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The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Chapter 11 | Summary



When Esther meets Doctor Gordon, the psychiatrist, she has not changed from the clothes she wore when she left New York City, bathed in three weeks, or slept in a week. Esther complains that she is unable to read or write and takes an instant disliking to Doctor Gordon. She agrees to see him for another appointment but decides not to tell him anything important, such as the fact that her handwriting has changed into that of an unsteady child's.

Later, walking on the Boston Common, Esther encounters a sailor. She introduces herself as Elly Higginbottom, an orphan from Chicago. As she and the sailor walk along, Esther makes up an imaginary, perfect life for Elly. Maybe, she thinks, she should move to Chicago and actually start over as Elly Higginbottom. This vision is interrupted by an imagined sighting of Mrs. Willard.

At her second session with Doctor Gordon, Esther scatters torn pieces of the letter with the distorted handwriting that she tries to write to Doreen. He asks to speak to Mrs. Greenwood and recommends electroconvulsive treatments.

Esther sits in a park and reads about suicide in a tabloid. She considers running away to Chicago but takes the bus home instead. The next day she is scheduled for electroconvulsive treatment with Doctor Gordon at his private hospital in Walton.


Esther's sense of identity is quickly devolving now that she has returned home and lives in close proximity to her mother. She continues to wear Betsy's clothes rather than her own. She revives the identity of Elly Higginbottom and contemplates running away to begin a new life in Chicago as Elly. She is completely disconnected from the actions that define Esther: reading and writing. She continues to explore the idea of suicide.

The adults in the chapter each serve as a denial of Esther's deteriorating state. Esther's mother says, it is "impossible not to sleep in all that time." Dr. Gordon, ignoring Esther's obvious physical dishevelment, asks Esther to diagnose herself: "tell me what you think is wrong." The comment causes Esther to bristle, as she interprets his phrasing as a suggestion that there is not actually anything wrong with her, she only thinks there is. Dr. Gordon then recommends an extreme form of therapy based on little if any real information about Esther's situation. A phantom Mrs. Willard, who represents the pressure of society to conform to prescribed gender roles, appears to condemn Esther's experimentation with her identity as Elly.

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