The Bell Jar

Chapter 14

It was completely dark.

I felt the darkness, but nothing else, and my head rose, feeling it, like the head of a worm. Someone was moaning. Then a great, hard weight smashed against my cheek like a stone wall and the moaning stopped.

The silence surged back, smoothing itself as black water smooths to its old surface calm over a dropped stone.

A cool wind rushed by. I was being transported at enormous speed down a tunnel into the earth. Then the wind stopped. There was a rumbling, as of many voices, protesting and disagreeing in the distance. Then the voices stopped.

A chisel cracked down on my eye, and a slit of light opened, like a mouth or a wound, till the darkness clamped shut on it again. I tried to roll away from the direction of the light, but hands wrapped round my limbs like mummy bands, and I couldn’t move.

I began to think I must be in an underground chamber, lit by blinding lights, and that the chamber was full of people who for some reason were holding me down.

Then the chisel struck again, and the light leapt into my head, and through the thick, warm, furry dark, a voice cried,


Air breathed and played over my face.

I felt the shape of a room around me, a big room with open windows. A pillow moulded itself under my head, and my body floated, without pressure, between thin sheets.

Then I felt warmth, like a hand on my face. I must be lying in the sun. If I opened my eyes, I would see colours and shapes bending in upon me like nurses.

I opened my eyes.

It was completely dark.

Somebody was breathing beside me.

“I can’t see,” I said.

A cheery voice spoke out of the dark. “There are lots of blind people in the world. You’ll marry a nice blind man some day.”

The man with the chisel had come back.

“Why do you bother?” I said. “It’s no use.”

“You mustn’t talk like that.” His fingers probed at the great, aching boss over my left eye. Then he loosened something, and a ragged gap of light appeared, like the hole in a wall. A man’s head peered round the edge of it.

“Can you see me?”


“Can you see anything else?”

Then I remembered. “I can’t see anything.” The gap narrowed and went dark. “I’m blind.”

“Nonsense! Who told you that?”

“The nurse.”

The man snorted. He finished taping the bandage back over my eye. “You are a very lucky girl. Your sight is perfectly intact.”

“Somebody to see you.”

The nurse beamed and disappeared.

My mother came smiling round the foot of the bed. She was wearing a dress with purple cartwheels on it and she looked awful.

A big tall boy followed her. At first I couldn’t make out who it was, because my eye only opened a short way, but then I saw it was my brother.

“They said you wanted to see me.”

My mother perched on the edge of the bed and laid a hand on my leg. She looked loving and reproachful, and I wanted her to go away.

“I didn’t think I said anything.”

“They said you called for me.” She seemed ready to cry. Her face puckered up and quivered like a pale jelly.

“How are you?” my brother said.

I looked my mother in the eye.

“The same,” I said.

“You have a visitor.”

“I don’t want a visitor.”

The nurse bustled out and whispered to somebody in the hall. Then she came back. “He’d very much like to see you.”

I looked down at the yellow legs sticking out of the unfamiliar white silk pyjamas they had dressed me in. The skin shook flabbily when I moved, as if there wasn’t a muscle in it, and it was covered with a short, thick stubble of black hair.

“Who is it?”

“Somebody you know.”

“What’s his name?”

“George Bakewell.”

“I don’t know any George Bakewell.”

“He says he knows you.”

Then the nurse went out, and a very familiar boy came in and said, “Mind if I sit on the edge of your bed?”

He was wearing a white coat, and I could see a stethoscope poking out of his pocket. I thought it must be somebody I knew dressed up as a doctor.

I had meant to cover my legs if anybody came in, but now I saw it was too late, so I let them stick out, just as they were, disgusting and ugly.

“That’s me,” I thought. “That’s what I am.”

“You remember me, don’t you, Esther?”

I squinted at the boy’s face through the crack of my good eye. The other eye hadn’t opened yet, but the eye doctor said it would be all right in a few days.

The boy looked at me as if I were some exciting new zoo animal and he was about to burst out laughing.

“You remember me, don’t you, Esther?” He spoke slowly, the way one speaks to a dull child. “I’m George Bakewell. I go to your church. You dated my room-mate once at Amherst.”

I thought I placed the boy’s face then. It hovered dimly at the rim of memory—the sort of face to which I would never bother to attach a name.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m houseman at this hospital.”

How could this George Bakewell have become a doctor so suddenly? I wondered. He didn’t really know me, either. He just wanted to see what a girl who was crazy enough to kill herself looked like.

