The Bell Jar

Chapter 15

Philomena Guinea’s black Cadillac eased through the tight, five o’clock traffic like a ceremonial car. Soon it would cross one of the brief bridges that arched the Charles, and I would, without thinking, open the door and plunge out through the stream of traffic to the rail of the bridge. One jump, and the water would be over my head.

Idly I twisted a kleenex to small, pill-sized pellets between my fingers and watched my chance. I sat in the middle of the back seat of the Cadillac, my mother on one side of me, and my brother on the other, both leaning slightly forward, like diagonal bars, one across each car door.

In front of me I could see the spam-coloured expanse of the chauffeur’s neck, sandwiched between a blue cap and the shoulders of a bluejacket and, next to him, like a frail, exotic bird, the silver hair and emerald-feathered hat of Philomena Guinea, the famous novelist.

I wasn’t quite sure why Mrs Guinea had turned up. All I knew was that she had interested herself in my case and that at one time, at the peak of her career, she had been in an asylum as well.

My mother said that Mrs Guinea had sent her a telegram from the Bahamas, where she read about me in a Boston paper. Mrs Guinea had telegrammed, “Is there a boy in the case?”

If there was a boy in the case, Mrs Guinea couldn’t, of course, have anything to do with it.

But my mother had telegrammed back, “No, it is Esther’s writing. She thinks she will never write again.”

So Mrs Guinea had flown back to Boston and taken me out of the cramped city hospital ward, and now she was driving me to a private hospital that had grounds and golf courses and gardens, like a country club, where she would pay for me, as if I had a scholarship, until the doctors she knew of there had made me well.

My mother told me I should be grateful. She said I had used up almost all her money, and if it weren’t for Mrs Guinea she didn’t know where I’d be. I knew where I’d be, though. I’d be in the big state hospital in the country, cheek by jowl to this private place.

I knew I should be grateful to Mrs Guinea, only I couldn’t feel a thing. If Mrs Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

Blue sky opened its dome above the river, and the river was dotted with sails. I readied myself, but immediately my mother and my brother each laid one hand on a door handle. The tyres hummed briefly over the grill of the bridge. Water, sails, blue sky and suspended gulls flashed by like an improbable postcard, and we were across.

I sank back in the grey, plush seat and closed my eyes. The air of the bell jar wadded round me and I couldn’t stir.

I had my own room again.

It reminded me of the room in Doctor Gordon’s hospital—a bed, a bureau, a closet, a table and chair. A window with a screen, but no bars. My room was on the first floor, and the window, a short distance above the pine-needle-padded ground, overlooked a wooded yard ringed by a red brick wall. If I jumped I wouldn’t even bruise my knees. The inner surface of the tall wall seemed smooth as glass.

The journey over the bridge had unnerved me.

I had missed a perfectly good chance. The river water passed me by like an untouched drink. I suspected that even if my mother and brother had not been there I would have made no move to jump.

When I enrolled in the main building of the hospital, a slim young woman had come up and introduced herself. “My name is Doctor Nolan. I am to be Esther’s doctor.”

I was surprised to have a woman. I didn’t think they had woman psychiatrists. This woman was a cross between Myrna Loy and my mother. She wore a white blouse and a full skirt gathered at the waist by a wide leather belt, and stylish, crescent-shaped spectacles.

But after a nurse had led me across the lawn to the gloomy brick building called Caplan, where I would live, Doctor Nolan didn’t come to see me, a whole lot of strange men came instead.

I lay on my bed under the thick white blanket, and they entered my room, one by one, and introduced themselves. I couldn’t understand why there should be so many of them, or why they would want to introduce themselves, and I began to think they were testing me, to see if I noticed there were too many of them, and I grew wary.

Finally, a handsome, white-haired doctor came in and said he was the director of the hospital. Then he started talking about the Pilgrims and Indians and who had the land after them, and what rivers ran nearby, and who had built the first hospital, and how it had burned down, and who had built the next hospital, until I thought he must be waiting to see when I would interrupt him and tell him I knew all that about rivers and Pilgrims was a lot of nonsense.

But then I thought some of it might be true, so I tried to sort out what was likely to be true and what wasn’t, only before I could do that, he had said good-bye.

I waited till I heard the voices of all the doctors die away. Then I threw back the white blanket and put on my shoes and walked out into the hall. Nobody stopped me, so I walked round the corner of my wing of the hall and down another, longer hall, past an open dining room.

A maid in a green uniform was setting the tables for supper. There were white linen table-cloths and glasses and paper napkins. I stored the fact that there were real glasses in the corner of my mind the way a squirrel stores a nut. At the city hospital we had drunk out of paper cups and had no knives to cut our meat. The meat had always been so overcooked we could cut it with a fork.

