The Bell Jar
“You’re a lucky girl today.”
The young nurse cleared my breakfast tray away and left me wrapped in my white blanket like a passenger taking the sea air on the deck of a ship.
“Why am I lucky?”
“Well, I’m not sure if you’re supposed to know yet, but today you’re moving to Belsize.” The nurse looked at me expectantly.
“Belsize,” I said. “I can’t go there.”
“I’m not ready. I’m not well enough.”
“Of course, you’re well enough. Don’t worry, they wouldn’t be moving you if you weren’t well enough.”
After the nurse left, I tried to puzzle out this new move on Doctor Nolan’s part. What was she trying to prove? I hadn’t changed. Nothing had changed. And Belsize was the best house of all. From Belsize people went back to work and back to school and back to their homes.
Joan would be at Belsize. Joan with her physics books and her golf clubs and her badminton rackets and her breathy voice. Joan, marking the gulf between me and the nearly well ones. Ever since Joan left Caplan I’d followed her progress through the asylum grapevine.
Joan had walk privileges, Joan had shopping privileges, Joan had town privileges. I gathered all my news of Joan into a little, bitter heap, though I received it with surface gladness. Joan was the beaming double of my old best self, specially designed to follow and torment me.
Perhaps Joan would be gone when I got to Belsize.
At least at Belsize I could forget about shock treatments. At Caplan a lot of the women had shock treatments. I could tell which ones they were, because they didn’t get their breakfast trays with the rest of us. They had their shock treatments while we breakfasted in our rooms, and then they came into the lounge, quiet and extinguished, led like children by the nurses, and ate their breakfasts there.
Each morning, when I heard the nurse knock with my tray, an immense relief flooded through me, because I knew I was out of danger for that day. I didn’t see how Doctor Nolan could tell you went to sleep during a shock treatment if she’d never had a shock treatment herself. How did she know the person didn’t just look as if he was asleep, while all the time, inside, he was feeling the blue volts and the noise?
Piano music sounded from the end of the hall.
At supper I had sat quietly, listening to the chatter of the Belsize women. They were all fashionably dressed and carefully made up, and several of them were married. Some of them had been shopping downtown, and others had been out visiting with friends, and all during supper they kept tossing back and forth these private jokes.
“I’d call Jack,” a woman named DeeDee said, “only I’m afraid he wouldn’t be home. I know just where I could call him, though, and he’d be in, all right.”
The short, spry blonde woman at my table laughed. “I almost had Doctor Loring where I wanted him today.” She widened her starey blue eyes like a little doll. “I wouldn’t mind trading old Percy in for a new model.”
At the opposite end of the room, Joan was wolfing her spam and broiled tomato with great appetite. She seemed perfectly at home among these women and treated me coolly, with a slight sneer, like a dim and inferior acquaintance.
I had gone to bed right after supper, but then I heard the piano music and pictured Joan and DeeDee and Loubelle, the blonde woman, and the rest of them, laughing and gossiping about me in the living room behind my back. They would be saying how awful it was to have people like me in Belsize and that I should be in Wymark instead.
I decided to put a lid on their nasty talk.
Draping my blanket loosely around my shoulders, like a stole, I wandered down the hall toward the light and the gay noise.
For the rest of the evening I listened to DeeDee thump out some of her own songs on the grand piano, while the other women sat round playing bridge and chatting, just the way they would in a college dormitory, only most of them were ten years over college age.
One of them, a great, tall, grey-haired woman with a booming bass voice, named Mrs Savage, had gone to Vassar. I could tell right away she was a society woman, because she talked about nothing but débutantes. It seemed she had two or three daughters, and that year they were all going to be débutantes, only she had loused up their débutante party by signing herself into the asylum.
DeeDee had one song she called “The Milkman” and everybody kept saying she ought to get it published, it would be a hit. First her hands would clop out a little melody on the keys, like the hoofbeats of a slow pony, and next another melody came in, like the milkman whistling, and then the two melodies went on together.
“That’s very nice,” I said in a conversational voice.
Joan was leaning on one corner of the piano and leafing through a new issue of some fashion magazine, and DeeDee smiled up at her as if the two of them shared a secret.
“Oh, Esther,” Joan said then, holding up the magazine, “isn’t this you?”
DeeDee stopped playing. “Let me see.” She took the magazine, peered at the page Joan pointed to, and then glanced back at me.
“Oh no,” DeeDee said. “Surely not.” She looked at the magazine again, then at me. “Never!”
“Oh, but it is Esther, isn’t it Esther?” Joan said.
Loubelle and Mrs Savage drifted over, and pretending I knew what it was all about, I moved to the piano with them.
The magazine photograph showed a girl in a strapless evening dress of fuzzy white stuff, grinning fit to split, with a whole lot of boys bending in around her. The girl was holding a glass full of a transparent drink and seemed to have her eyes fixed over my shoulder on something that stood behind me, a little to my left. A faint breath fanned the back of my neck. I wheeled round.