I turned my face to the wall.

“Get out,” I said. “Get the hell out and don’t come back.”

“I want to see a mirror.”

The nurse hummed busily as she opened one drawer after another, stuffing the new underclothes and blouses and skirts and pyjamas my mother had bought me into the black patent leather overnight case.

“Why can’t I see a mirror?”

I had been dressed in a sheath, striped grey and white, like mattress ticking, with a wide, shiny red belt, and they had propped me up in an armchair.

“Why can’t I?”

“Because you better not.” The nurse shut the lid of the overnight case with a little snap.


“Because you don’t look very pretty.”

“Oh, just let me see.”

The nurse sighed and opened the top bureau drawer. She took out a large mirror in a wooden frame that matched the wood of the bureau and handed it to me.

At first I didn’t see what the trouble was. It wasn’t a mirror at all, but a picture.

You couldn’t tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head. One side of the person’s face was purple, and bulged out in a shapeless way, shading to green along the edges, and then to a sallow yellow. The person’s mouth was pale brown, with a rose-coloured sore at either corner.

The most startling thing about the face was its supernatural conglomeration of bright colours.

I smiled.

The mouth in the mirror cracked into a grin.

A minute after the crash another nurse ran in. She took one look at the broken mirror, and at me, standing over the blind, white pieces, and hustled the young nurse out of the room.

“Didn’t I tell you,” I could hear her say.

“But I only…”

“Didn’t I tell you!”

I listened with mild interest. Anybody could drop a mirror. I didn’t see why they should get so stirred up.

The other, older nurse came back into the room. She stood there, arms folded, staring hard at me.

“Seven years’ bad luck.”


“I said,” the nurse raised her voice, as if speaking to a deaf person, “seven years’ bad luck.”

The young nurse returned with a dustpan and brush and began to sweep up the glittery splinters.

“That’s only a superstition,” I said then.

“Huh!” The second nurse addressed herself to the nurse on her hands and knees as if I wasn’t there. “At you-know-where they’ll take care of her!”

From the back window of the ambulance I could see street after familiar street funnelling off into a summery green distance. My mother sat on one side of me, and my brother on the other.

I had pretended I didn’t know why they were moving me from the hospital in my home town to a city hospital, to see what they would say.

“They want you to be in a special ward,” my mother said. “They don’t have that sort of ward at our hospital.”

“I liked it where I was.”

My mother’s mouth tightened. “You should have behaved better, then.”


“You shouldn’t have broken that mirror. Then maybe they’d have let you stay.”

But of course I knew the mirror had nothing to do with it.

I sat in bed with the covers up to my neck.

“Why can’t I get up? I’m not sick.”

“Ward rounds,” the nurse said. “You can get up after ward rounds.” She shoved the bed-curtains back and revealed a fat young Italian woman in the next bed.

The Italian woman had a mass of tight black curls, starting at her forehead, that rose in a mountainous pompadour and cascaded down her back. Whenever she moved, the huge arrangement of hair moved with her, as if made of stiff black paper.

The woman looked at me and giggled. “Why are you here?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “I’m here on account of my French-Canadian mother-in-law.” She giggled again. “My husband knows I can’t stand her, and still he said she could come and visit us, and when she came, my tongue stuck out of my head, I couldn’t stop it. They ran me into Emergency and then they put me up here,” she lowered her voice, “along with the nuts.” Then she said, “What’s the matter with you?”

I turned her my full face, with the bulging purple and green eye. “I tried to kill myself.”

The woman stared at me. Then, hastily, she snatched up a movie magazine from her bed-table and pretended to be reading.

The swinging door opposite my bed flew open, and a whole troop of young boys and girls in white coats came in, with an older, grey-haired man. They were all smiling with bright, artificial smiles. They grouped themselves at the foot of my bed.

“And how are you feeling this morning, Miss Greenwood?”

I tried to decide which one of them had spoken. I hate saying anything to a group of people. When I talk to a group of people I always have to single out one and talk to him, and all the while I am talking I feel the others are peering at me and taking unfair advantage. I also hate people to ask cheerfully how you are when they know you’re feeling like hell and expect you to say “Fine.”

“I feel lousy.”

“Lousy. Hmm,” somebody said, and a boy ducked his head with a little smile. Somebody else scribbled something on a clipboard. Then somebody pulled a straight, solemn face and said, “And why do you feel lousy?”

