The Bell Jar

Chapter 18


I woke out of a deep, drenched sleep, and the first thing I saw was Doctor Nolan’s face swimming in front of me and saying, “Esther, Esther.”

I rubbed my eyes with an awkward hand.

Behind Doctor Nolan I could see the body of a woman wearing a rumpled black-and-white checked robe and flung out on a cot as if dropped from a great height. But before I could take in any more, Doctor Nolan led me through a door into fresh, blue-skied air.

All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.

“It was like I told you it would be, wasn’t it?” said Doctor Nolan, as we walked back to Belsize together through the crunch of brown leaves.


“Well it will always be like that,” she said firmly. “You will be having shock treatments three times a week—Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.”

I gulped in a long draught of air.

“For how long?”

“That depends,” Doctor Nolan said, “on you and me.”

I took up the silver knife and cracked off the cap of my egg. Then I put down the knife and looked at it. I tried to think what I had loved knives for, but my mind slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the centre of empty air.

Joan and DeeDee were sitting side by side on the piano bench, and DeeDee was teaching Joan to play the bottom half of Chopsticks while she played the top.

I thought how sad it was Joan looked so horsey, with such big teeth and eyes like two grey, goggly pebbles. Why, she couldn’t even keep a boy like Buddy Willard. And DeeDee’s husband was obviously living with some mistress or other and turning her sour as an old fusty cat.

“I’ve got a let-ter,” Joan chanted, poking her tousled head inside my door.

“Good for you.” I kept my eyes on my book. Ever since the shock treatments had ended, after a brief series of five, and I had town privileges, Joan hung about me like a large and breathless fruitfly—as if the sweetness of recovery were something she could suck up by mere nearness. They had taken away her physics books and the piles of dusty spiral pads full of lecture notes that had ringed her room, and she was confined to grounds again.

“Don’t you want to know who it’s from?”

Joan edged into the room and sat down on my bed. I wanted to tell her to get the hell out, she gave me the creeps, only I couldn’t do it.

“All right.” I stuck my finger in my place and shut the book. “Who from?”

Joan slipped out a pale blue envelope from her skirt pocket and waved it teasingly.

“Well isn’t that a coincidence!” I said.

“What do you mean, a coincidence?”

I went over to my bureau, picked up a pale blue envelope and waved it at Joan like a parting handkerchief. “I got a letter too. I wonder if they’re the same.”

“He’s better,” Joan said. “He’s out of hospital.”

There was a little pause.

“Are you going to marry him?”

“No,” I said. “Are you?”

Joan grinned evasively. “I didn’t like him much, anyway.”


“No, it was his family I liked.”

“You mean Mr and Mrs Willard?”

“Yes,” Joan’s voice slid down my spine like a draft. “I loved them. They were so nice, so happy, nothing like my parents. I went over to see them all the time;” she paused, “until you came.”

“I’m sorry.” Then I added, “Why didn’t you go on seeing them, if you liked them so much?”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Joan said. “Not with you dating Buddy. It would have looked … I don’t know, funny.”

I considered. “I suppose so.”

“Are you,” Joan hesitated, “going to let him come?”

“I don’t know.”

At first I had thought it would be awful having Buddy come and visit me at the asylum—he would probably only come to gloat and hob-nob with the other doctors. But then it seemed to me it would be a step, placing him, renouncing him, in spite of the fact that I had nobody—telling him there was no simultaneous interpreter, nobody, but that he was the wrong one, that I had stopped hanging on. “Are you?”

“Yes,” Joan breathed. “Maybe he’ll bring his mother. I’m going to ask him to bring his mother….”

“His mother?”

Joan pouted. “I like Mrs Willard. Mrs Willard’s a wonderful, wonderful woman. She’s been a real mother to me.”

I had a picture of Mrs Willard, with her heather-mixture tweeds and her sensible shoes and her wise, maternal maxims. Mr Willard was her little boy, and his voice was high and clear, like a little boy’s. Joan and Mrs Willard. Joan … and Mrs Willard…

I had knocked on DeeDee’s door that morning, wanting to borrow some two-part sheet music. I waited a few minutes and then, hearing no answer and thinking DeeDee must be out, and I could pick up the music from her bureau, I pushed the door open and stepped into the room.

At Belsize, even at Belsize, the doors had locks, but the patients had no keys. A shut door meant privacy, and was respected, like a locked door. One knocked, and knocked again, then went away. I remembered this as I stood, my eyes half-useless after the brilliance of the hall, in the room’s deep, musky dark.

As my vision cleared, I saw a shape rise from the bed. Then somebody gave a low giggle. The shape adjusted its hair, and two pale, pebble eyes regarded me through the gloom. DeeDee lay back on the pillows, bare-legged under her green wool dressing-gown, and watched me with a little mocking smile. A cigarette glowed between the fingers of her right hand.

“I just wanted…” I said.

“I know,” said DeeDee. “The music.”

“Hello, Esther,” Joan said then, and her cornhusk voice made me want to puke. “Wait for me, Esther, I’ll come play the bottom part with you.”

Now Joan said stoutly, “I never really liked Buddy Willard. He thought he knew everything. He thought he knew everything about women….”

I looked at Joan. In spite of the creepy feeling, and in spite of my old, ingrained dislike, Joan fascinated me. It was like observing a Martian, or a particularly warty toad. Her thoughts were not my thoughts, nor her feelings my feelings, but we were close enough so that her thoughts and feelings seemed a wry, black image of my own.

Sometimes I wondered if I had made Joan up. Other times I wondered if she would continue to pop in at every crisis of my life to remind me of what I had been, and what I had been through, and carry on her own separate but similar crisis under my nose.

