The Bell Jar

Chapter 12

Doctor Gordon’s private hospital crowned a grassy rise at the end of a long, secluded drive that had been whitened with broken quahog shells. The yellow clapboard walls of the large house, with its encircling veranda, gleamed in the sun, but no people strolled on the green dome of the lawn.

As my mother and I approached the summer heat bore down on us, and a cicada started up, like an aerial lawnmower, in the heart of a copper beech tree at the back. The sound of the cicada only served to underline the enormous silence.

A nurse met us at the door.

“Will you wait in the living-room, please. Doctor Gordon will be with you presently.”

What bothered me was that everything about the house seemed normal, although I knew it must be chock-full of crazy people. There were no bars on the windows that I could see, and no wild or disquieting noises. Sunlight measured itself out in regular oblongs on the shabby, but soft red carpets, and a whiff of fresh-cut grass sweetened the air.

I paused in the doorway of the living-room.

For a minute I thought it was the replica of a lounge in a guest house I visited once on an island off the coast of Maine. The French doors let in a dazzle of white light, a grand piano ruled the far corner of the room, and people in summer clothes were sitting about at card tables and in the lopsided wicker armchairs one so often finds at down-at-heel seaside resorts.

Then I realized that none of the people were moving.

I focused more closely, trying to pry some clue from their stiff postures. I made out men and women, and boys and girls who must be as young as I, but there was a uniformity to their faces, as if they had lain for a long time on a shelf, out of the sunlight, under siftings of pale, fine dust.

Then I saw that some of the people were indeed moving, but with such small, birdlike gestures I had not at first discerned them.

A grey-faced man was counting out a deck of cards, one, two, three, four… I thought he must be seeing if it was a full pack, but when he had finished counting, he started over again. Next to him, a fat lady played with a string of wooden beads. She drew all the beads up to one end of the string. Then click, click, click, she let them fall back on each other.

At the piano, a young girl leafed through a few sheets of music, but when she saw me looking at her, she ducked her head crossly and tore the sheets in half.

My mother touched my arm, and I followed her into the room.

We sat, without speaking, on a lumpy sofa that creaked each time one stirred.

Then my gaze slid over the people to the blaze of green beyond the diaphanous curtains, and I felt as if I were sitting in the window of an enormous department store. The figures around me weren’t people, but shop dummies, painted to resemble people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life.

I climbed after Doctor Gordon’s dark-jacketed back. Downstairs, in the hall, I had tried to ask him what the shock treatment would be like, but when I opened my mouth no words came out, my eyes only widened and stared at the smiling, familiar face that floated before me like a plate full of assurances.

At the top of the stairs, the garnet-coloured carpet stopped. A plain, brown linoleum, tacked to the floor, took its place, and extended down a corridor lined with shut white doors. As I followed Doctor Gordon, a door opened somewhere in the distance, and I heard a woman shouting.

All at once a nurse popped around the corner of the corridor ahead of us leading a woman in a blue bathrobe with shaggy, waist-length hair. Doctor Gordon stepped back, and I flattened against the wall.

As the woman was dragged by, waving her arms and struggling in the grip of the nurse, she was saying, “I’m going to jump out of the window, I’m going to jump out of the window, I’m going to jump out of the window.”

Dumpy and muscular in her smudge-fronted uniform, the wall-eyed nurse wore such thick spectacles that four eyes peered out at me from behind the round, twin panes of glass. I was trying to tell which eyes were the real eyes and which the false eyes, and which of the real eyes was the wall-eye and which the straight eye, when she brought her face up to mine with a large, conspiratorial grin and hissed, as if to reassure me, “She thinks she’s going to jump out the window but she can’t jump out the window because they’re all barred!”

And as Doctor Gordon led me into a bare room at the back of the house, I saw that the windows in that part were indeed barred, and that the room door and the closet door and the drawers of the bureau and everything that opened and shut was fitted with a keyhole so it could be locked up.

I lay down on the bed.

The wall-eyed nurse came back. She unclasped my watch and dropped it in her pocket. Then she started tweaking the hairpins from my hair.

Doctor Gordon was unlocking the closet. He dragged out a table on wheels with a machine on it and rolled it behind the head of the bed. The nurse started swabbing my temples with a smelly grease.