The night nurse had come in, unnoticed, on her soft rubber soles.
“No kidding,” she said, “is that really you?”
“No, it’s not me. Joan’s quite mistaken. It’s somebody else.”
“Oh, say it’s you!” DeeDee cried.
But I pretended I didn’t hear her and turned away.
Then Loubelle begged the nurse to make a fourth at bridge, and I drew up a chair to watch, although I didn’t know the first thing about bridge, because I hadn’t had time to pick it up at college, the way all the wealthy girls did.
I stared at the flat poker-faces of the kings and jacks and queens and listened to the nurse talking about her hard life.
“You ladies don’t know what it is, holding down two jobs,” she said. “Nights I’m over here, watching you….”
Loubelle giggled. “Oh, we’re good. We’re the best of the lot, and you know it.”
“Oh, you’re all right.” The nurse passed round a packet of spearmint gum, then unfolded a pink strap from its tinfoil wrapper herself. “You’re all right, it’s those boobies at the state place that worry me off my feet.”
“Do you work in both places then?” I asked with sudden interest.
“You bet.” The nurse gave me a straight look, and I could see she thought I had no business in Belsize at all. “You wouldn’t like it over there one bit, Lady Jane.”
I found it strange that the nurse should call me Lady Jane when she knew what my name was perfectly well.
“Why?” I persisted.
“Oh, it’s not a nice place, like this. This is a regular country club. Over there they’ve got nothing. No OT to talk of, no walks….”
“Why haven’t they got walks?”
“Not enough em-ploy-ees.” The nurse scooped in a trick and Loubelle groaned. “Believe me, ladies, when I collect enough do-re-mi to buy me a car, I’m clearing out.”
“Will you clear out of here, too?” Joan wanted to know.
“You bet. Only private cases from then on. When I feel like it….”
But I’d stopped listening.
I felt the nurse had been instructed to show me my alternatives. Either I got better, or I fell, down, down, like a burning, then burnt-out star, from Belsize, to Caplan, to Wymark and finally, after Doctor Nolan and Mrs Guinea had given me up, to the state place next-door.
I gathered my blanket round me and pushed back my chair.
“You cold?” the nurse demanded rudely.
“Yes,” I said, moving off down the hall. “I’m frozen stiff.”
I woke warm and placid in my white cocoon. A shaft of pale, wintry sunlight dazzled the mirror and the glasses on the bureau and the metal doorknobs. From across the hall came the early morning clatter of the maids in the kitchen, preparing the breakfast trays.
I heard the nurse knock on the door next to mine, at the far end of the hall. Mrs Savage’s sleepy voice boomed out, and the nurse went into her with the jingling tray. I thought, with a mild stir of pleasure, of the steaming blue china coffee pitcher and the blue china breakfast cup and the fat blue china cream jug with the white daisies on it.
I was beginning to resign myself.
If I was going to fall, I would hang on to my small comforts, at least, as long as I possibly could.
The nurse rapped on my door and, without waiting for an answer, breezed in.
It was a new nurse—they were always changing—with a lean, sand-coloured face and sandy hair, and large freckles polka-dotting her bony nose. For some reason the sight of this nurse made me sick at heart, and it was only as she strode across the room to snap up the green blind that I realized part of her strangeness came from being empty-handed.
I opened my mouth to ask for my breakfast tray, but silenced myself immediately. The nurse would be mistaking me for somebody else. New nurses often did that. Somebody in Belsize must be having shock treatments, unknown to me, and the nurse had, quite understandably, confused me with her.
I waited until the nurse had made her little circuit of my room, patting, straightening, arranging, and taken the next tray in to Loubelle one door farther down the hall.
Then I shoved my feet into my slippers, dragging my blanket with me, for the morning was bright, but very cold, and crossed quickly to the kitchen. The pink-uniformed maid was filling a row of blue china coffee pitchers from a great, battered kettle on the stove.
I looked with love at the line-up of waiting trays—the white paper napkins, folded in their crisp, isosceles triangles, each under the anchor of its silver fork, the pale domes of the soft-boiled eggs in the blue egg cups, the scalloped glass shells of orange marmalade. All I had to do was reach out and claim my tray, and the world would be perfectly normal.
“There’s been a mistake,” I told the maid, leaning over the counter and speaking in a low, confidential tone. “The new nurse forgot to bring in my breakfast tray today.”
I managed a bright smile, to show there were no hard feelings.
“What’s the name?”
“Greenwood. Esther Greenwood.”
“Greenwood, Greenwood, Greenwood.” The maid’s warty index finger slid down the list of names of the patients in Belsize tacked up on the kitchen wall. “Greenwood, no breakfast today.”
I caught the rim of the counter with both hands.
“There must be a mistake. Are you sure it’s Greenwood?”
“Greenwood,” the maid said decisively as the nurse came in.
The nurse looked questioningly from me to the maid.
