for more serious cases, she was far more angry. Later, Miss Norris is sent to Wymark while Esther is moved to a different room. Esther gets a surprise visit from Joan, who is now in the hospital herself.
In this chapter, Sylvia Plath constructs the analogy that gives the book its title: Esther diagnoses her problem as sitting under a bell jar. This fulfills the theme of confinement that pervades the novel and also relates to the societal pressures that Esther faces. The bell jar' is intended to preserve Esther as an ornament, but merely suffocates her. This implies that Esther's problems are societal pressure, but Esther herself disputes the charge and accepts some of the blame for her own problems. This is an important step for Esther, for she assumes responsibility for her actions even if she is not ready to repair her life.
Dr. Nolan is one of the few characters in the novel for whom Esther displays any significant admiration or trust; she is the antithesis of the callous Dr. Gordon, and treats Esther with compassion and candor. However, despite Esther's immediate faith in Dr. Nolan, Plath foreshadows later conflicts between Dr. Nolan and Esther. Whatever compassion Dr. Nolan might show, she nevertheless believes in shock treatment. Furthermore, her promises seem authoritative but are still ambiguous; she cannot promise Esther that she will never receive shock treatment, and her promise that Esther will know about shock treatment beforehand is vague. This leaves open the possibility that Dr. Nolan may betray Esther without realizing it or having malicious intent.
Sylvia Plath frames the hospital as a parallel to the college environment from which Esther comes. The mental institution even replicates the competitive atmosphere of the college campus, as patients are promoted or demoted to better types of hospitals and dormitories based on their evaluations. Esther even finds her scholarship replicated at the mental institution, for Philomena Guinea pays for her stay in the institution as she does for Esther's college education. This suggests that the societal structures from which Esther has attempted to escape are omnipresent even in this separate society; Esther must now face the same challenge in the hospital as she did during her time before entering the institution. This reinforces the notion that the change in location will not cure Esther, but rather an internal change separate from her environment.
The sudden reappearance Joan at the hospital contributes to this comparison and will provide the greatest test for Esther. Although her reasons for entering into the hospital are still unclear and her relationship with Esther is still undefined (she was mentioned only briefly as the girl whom Buddy took to a dance), her past experiences with Esther are less important than the effect that Joan will have on Esther throughout the final chapters of the novel.
Joan explains to Esther that she read about her in the paper and ran away. Joan had a summer job working for the chapter head of a fraternity, which she quit. Joan went to see a psychiatrist, who interviewed her while nine psychiatry students observed. This doctor suggested group therapy for Joan, but then Joan read about Esther in the paper. There were articles about how a "scholarship girl" was missing and then found alive in the laundry room. Joan herself had attempted to kill herself by shoving her fists through her roommate's window.
After Esther has a reaction to her medicine, Dr. Nolan suggests shock treatments as a possibility, but instead prevents Esther from having visitors. When Dr. Nolan prohibits visitors, Esther reacts by exclaiming "why, that's wonderful." Esther hates the visits from her former boss, English teachers, and even Philomena Guinea herself. The worst visits are from Esther's mother, who kept begging Esther to tell her what she had done wrong. One afternoon, Esther's mother had brought her roses, but Esther reacted by telling her mother "save them for the funeral," but Esther does no realize that it is her birthday. Esther tells Dr. Nolan that she hates her mother, but Dr. Nolan only smiles as if she has said something pleasing.
In this chapter, Sylvia Plath contrasts the respective psychiatric states of Joan Giling and Esther Greenwood; while Esther Greenwood appears to deal with deep psychological trauma, while Joan wears her mental illness as something fashionable or trendy. There is even the subtle indication that Joan attempted suicide to imitate Esther. This does not necessarily mean that Joan's problems are insignificant or nonexistent; rather, this demonstrates that Esther takes a more serious and conscientious approach to life in comparison to Joan.
Esther begins the first steps in her healing process in this chapter, as Dr. Nolan removes her from contact with those well-intentioned visitors who merely oppress her with their kindness. Esther's reaction to Dr. Nolan's edict is ironic, for Dr. Nolan expects Esther to be upset that she cannot have visitors, when in fact this is the relief that she needs. The most significant step in this healing process occurs when Esther tells Dr. Nolan that she hates her mother; this is important, for it shows that Esther is becoming more emotional and less fatalistic. As Dr. Nolan appears to note, Esther is becoming more able to pinpoint the sources of her problems, most prominently the constant worry and attention given to Esther by her mother.