The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar Summary and Analysis of Chapters 9-12

Chapter Nine:

Hilda discusses the Rosenbergs with Esther, claiming that she is "so glad they're going to die." Esther says that the Rosenberg situation is awful, but Hilda says that "it's awful such people should be alive." Esther has her picture taken in Jay Cee's office, but feels as if she is going to cry. During this round of photographs, the girls are photographed with props showing what they wanted to be. Esther does not know what she wants to be, but Jay Cee says Esther wants "to be everything." Esther claims she wants to be a poet, and Jay Cee gives her a long-stemmed paper rose with which to be photographed. The photographer notices how Esther seems about to cry, and she finally breaks into tears. She buries her head into Jay Cee's couch, and when she lifts her head again the photographer and Jay Cee are gone. When Jay Cee returns, she gives Esther an armful of manuscripts to amuse her.

Doreen tries to set up Esther with a man from Peru during her final days in New York. Esther meets the man, Marco, who gives her a diamond stickpin and says that perhaps he "shall perform some small service worthy of a diamond" as he tightens her hand around Esther. Esther immediately deigns Marco a "woman-hater," and refuses to dance with him when they go out to a country club. She begins to realize why she hates woman-haters: they were "like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power." Marco admits to Esther that he is in love with his first cousin, but it is impossible to marry her, for she is going to be a nun. Esther tells Marco that if he loves this woman, he'll love someone else someday. Marco flings Esther back and attempts to rape her while calling her a slut, but Esther pushes him away. Marco demands to have his diamond back, and threatens her when she does not give it back to him immediately.


The recurrence of the Rosenbergs as details of the plot establishing the setting of the novel is evidence of foreshadowing on the part of Sylvia Plath; Esther's horror concerning their imminent electrocution foreshadows the more personalized horror that will come when Esther receives electroshock treatment, while the lack of sympathy Esther receives will parallel that which the Rosenbergs receive from Hilda.

The first true breakdown that Esther has occurs primarily because of her established indecision concerning her career. Faced with making a concrete decision about what she wants to do after graduating from college, Esther becomes unstable and breaks into tears. Jay Cee echoes Esther's defined Œneuroses' through her answer that Esther wants to be "everything," and thus once again defines her primary problem.

Once again, Sylvia Plath equates sexuality with violence during the encounter between Esther and Marco in this chapter. Marco is physically threatening toward Esther; his actions toward her definitely constitute a rape attempt. However, it is more important to note that Marco is a threat to Esther because he holds power over her. He is, as Esther describes him, "invulnerable," using his financial power and sexuality against her, attempting to rape her but still branding her a slut. Marco is simply a more violent extension of Buddy Willard, aggressive in his contempt for Esther and her gender where Buddy Willard is more subtle and passive. Plath even parallels the earlier proposal by Buddy Willard in this chapter; Marco offers Esther a diamond, a symbol of marriage, in exchange for her independence, sexual and otherwise. For Esther, the Œproposal' by Marco is a more violent extension of the one offered by Buddy.

Chapter Ten:

On the train returning home from New York, looks at herself in the mirror and notices lines of blood leftover from her assault by Marco. When she arrives, Esther's mother asks what happens to her face, but she merely says that she cut herself. Esther's mother immediately gives her bad news: she didn't make the writing course, and would be spending a summer in the suburbs. Esther returns to her house, a small, white clapboard house in a quiet suburb. Their next door neighbor is a spiteful woman named Mrs. Ockenden, a retired nurse who would often call Esther's mother to report Esther's wrongdoing. Esther sees Dodo Conway, a Catholic who interests Esther because of her six children. Jody calls Esther from Cambridge, where she is studying that summer. Esther is working at the Coop while taking a sociology course. Esther admits that she did not get into the writing course at Harvard, but Jody tells her to come anyway and take another course. Despite knowing that she should come, Esther tells her to give her room to another girl. Esther opens a letter from Buddy Willard, who writes that he was falling in love with a nurse who also has TB, but he thinks that if Esther visited he would realize that his feeling for the nurse is mere infatuation. Esther writes back that she is engaged to a simultaneous interpreter and never wants to see Buddy again. Esther decides to spend the summer writing a novel, but she wonders how she can write about life without having a love affair or a baby or seeing anyone die. She considers learning shorthand instead, or spending the summer reading Finnegans Wake and writing her thesis. After starting Finnegan's Wake, she decides to junk her thesis and become an ordinary English major. Esther goes to get stronger sleeping pills from Teresa, her family doctor, but Teresa tells her to see a psychiatrist, Doctor Gordon, instead.