“Miss Greenwood wanted her tray,” the maid said, avoiding my eyes.
“Oh,” the nurse smiled at me, “you’ll be getting your tray later on this morning, Miss Greenwood. You…”
But I didn’t wait to hear what the nurse said. I strode blindly out into the hall, not to my room, because that was where they would come to get me, but to the alcove, greatly inferior to the alcove at Caplan, but an alcove, nevertheless, in a quiet corner of the hall, where Joan and Loubelle and DeeDee and Mrs Savage would not come.
I curled up in the far corner of the alcove with the blanket over my head. It wasn’t the shock treatment that struck me, so much as the bare-faced treachery of Doctor Nolan. I liked Doctor Nolan, I loved her, I had given her my trust on a platter and told her everything, and she had promised, faithfully, to warn me ahead of time if ever I had to have another shock treatment.
If she had told me the night before I would have lain awake all night, of course, full of dread and foreboding, but by morning I would have been composed and ready. I would have gone down the hall between two nurses, past DeeDee and Loubelle and Mrs Savage and Joan, with dignity, like a person coolly resigned to execution.
The nurse bent over me and called my name.
I pulled away and crouched farther into the corner. The nurse disappeared. I knew she would return, in a minute, with two burly men attendants, and they would bear me, howling and hitting, past the smiling audience now gathered in the lounge.
Doctor Nolan put her arm around me and hugged me like a mother.
“You said you’d tell me!” I shouted at her through the dishevelled blanket.
“But I am telling you,” Doctor Nolan said. “I’ve come specially early to tell you, and I’m taking you over myself.”
I peered at her through swollen lids. “Why didn’t you tell me last night?”
“I only thought it would keep you awake. If I’d known…”
“You said you’d tell me.”
“Listen, Esther,” Doctor Nolan said. “I’m going over with you. I’ll be there the whole time, so everything will happen right, the way I promised. I’ll be there when you wake up, and I’ll bring you back again.”
I looked at her. She seemed very upset.
I waited a minute. Then I said, “Promise you’ll be there.”
Doctor Nolan took out a white handkerchief and wiped my face. Then she hooked her arm in my arm, like an old friend, and helped me up, and we started down the hall. My blanket tangled about my feet, so I let it drop, but Doctor Nolan didn’t seem to notice. We passed Joan, coming out of her room, and I gave her a meaning, disdainful smile, and she ducked back and waited until we had gone by.
Then Doctor Nolan unlocked a door at the end of the hall and led me down a flight of stairs into the mysterious basement corridors that linked, in an elaborate network of tunnels and burrows, all the various buildings of the hospital.
The walls were bright, white lavatory tile with bald bulbs set at intervals in the black ceiling. Stretchers and wheelchairs were beached here and there against the hissing, knocking pipes that ran and branched in an intricate nervous system along the glittering walls. I hung on to Doctor Nolan’s arm like death, and every so often she gave me an encouraging squeeze.
Finally, we stopped at a green door with Electrotherapy printed on it in black letters. I held back, and Doctor Nolan waited. Then I said, “Let’s get it over with,” and we went in.
The only people in the waiting-room beside Doctor Nolan and me were a pallid man in a shabby maroon bathrobe and his accompanying nurse.
“Do you want to sit down?” Doctor Nolan pointed at a wooden bench, but my legs felt full of heaviness, and I thought how hard it would be to hoist myself from a sitting position when the shock treatment people came in.
“I’d rather stand.”
At last a tall, cadaverous woman in a white smock entered the room from an inner door. I thought that she would go up and take the man in the maroon bathrobe, as he was first, so I was surprised when she came towards me.
“Good morning, Doctor Nolan,” the woman said, putting her arm around my shoulders. “Is this Esther?”
“Yes, Miss Huey. Esther, this is Miss Huey, she’ll take good care of you. I’ve told her about you.”
I thought the woman must be seven feet tall. She bent over me in a kind way, and I could see that her face, with the buck teeth protruding in the centre, had at one time been badly pitted with acne. It looked like maps of the craters on the moon.
“I think we can take you right away, Esther,” Miss Huey said.
“Mr Anderson won’t mind waiting, will you, Mr Anderson?”
Mr Anderson didn’t say a word, so with Miss Huey’s arm around my shoulder, and Doctor Nolan following, I moved into the next room.
Through the slits of my eyes, which I didn’t dare open too far, lest the full view strike me dead, I saw the high bed with its white, drumtight sheet, and the machine behind the bed, and the masked person—I couldn’t tell whether it was a man or a woman—behind the machine, and other masked people flanking the bed on both sides.
Miss Huey helped me climb up and lie down on my back.
“Talk to me,” I said.
Miss Huey began to talk in a low, soothing voice, smoothing the salve on my temples and fitting the small electric buttons on either side of my head. “You’ll be perfectly all right, you won’t feel a thing, just bite down….” And she set something on my tongue and in panic I bit down, and darkness wiped me out like chalk on a blackboard.