I thought some of the boys and girls in that bright group might well be friends of Buddy Willard. They would know I knew him, and they would be curious to see me, and afterwards they would gossip about me among themselves. I wanted to be where nobody I knew could ever come.

“I can’t sleep…”

They interrupted me. “But the nurse says you slept last night.” I looked round the crescent of fresh, strange faces.

“I can’t read.” I raised my voice. “I can’t eat.” It occurred to me I’d been eating ravenously ever since I came to.

The people in the group had turned from me and were murmuring in low voices to each other. Finally, the grey-haired man stepped out.

“Thank you, Miss Greenwood. You will be seen by one of the staff doctors presently.”

Then the group moved on to the bed of the Italian woman.

“And how are you feeling today, Mrs…” somebody said, and the name sounded long and full of l’s, like Mrs Tomolillo.

Mrs Tomolillo giggled. “Oh, I’m fine, doctor. I’m just fine.” Then she lowered her voice and whispered something I couldn’t hear. One or two people in the group glanced in my direction. Then somebody said, “All right, Mrs Tomolillo,” and somebody stepped out and pulled the bed-curtain between us like a white wall.

I sat on one end of a wooden bench in the grassy square between the four brick walls of the hospital. My mother, in her purple cartwheel dress, sat at the other end. She had her head propped in her hand, index finger on her cheek, and thumb under her chin.

Mrs Tomolillo was sitting with some dark-haired, laughing Italians on the next bench down. Every time my mother moved, Mrs Tomolillo imitated her. Now Mrs Tomolillo was sitting with her index finger on her cheek and her thumb under her chin, and her head tilted wistfully to one side.

“Don’t move,” I told my mother in a low voice. “That woman’s imitating you.”

My mother turned to glance round, but quick as a wink, Mrs Tomolillo dropped her fat white hands in her lap and started talking vigorously to her friends.

“Why no, she’s not,” my mother said. “She’s not even paying any attention to us.”

But the minute my mother turned round to me again, Mrs Tomolillo matched the tips of her fingers together the way my mother had just done and cast a black, mocking look at me.

The lawn was white with doctors.

All the time my mother and I had been sitting there, in the narrow cone of sun that shone down between the tall brick walls, doctors had been coming up to me and introducing themselves. “I’m Doctor Soandso, I’m Doctor Soandso.”

Some of them looked so young I knew they couldn’t be proper doctors, and one of them had a queer name that sounded just like Doctor Syphilis, so I began to look out for suspicious, fake names, and sure enough, a dark-haired fellow who looked very like Doctor Gordon, except that he had black skin where Doctor Gordon’s skin was white, came up and said, “I’m Doctor Pancreas,” and shook my hand.

After introducing themselves, the doctors all stood within listening distance, only I couldn’t tell my mother that they were taking down every word we said without their hearing me, so I leaned over and whispered into her ear.

My mother drew back sharply.

“Oh, Esther, I wish you would co-operate. They say you don’t co-operate. They say you won’t talk to any of the doctors or make anything in Occupational Therapy…”

“I’ve got to get out of here,” I told her meaningly. “Then I’d be all right. You got me in here,” I said. “You get me out.”

I thought if only I could persuade my mother to get me out of the hospital I could work on her sympathies, like that boy with brain disease in the play, and convince her what was the best thing to do.

To my surprise, my mother said, “All right, I’ll try to get you out—even if only to a better place. If I try to get you out,” she laid a hand on my knee, “promise you’ll be good?”

I spun round and glared straight at Doctor Syphilis, who stood at my elbow taking notes on a tiny, almost invisible pad. “I promise,” I said in a loud, conspicuous voice.

The negro wheeled the food cart into the patients’ dining-room. The Psychiatric Ward at the hospital was very small—just two corridors in an L-shape, lined with rooms, and an alcove of beds behind the OT shop, where I was, and a little area with a table and a few seats by a window in the corner of the L, which was our lounge and dining-room.

Usually it was a shrunken old white man that brought our food, but today it was a negro. The negro was with a woman in blue stiletto heels, and she was telling him what to do. The negro kept grinning and chuckling in a silly way.

Then he carried a tray over to our table with three lidded tin tureens on it, and started banging the tureens down. The woman left the room, locking the door behind her. All the time the negro was banging down the tureens and then the dinted silver and the thick, white china plates, he gawped at us with big, rolling eyes.

I could tell we were his first crazy people.