Finally I arrived at a big lounge with shabby furniture and a threadbare rug. A girl with a round pasty face and short black hair was sitting in an armchair, reading a magazine. She reminded me of a Girl Scout leader I’d had once. I glanced at her feet, and sure enough, she wore those flat brown leather shoes with fringed tongues lapping down over the front that are supposed to be so sporty, and the ends of the laces were knobbed with little imitation acorns.

The girl raised her eyes and smiled. “I’m Valerie. Who are you?”

I pretended I hadn’t heard and walked out of the lounge to the end of the next wing. On the way, I passed a waist-high door behind which I saw some nurses.

“Where is everybody?”

“Out.” The nurse was writing something over and over on little pieces of adhesive tape. I leaned across the gate of the door to see what she was writing, and it was E. Greenwood, E. Greenwood, E. Greenwood, E. Greenwood.

“Out where?”

“Oh, OT, the golf course, playing badminton.”

I noticed a pile of clothes on a chair beside the nurse. They were the same clothes the nurse in the first hospital had been packing into the patent leather case when I broke the mirror. The nurse began sticking the labels on to the clothes.

I walked back to the lounge. I couldn’t understand what these people were doing, playing badminton and golf. They mustn’t be really sick at all, to do that.

I sat down near Valerie and observed her carefully. Yes, I thought, she might just as well be in a Girl Scout camp. She was reading her tatty copy of Vogue with intense interest.

“What the hell is she doing here,” I wondered. “There’s nothing the matter with her.”

“Do you mind if I smoke?” Doctor Nolan leaned back in the armchair next to my bed.

I said no, I liked the smell of smoke. I thought if Doctor Nolan smoked, she might stay longer. This was the first time she had come to talk with me. When she left I would simply lapse into the old blankness.

“Tell me about Doctor Gordon,” Doctor Nolan said suddenly. “Did you like him?”

I gave Doctor Nolan a wary look. I thought the doctors must all be in it together, and that somewhere in this hospital, in a hidden corner, there reposed a machine exactly like Doctor Gordon’s, ready to jolt me out of my skin.

“No,” I said. “I didn’t like him at all.”

“That’s interesting. Why?”

“I didn’t like what he did to me,”

“Did to you?”

I told Doctor Nolan about the machine, and the blue flashes, and the jolting and the noise. While I was telling her she went very still.

“That was a mistake,” she said then. “It’s not supposed to be like that.”

I stared at her.

“If it’s done properly,” Doctor Nolan said, “it’s like going to sleep.”

“If anyone does that to me again I’ll kill myself.”

Doctor Nolan said firmly, “You won’t have any shock treatments here. Or if you do,” she amended, “I’ll tell you about it beforehand, and I promise you it won’t be anything like what you had before. Why,” she finished, “some people even like them.”

After Doctor Nolan had gone I found a box of matches on the window-sill. It wasn’t an ordinary-size box, but an extremely tiny box. I opened it and exposed a row of little white sticks with pinks tips. I tried to light one, and it crumpled in my hand.

I couldn’t think why Doctor Nolan would have left me such a stupid thing. Perhaps she wanted to see if I would give it back. Carefully I stored the toy matches in the hem of my new wool bathrobe. If Doctor Nolan asked me for the matches, I would say I’d thought they were made of candy and had eaten them.

A new woman had moved into the room next to mine.

I thought she must be the only person in the building who was newer than I was, so she wouldn’t know how really bad I was, the way the rest did. I thought I might go in and make friends.

The woman was lying on her bed in a purple dress that fastened at the neck with a cameo brooch and reached midway between her knees and her shoes. She had rusty hair knotted in a schoolmarmish bun, and thin, silver-rimmed spectacles attached to her breast pocket with a black elastic.

“Hello,” I said conversationally, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “My name’s Esther, what’s your name?”

The woman didn’t stir, she just stared up at the ceiling. I felt hurt. I thought maybe Valerie or somebody had told her when she first came in how stupid I was.

A nurse popped her head in at the door.

“Oh, there you are,” she said to me. “Visiting Miss Norris. How nice!” And she disappeared again.

I don’t know how long I sat there, watching the woman in purple and wondering if her pursed, pink lips would open, and if they did open, what they would say.

Finally, without speaking or looking at me, Miss Norris swung her feet in their high, black, buttoned boots over the other side of the bed and walked out of the room. I thought she might be trying to get rid of me in a subtle way. Quietly, at a little distance, I followed her down the hall.

Miss Norris reached the door of the dining-room and paused. All the way to the dining-room she had walked precisely, placing her feet in the very centre of the cabbage roses that twined through the pattern of the carpet. She waited a moment and then, one by one, lifted her feet over the door-sill and into the dining-room as though stepping over an invisible shin-high stile.

She sat down at one of the round, linen-covered tables and unfolded a napkin in her lap.

“It’s not supper for an hour yet,” the cook called out of the kitchen.

But Miss Norris didn’t answer. She just stared straight ahead of her in a polite way.