For Esther, the lines of blood that remain on her face are a sign of honor representing her defiance of Marco, but they also signal a casual acceptance of physical harm and an inability to fully comprehend the effects of violence, once again foreshadowing her suicide attempt. Esther's growing mental illness also becomes more evident through more physical symptoms, including insomnia and listlessness. By this point her depression has become clear enough that her doctor recommends psychiatric treatment. This illness additionally manifests itself the continuing indecision and defeatist attitude that Esther begins to display; while her problem at the novel's beginning was that she found herself unable to make any concrete choices, her current problem is malaise and inaction. She can choose a course of action such as writing a novel or working on her thesis, but she does not have the energy to commit to it. Esther accepts the single failure of the writing program as a rationale that she is a failure.

Away from the foreign setting of New York City, Sylvia Plath places Esther in her normal environment, which reveals some of the other causes of her current anxiety. While her mother is well-intentioned, she deals with Esther abruptly, as when she tells Esther that she did not make the writing course. While intending to soften the blow of this news by giving it immediately and outright, this instead makes Esther's mother seem somewhat callous and insensitive, a woman who unfortunately tends to say the wrong things in delicate situations.

Plath continues to relate Esther's anxiety to fears concerning sexuality and gender roles through the details of Esther's life in the suburbs. The two most notable personalities in the neighborhood both represent traditional female roles that Esther perceives as negative. Mrs. Ockenden is a widow and former nurse whose empty life leads her to intrusive behavior against others and an unhealthy interest in preserving Esther's good reputation by monitoring her behavior. Dodo Conway, in contrast, represents the full-time mother whose life is devoted simply to child-rearing; Esther views Dodo as an object of simultaneous pity, scorn and fascination.

While Buddy Willard recedes from prominence in this chapter, he nevertheless remains a presence for Esther. His behavior toward Esther remains rude and condescending. When he writes her about the nurse with TB, he essentially asks Esther to prove to him that she is worthy of his love over this possible infatuation.

Sylvia Plath additionally foreshadows Esther's suicide attempt through her attempt to procure more sleeping pills. Plath leaves open the possibility that Esther does not want the sleeping pills in order to cure her insomnia, but rather to use them for an overdose.

Chapter Eleven:

Esther visits Doctor Gordon, after a week without sleeping nor washing her clothes or her hair. Esther feels that it is silly to wash her hair one day, when she would only have to do it again the next day. Esther hates Dr. Gordon, for his features are so perfect he is almost pretty, and she had imagined an ugly, intuitive man and not a person who could be conceited. When Dr. Gordon asks what is wrong, she answers that she is not sleeping, eating or reading, but does not tell that she can barely write by hand anymore either. Dr. Gordon only asks where Esther went to college, then tells her that he will see her next week. While Esther is in Boston Common, a sailor introduces himself to Esther, who tells him that she is Elly Higginbottom from Chicago. Esther thinks that if she ever does go to Chicago, she might change her name to Elly Higginbottom for good, and would show herself to be an orphan. The sailor, who is thirty but looks only sixteen, wants to kiss her, but she thinks that she sees Mrs. Willard and attempts to hide.

During her next session with Dr. Gordon, Esther tells him that she feels the same. She shows Dr. Gordon her handwriting, and he merely asks her if she minds if he would speak to her mother. Dr. Gordon tells her mother that Esther should have shock treatments at his private hospital in Walton. Esther suspects that Dr. Gordon wants her to live there, but she does not believe her mother when she says otherwise. Esther reads a newspaper article about a suicide saved from a seven story ledge, but thinks that the trouble with jumping is that one doesn't choose enough stories, the fall might not be fatal. She also thinks about the Japanese and how they disembowel themselves when anything goes wrong. Esther goes to her appointment at the hospital.