Nobody at the table made a move to take the lids off the tin tureens, and the nurse stood back to see if any of us would take the lids off before she came to do it. Usually Mrs Tomolillo had taken the lids off and dished out everybody’s food like a little mother, but then they sent her home, and nobody seemed to want to take her place.

I was starving, so I lifted the lid off the first bowl.

“That’s very nice of you, Esther,” the nurse said pleasantly. “Would you like to take some beans and pass them round to the others?”

I dished myself out a helping of green string beans and turned to pass the tureen to the enormous red-headed woman at my right. This was the first time the red-headed woman had been allowed up to the table. I had seen her once, at the very end of the L-shaped corridor, standing in front of an open door with bars on the square, inset window.

She had been yelling and laughing in a rude way and slapping her thighs at the passing doctors, and the white-jacketed attendant who took care of the people in that end of the ward was leaning against the hall radiator, laughing himself sick.

The red-headed woman snatched the tureen from me and upended it on her plate. Beans mountained up in front of her and scattered over on to her lap and on to the floor like stiff, green straws.

“Oh, Mrs Mole!” the nurse said in a sad voice. “I think you better eat in your room today.”

And she returned most of the beans to the tureen and gave it to the person next to Mrs Mole and led Mrs Mole off. All the way down the hall to her room, Mrs Mole kept turning round and making leering faces at us, and ugly, oinking noises.

The negro had come back and was starting to collect the empty plates of people who hadn’t dished out any beans yet.

“We’re not done,” I told him. “You can just wait.”

“Mah, mah!” The negro widened his eyes in mock wonder. He glanced round. The nurse had not yet returned from locking up Mrs Mole. The negro made me an insolent bow. “Miss Mucky-Muck,” he said under his breath.

I lifted the lid off the second tureen and uncovered a wodge of macaroni, stone-cold and stuck together in a gluey paste. The third and last tureen was chock-full of baked beans.

Now I knew perfectly well you didn’t serve two kinds of beans together at a meal. Beans and carrots, or beans and peas, maybe, but never beans and beans. The negro was just trying to see how much we would take.

The nurse came back, and the negro edged off at a distance. I ate as much as I could of the baked beans. Then I rose from the table, passing round to the side where the nurse couldn’t see me below the waist, and behind the negro, who was clearing the dirty plates. I drew my foot back and gave him a sharp, hard kick on the calf of the leg.

The negro leapt away with a yelp and rolled his eyes at me. “Oh Miz, oh Miz,” he moaned, rubbing his leg. “You shouldn’t of done that, you shouldn’t, you reely shouldn’t.”

“That’s what you get,” I said, and stared him in the eye.

“Don’t you want to get up today?”

“No.” I huddled down more deeply in the bed and pulled the sheet up over my head. Then I lifted a corner of the sheet and peered out. The nurse was shaking down the thermometer she had just removed from my mouth.

“You see, it’s normal.” I had looked at the thermometer before she came to collect it, the way I always did. “You see, it’s normal, what do you keep taking it for?”

I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head, but the idea seemed so involved and wearisome that I didn’t say anything. I only burrowed down further in the bed.

Then, through the sheet, I felt a slight, annoying pressure on my leg. I peeped out. The nurse had set her tray of thermometers on my bed while she turned her back and took the pulse of the person who lay next to me, in Mrs Tomolillo’s place.

A heavy naughtiness pricked through my veins, irritating and attractive as the hurt of a loose tooth. I yawned and stirred, as if about to turn over, and edged my foot under the box.

“Oh!” The nurse’s cry sounded like a cry for help, and another nurse came running. “Look what you’ve done!”

I poked my head out of the covers and stared over the edge of the bed. Around the overturned enamel tray, a star of thermometer shards glittered, and balls of mercury trembled like celestial dew.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It was an accident.”

The second nurse fixed me with a baleful eye. “You did it on purpose. I saw you.”

Then she hurried off, and almost immediately two attendants came and wheeled me, bed and all, down to Mrs Mole’s old room, but not before I had scooped up a ball of mercury. Soon after they had locked the door, I could see the negro’s face, a molasses-coloured moon, risen at the window grating, but I pretended not to notice.

I opened my fingers a crack, like a child with a secret, and smiled at the silver globe cupped in my palm. If I dropped it, it would break into a million little replicas of itself, and if I pushed them near each other, they would fuse, without a crack, into one whole again.

I smiled and smiled at the small silver ball.

I couldn’t imagine what they had done with Mrs Mole.


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