I pulled up a chair opposite her at the table and unfolded a napkin. We didn’t speak, but sat there, in a close, sisterly silence, until the gong for supper sounded down the hall.

“Lie down,” the nurse said. “I’m going to give you another injection.”

I rolled over on my stomach on the bed and hitched up my skirt. Then I pulled down the trousers of my silk pyjamas.

“My word, what all have you got under there?”

“Pyjamas. So I won’t have to bother getting in and out of them all the time.”

The nurse made a little clucking noise. Then she said, “Which side?” It was an old joke.

I raised my head and glanced back at my bare buttocks. They were bruised purple and green and blue from past injections. The left side looked darker than the right.

“The right.”

“You name it.” The nurse jabbed the needle in, and I winced, savouring the tiny hurt. Three times each day the nurses injected me, and about an hour after each injection they gave me a cup of sugary fruit juice and stood by, watching me drink it.

“Lucky you,” Valerie said. “You’re on insulin.”

“Nothing happens.”

“Oh, it will. I’ve had it. Tell me when you get a reaction.”

But I never seemed to get any reaction. I just grew fatter and fatter. Already I filled the new, too-big clothes my mother had bought, and when I peered down at my plump stomach and my broad hips I thought it was a good thing Mrs Guinea hadn’t seen me like this, because I looked just as if I were going to have a baby.

“Have you seen my scars?”

Valerie pushed aside her black bang and indicated two pale marks, one on either side of her forehead, as if at some time she had started to sprout horns, but cut them off.

We were walking, just the two of us, with the Sports Therapist in the asylum gardens. Nowadays I was let out on walk privileges more and more often. They never let Miss Norris out at all.

Valerie said Miss Norris shouldn’t be in Caplan, but in a building for worse people called Wymark.

“Do you know what these scars are?” Valerie persisted.

“No. What are they?”

“I’ve had a lobotomy.”

I looked at Valerie in awe, appreciating for the first time her perpetual marble calm. “How do you feel?”

“Fine. I’m not angry any more. Before, I was always angry. I was in Wymark, before, and now I’m in Caplan. I can go to town, now, or shopping or to a movie, along with a nurse.”

“What will you do when you get out?”

“Oh, I’m not leaving,” Valerie laughed. “I like it here.”

“Moving day!”

“Why should I be moving?”

The nurse went on blithely opening and shutting my drawers, emptying the closet and folding my belongings into the black overnight case.

I thought they must at last be moving me to Wymark.

“Oh, you’re only moving to the front of the house,” the nurse said cheerfully. “You’ll like it. There’s lots more sun.”

When we came out into the hall, I saw that Miss Norris was moving too. A nurse, young and cheerful as my own, stood in the doorway of Miss Norris’s room, helping Miss Norris into a purple coat with a scrawny squirrel-fur collar.

Hour after hour I had been keeping watch by Miss Norris’s bedside, refusing the diversion of OT and walks and badminton matches and even the weekly movies, which I enjoyed, and which Miss Norris never went to, simply to brood over the pale, speechless circlet of her lips.

I thought how exciting it would be if she opened her mouth and spoke, and I rushed out into the hall and announced this to the nurses. They would praise me for encouraging Miss Norris, and I would probably be allowed shopping privileges and movie privileges downtown, and my escape would be assured.

But in all my hours of vigil Miss Norris hadn’t said a word.

“Where are you moving to?” I asked her now.

The nurse touched Miss Norris’s elbow, and Miss Norris jerked into motion like a doll on wheels.

“She’s going to Wymark,” my nurse told me in a low voice. “I’m afraid Miss Norris isn’t moving up like you.”

I watched Miss Norris lift one foot, and then the other, over the invisible stile that barred the front doorsill.

“I’ve a surprise for you,” the nurse said as she installed me in a sunny room in the front wing overlooking the green golf links. “Somebody you know’s just come today.”

“Somebody I know?”

The nurse laughed. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s not a policeman.” Then, as I didn’t say anything, she added, “She says she’s an old friend of yours. She lives next door. Why don’t you pay her a visit?”

I thought the nurse must be joking, and that if I knocked on the door next to mine I would hear no answer, but go in and find Miss Norris, buttoned into her purple, squirrel-collared coat and lying on the bed, her mouth blooming out of the quiet vase of her body like the bud of a rose.

Still, I went out and knocked on the neighbouring door.

“Come in!” called a gay voice.

I opened the door a crack and peered into the room. The big, horsey girl in jodhpurs sitting by the window glanced up with a broad smile.

“Esther!” She sounded out of breath, as if she had been running a long, long distance and only just come to a halt. “How nice to see you. They told me you were here.”

“Joan?” I said tentatively, then “Joan!” in confusion and disbelief.

Joan beamed, revealing her large, gleaming, unmistakable teeth.

“It’s really me. I thought you’d be surprised.”


Icon for the Public Domain license

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