As she leaned over to reach the side of my head nearest the wall, her fat breast muffled my face like a cloud or a pillow. A vague, medicinal stench emanated from her flesh.

“Don’t worry,” the nurse grinned down at me. “Their first time everybody’s scared to death.”

I tried to smile, but my skin had gone stiff, like parchment.

Doctor Gordon was fitting two metal plates on either side of my head. He buckled them into place with a strap that dented my forehead, and gave me a wire to bite.

I shut my eyes.

There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.

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 was sitting in a wicker chair, holding a small cocktail glass of tomato juice. The watch had been replaced on my wrist, but it looked odd. Then I realized it had been fastened upside down. I sensed the unfamiliar positioning of the hairpins in my hair.

“How do you feel?”

An old metal floor lamp surfaced in my mind. One of the few relics of my father’s study, it was surmounted by a copper bell which held the light bulb, and from which a frayed, tiger-coloured cord ran down the length of the metal stand to a socket in the wall.

One day I’d decided to move this lamp from the side of my mother’s bed to my desk at the other end of the room. The cord would be long enough, so I didn’t unplug it. I closed both hands around the lamp and the fuzzy cord and gripped them tight.

Then something leapt out of the lamp in a blue flash and shook me till my teeth rattled, and I tried to pull my hands off, but they were stuck, and I screamed, or a scream was torn from my throat, for I didn’t recognize it, but heard it soar and quaver in the air like a violently disembodied spirit.

Then my hands jerked free, and I fell back on to my mother’s bed. A small hole, blackened as if with pencil lead, pitted the centre of my right palm.

“How do you feel?”

“All right.”

But I didn’t. I felt terrible.

“Which college did you say you went to?”

I said what college it was.

“Ah!” Doctor Gordon’s face lighted with a slow, almost tropical smile. “They had a WAC station up there, didn’t they, during the war?”

My mother’s knuckles were bone-white, as if the skin had worn off them in the hour of waiting. She looked past me to Doctor Gordon, and he must have nodded, or smiled, because her face relaxed.

“A few more shock treatments, Mrs Greenwood,” I heard Doctor Gordon say, “and I think you’ll notice a wonderful improvement.”

The girl was still sitting on the piano stool, the torn sheet of music splayed at her feet like a dead bird. She stared at me, and I stared back. Her eyes narrowed. She stuck out her tongue.

My mother was following Doctor Gordon to the door. I lingered behind, and when their backs were turned, I rounded on the girl and thumbed both ears at her. She pulled her tongue in, and her face went stony.

I walked out into the sun.

Panther-like in a dapple of tree shadow, Dodo Conway’s black station wagon lay in wait.

The station wagon had been ordered originally by a wealthy society lady, black, without a speck of chrome, and with black leather upholstery, but when it came, it depressed her. It was the dead spit of a hearse, she said, and everybody else thought so too, and nobody would buy it, so the Conways drove it home, cut-price, and saved themselves a couple of hundred dollars.

Sitting in the front seat, between Dodo and my mother, I felt dumb and subdued. Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently.

“I’m through with that Doctor Gordon,” I said, after we had left Dodo and her black wagon behind the pines. “You can call him up and tell him I’m not coming next week.”

My mother smiled. “I knew my baby wasn’t like that.”

I looked at her. “Like what?”

“Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital.” She paused. “I knew you’d decide to be all right again.”



I felt in my pocket-book among the paper scraps and the compact and the peanut shells and the dimes and nickels and the blue jiffy box containing nineteen Gillette blades, till I unearthed the snapshot I’d had taken that afternoon in the orange-and-white striped booth.

I brought it up next to the smudgy photograph of the dead girl. It matched, mouth for mouth, nose for nose. The only difference was the eyes. The eyes in the snapshot were open, and those in the newspaper photograph were closed. But I knew if the dead girl’s eyes were to be thumbed wide, they would look out at me with the same dead, black, vacant expression as the eyes in the snapshot.

I stuffed the snapshot back in my pocket-book.

“I will just sit here in the sun on this park bench five minutes more by the clock on that building over there,” I told myself, “and then I will go somewhere and do it.”

I summoned my little chorus of voices.

Doesn’t your work interest you, Esther?

You know, Esther, you’ve got the perfect set-up of a true neurotic.