The cure for Esther's depression in this chapter proves worse than the disease, for Esther Greenwood finds Dr. Gordon to be indifferent to her problems and unwilling to learn anything significant about Esther other than which college she attends. This contrasts starkly to even Jay Cee, who displayed significantly more compassion and concern for Esther's mental condition despite her intensely businesslike manner. Instead of dealing with Esther's problems, Dr. Gordon merely prescribes shock therapy for her, shifting her to another doctor for treatment. This may be seen as additional evidence of the misogyny that Esther faces; although there is nothing that automatically suggests that Dr. Gordon gives poor treatment to Esther because of her gender, his behavior toward her will contrast with the later, more compassionate treatment that she will receive from the female Dr. Nolan.

Perhaps the most significant evidence of Esther's mental illness is her handwriting, for her handwriting represents that quality which best defines Esther, the self-professed writer and poet. She grasps at her identity and eventually disavows it, as she continues to employ the pseudonym Elly Higginbottom" when she meets the sailor whom she kisses in Boston Common. She even states that she wishes to assume a new identity as Elly Higginbottom, disavowing her parents and claiming to be an orphan.

Esther's encounter with the sailor in Boston Common once again reinforces the idea that Esther is intensely conflicted about her sexuality, using it as a means for personal expression yet still aware of the disapproval that surrounds her. That she believes that she sees Mrs. Willard when she kisses the sailor in Boston Common shows that she suffers from guilt and anxiety over her sexuality, but also that Buddy Willard is still an omnipresent force in her life.

Although Plath has continually foreshadowed a suicide attempt by Esther in previous chapters, in this chapter Plath becomes more explicit as the attempt seems imminent. At this point Esther considers the various methods to make an attempt, thus implying that the actual attempt will occur quite soon.

Chapter Twelve:

Everything in the hospital seems normal: there are no bars on the windows nor wild noises, but none of the people are moving, or are rather moving with such small, birdlike gestures that she did not discern them. Esther feels as if she were in a department store and the people around me were "shop dummies, painted to resemble real people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life." Esther wonders what a terrible thing it was that she had done when she prepares for the shock treatment. Afterward, she claims that she feels all right despite loathing the treatment, and Dr. Gordon once again asks which college she attends. On her return home, Esther tells her mother that she's through with Dr. Gordon and won't go back for treatment. Her mother says that she knew her baby wasn't like those awful people there.

After twenty-one days without sleep, Esther locks herself in the bathroom and prepares a hot bath so that she can commit suicide by opening her veins. However, she can only bear to make a Œpractice' cut on her knee, which she bandages. Esther goes to Deer Island Prison in Boston, where she goes along the nearby beach. She asks a guard nearby how one gets into that prison, and he answers "steal a car, rob a store." Esther still has the razors in her pocket, but now has no bath in which to commit suicide.


Sylvia Plath does not give Esther Greenwood's mother a name and she occupies a somewhat minor role in the novel as compared to characters given more description such as Buddy Willard or even Jay Cee, yet the few times in which Esther mentions her mother the comments are important to detail the relationship between the two and the tension that Mrs. Greenwood places on Esther. Her one major comment concerning her daughter's refusal to get electroshock treatment again is that she knows her baby isn't like the "awful" people in the hospital, demonstrating that a primary concern for her is her daughter's reputation and not in curing Esther's problems.

The major theme of this chapter is the dehumanizing aspect of the hospital. Esther describes the patients there in entirely inhuman terms. Although first believing them to be inanimate, she then compares them to birds and finally mannequins; there is the omnipresent sense that Esther has entered a strange and horrific world foreign to her.

Once again, Plath slowly moves Esther closer and more tentatively to the impending suicide attempt. Esther's slow progression toward attempting to kill herself demonstrates that it will certainly be a premeditated action, yet this also shows that the action is reluctantly done. She must prepare herself to actually undertake the action, giving credence to the interpretation that a suicide attempt will be a cry for help rather than an attempt done definitively to end her life. She has no unending drive to end her life; it is in some sense a whim that comes and goes, as when she thinks about killing herself while at the beach. Nevertheless, Plath indicates that the time will soon come when Esther does finally commit to this particular course of action.