“I don’t see what women see in other women,” I’d told Doctor Nolan in my interview that noon. “What does a woman see in a woman that she can’t see in a man?”

Doctor Nolan paused. Then she said, “Tenderness.”

That shut me up.

“I like you,” Joan was saying. “I like you better than Buddy.”

And as she stretched out on my bed with a silly smile, I remembered a minor scandal at our college dormitory when a fat, matronly-breasted senior, homely as a grandmother and a pious Religion major, and a tall, gawky freshman with a history of being deserted at an early hour in all sorts of ingenious ways by her blind dates, started seeing too much of each other. They were always together, and once somebody had come upon them embracing, the story went, in the fat girl’s room.

“But what were they doing?” I had asked. Whenever I thought about men and men, and women and women, I could never really imagine what they would be actually doing.

“Oh,” the spy had said, “Milly was sitting on the chair and Theodora was lying on the bed, and Milly was stroking Theodora’s hair.”

I was disappointed. I had thought I would have some revelation of specific evil. I wondered if all women did with other women was lie and hug.

Of course, the famous woman poet at my college lived with another woman—a stumpy old Classical scholar with a cropped Dutch cut. And when I had told the poet I might well get married and have a pack of children some day, she stared at me in horror. “But what about your career?” she had cried.

My head ached. Why did I attract these weird old women? There was the famous poet, and Philomena Guinea, and Jay Cee, and the Christian Scientist lady and lord knows who, and they all wanted to adopt me in some way, and, for the price of their care and influence, have me resemble them.

“I like you.”

“That’s tough, Joan,” I said, picking up my book. “Because I don’t like you. You make me puke, if you want to know.”

And I walked out of the room, leaving Joan lying, lumpy as an old horse, across my bed.

I waited for the doctor, wondering if I should bolt. I knew what I was doing was illegal—in Massachusetts, anyway, because the state was cram-jam full of Catholics—but Doctor Nolan said this doctor was an old friend of hers, and a wise man.

“What’s your appointment for?” the brisk, white-uniformed receptionist wanted to know, ticking my name off on a notebook list.

“What do you mean, for?” I hadn’t thought anybody but the doctor himself would ask me that, and the communal waiting-room was full of other patients waiting for other doctors, most of them pregnant or with babies, and I felt their eyes on my flat, virgin stomach.

The receptionist glanced up at me, and I blushed.

“A fitting, isn’t it?” she said kindly. “I only wanted to make sure so I’d know what to charge you. Are you a student?”


“That will only be half-price then. Five dollars, instead of ten. Shall I bill you?”

I was about to give my home address, where I would probably be by the time the bill arrived, but then I thought of my mother opening the bill and seeing what it was for. The only other address I had was the innocuous box number which people used who didn’t want to advertise the fact they lived in an asylum. But I thought the receptionist might recognize the box number, so I said, “I better pay now,” and peeled five dollar notes off the roll in my pocketbook.

The five dollars was part of what Philomena Guinea had sent me as a sort of get-well present. I wondered what she would think if she knew to what use her money was being put.

Whether she knew it or not, Philomena Guinea was buying my freedom.

“What I hate is the thought of being under a man’s thumb,” I had told Doctor Nolan. “A man doesn’t have a worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line.”

“Would you act differently if you didn’t have to worry about a baby?”

“Yes,” I said, “but…” and I told Doctor Nolan about the married woman lawyer and her Defence of Chastity.

Doctor Nolan waited until I was finished. Then she burst out laughing. “Propaganda!” she said, and scribbled the name and address of this doctor on a prescription pad.

I leafed nervously through an issue of Baby Talk. The fat, bright faces of babies beamed up at me, page after page—bald babies, chocolate-coloured babies, Eisenhower-faced babies, babies rolling over for the first time, babies reaching for rattles, babies eating their first spoonful of solid food, babies doing all the little tricky things it takes to grow up, step by step, into an anxious and unsettling world.

I smelt a mingling of Pabulum and sour milk and salt-cod-stinky diapers and felt sorrowful and tender. How easy having babies seemed to the women around me! Why was I so unmaternal and apart? Why couldn’t I dream of devoting myself to baby after fat puling baby like Dodo Conway?

If I had to wait on a baby all day, I would go mad.

I looked at the baby in the lap of the woman opposite. I had no idea how old it was, I never did, with babies—for all I knew it could talk a blue streak and had twenty teeth behind its pursed, pink lips. It held its little wobbly head up on its shoulders—it didn’t seem to have a neck—and observed me with a wise, Platonic expression.

The baby’s mother smiled and smiled, holding that baby as if it were the first wonder of the world. I watched the mother and the baby for some clue to their mutual satisfaction, but before I had discovered anything, the doctor called me in.

“You’d like a fitting,” he said cheerfully, and I thought with relief that he wasn’t the sort of doctor to ask awkward questions. I had toyed with the idea of telling him I planned to be married to a sailor as soon as his ship docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard, and the reason I didn’t have an engagement ring was because we were too poor, but at the last moment I rejected that appealing story and simply said “Yes”.

I climbed up on the examination table, thinking: “I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just because of sex, freedom from the Florence Crittenden Homes where all the poor girls go who should have been fitted out like me, because what they did, they would do anyway, regardless…”

As I rode back to the asylum with my box in the plain brown paper wrapper on my lap I might have been Mrs Anybody coming back from a day in town with a Schrafft’s cake for her maiden aunt or a Filene’s Basement hat. Gradually the suspicion that Catholics had X-ray eyes diminished, and I grew easy. I had done well by my shopping privileges, I thought.

I was my own woman.

The next step was to find the proper sort of man.


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