You’ll never get anywhere like that, you’ll never get anywhere like that, you’ll never get anywhere like that.

Once, on a hot summer night, I had spent an hour kissing a hairy, ape-shaped law student from Yale because I felt sorry for him, he was so ugly. When I had finished, he said, “I have you taped, baby. You’ll be a prude at forty.”

“Factitious!” my creative writing professor at college scrawled on a story of mine called “The Big Weekend”.

I hadn’t known what factitious meant, so I looked it up in the dictionary.

Factitious, artificial, sham.

You’ll never get anywhere like that.

I hadn’t slept for twenty-one nights.

I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.

I looked down at the two flesh-coloured band-aids forming a cross on the calf of my right leg.

That morning I had made a start.

I had locked myself in the bathroom, and run a tub full of warm water, and taken out a Gillette blade.

When they asked some old Roman philosopher or other how he wanted to die, he said he would open his veins in a warm bath. I thought it would be easy, lying in the tub and seeing the redness flower from my wrists, flush after flush through the clear water, till I sank to sleep under a surface gaudy as poppies.

But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenceless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.

It would take two motions. One wrist, then the other wrist. Three motions, if you counted changing the razor from hand to hand. Then I would step into the tub and lie down.

I moved in front of the medicine cabinet. If I looked in the mirror while I did it, it would be like watching somebody else, in a book or a play.

But the person in the mirror was paralysed and too stupid to do a thing.

Then I thought, maybe I ought to spill a little blood for practice, so I sat on the edge of the tub and crossed my right ankle over my left knee. Then I lifted my right hand with the razor and let it drop of its own weight, like a guillotine, on to the calf of my leg.

I felt nothing. Then I felt a small, deep thrill, and a bright seam of red welled up at the lip of the slash. The blood gathered darkly, like fruit, and rolled down my ankle into the cup of my black patent leather shoe.

I thought of getting into the tub then, but I realized my dallying had used up the better part of the morning, and that my mother would probably come home and find me before I was done.

So I bandaged the cut, packed up my Gillette blades and caught the eleven-thirty bus to Boston.

“Sorry, baby, there’s no subway to the Deer Island Prison, it’s on a niland.”

“No, it’s not on an island, it used to be on an island, but they filled up the water with dirt and now it joins on to the mainland.”

“There’s no subway.”

“I’ve got to get there.”

“Hey,” the fat man in the ticket booth peered at me through the grating, “don’t cry. Who you got there, honey, some relative?”

People shoved and bumped by me in the artificially lit dark, hurrying after the trains that rumbled in and out of the intestinal tunnels under Scollay Square. I could feel the tears start to spurt from the screwed-up nozzles of my eyes.

“It’s my father.”

The fat man consulted a diagram on the wall of his booth. “Here’s how you do,” he said, “you take a car from that track over there and get off at Orient Heights and then hop a bus with The Point on it.” He beamed at me. “It’ll run you straight to the prison gate.”

“Hey you!” A young fellow in a blue uniform waved from the hut.

I waved back and kept on going.

“Hey you!”

I stopped, and walked slowly over to the hut that perched like a circular living-room on the waste of sands.

“Hey, you can’t go any further. That’s prison property, no trespassers allowed.”

“I thought you could go anyplace along the beach,” I said. “So long as you stayed under the tideline.”

The fellow thought a minute.

Then he said, “Not this beach.”

He had a pleasant, fresh face.

“You’ve a nice place here,” I said. “It’s like a little house.”

He glanced back into the room, with its braided rug and chintz curtains. He smiled.

“We even got a coffee pot.”

“I used to live near here.”

“No kidding. I was born and brought up in this town myself.”

I looked across the sands to the parking lot and the barred gate, and past the barred gate to the narrow road, lapped by the ocean on both sides, that led out to the one-time island.

The red brick buildings of the prison looked friendly, like the buildings of a seaside college. On a green hump of lawn to the left, I could see small white spots and slightly larger pink spots moving about. I asked the guard what they were, and he said, “Them’s pigs ‘n’ chickens.”

I was thinking that if I’d had the sense to go on living in that old town I might just have met this prison guard in school and married him and had a parcel of kids by now. It would be nice, living by the sea with piles of little kids and pigs and chickens, wearing what my grandmother called wash dresses, and sitting about in some kitchen with bright linoleum and fat arms, drinking pots of coffee.

“How do you get into that prison?”

“You get a pass.”

“No, how do you get locked in?”

“Oh,” the guard laughed, “you steal a car, you rob a store.”

“You got any murderers in there?”

“No. Murderers go to a big state place.”

“Who else is in there?”

“Well, the first day of winter we get these old bums out of Boston. They heave a brick through a window, and then they get picked up and spend the winter out of the cold, with TV and plenty to eat, and basketball games on the weekend.”

“That’s nice.”

“Nice if you like it,” said the guard.

I said good-bye and started to move off, glancing back over my shoulder only once. The guard still stood in the doorway of his observation booth, and when I turned he lifted his arm in a salute.

The log I sat on was lead-heavy and smelled of tar. Under the stout, grey cylinder of the water tower on its commanding hill, the sandbar curved out into the sea. At high tide the bar completely submerged itself.

I remembered that sandbar well. It harboured, in the crook of its inner curve, a particular shell that could be found nowhere else on the beach.

The shell was thick, smooth, big as a thumb joint, and usually white, although sometimes pink or peach-coloured. It resembled a sort of modest conch.

“Mummy, that girl’s still sitting there.”

I looked up, idly, and saw a small, sandy child being dragged up from the sea’s edge by a skinny, bird-eyed woman in red shorts and a red-and-white polka-dotted halter.

I hadn’t counted on the beach being overrun with summer people. In the ten years of my absence, fancy blue and pink and pale green shanties had sprung up on the flat sands of the Point like a crop of tasteless mushrooms, and the silver aeroplanes and cigar-shaped blimps had given way to jets that scoured the rooftops in their loud onrush from the airport across the bay.

I was the only girl on the beach in a skirt and high heels, and it occurred to me I must stand out. I had removed my patent leather shoes after a while, for they foundered badly in the sand. It pleased me to think they would be perched there on the silver log, pointing out to sea, like a sort of soul-compass, after I was dead.

I fingered the box of razors in my pocket-book.

Then I thought how stupid I was. I had the razors, but no warm bath.

I considered renting a room. There must be a boarding house among all those summer places. But I had no luggage. That would create suspicion. Besides, in a boarding house other people are always wanting to use the bathroom. I’d hardly have time to do it and step into the tub when somebody would be pounding at the door.

The gulls on their wooden stilts at the tip of the bar miaowed like cats. Then they flapped up, one by one, in their ash-coloured jackets, circling my head and crying.

“Say, lady, you better not sit out here, the tide’s coming in.”

The small boy squatted a few feet away. He picked up a round purple stone and lobbed it into the water. The water swallowed it with a resonant plop. Then he scrabbled around, and I heard the dry stones clank together like money.

He skimmed a flat stone over the dull green surface, and it skipped seven times before it sliced out of sight.

“Why don’t you go home?” I said.

The boy skipped another, heavier stone. It sank after the second bounce.

“Don’t want to.”

“Your mother’s looking for you.”

“She is not.” He sounded worried.

“If you go home, I’ll give you some candy.”

The boy hitched closer. “What kind?”

But I knew without looking into my pocket-book that all I had was peanut shells.

“I’ll give you some money to buy some candy.”


A woman was indeed coming out on the sandbar, slipping and no doubt cursing to herself, for her lips went up and down between her clear, peremptory calls.


She shaded her eyes with one hand, as if this helped her discern us through the thickening sea dusk.

I could sense the boy’s interest dwindle as the pull of his mother increased. He began to pretend he didn’t know me. He kicked over a few stones, as if searching for something, and edged off.

I shivered.

The stones lay lumpish and cold under my bare feet. I thought longingly of the black shoes on the beach. A wave drew back, like a hand, then advanced and touched my foot.

The drench seemed to come off the sea floor itself, where blind white fish ferried themselves by their own light through the great polar cold. I saw sharks’ teeth and whales’ earbones littered about down there like gravestones.

I waited, as if the sea could make my decision for me.

A second wave collapsed over my feet, lipped with white froth, and the chill gripped my ankles with a mortal ache.

My flesh winced, in cowardice, from such a death.

I picked up my pocket-book and started back over the cold stones to where my shoes kept their vigil in the violet light.


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This work (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath) is free of known copyright restrictions.