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The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Chapter 12 | Summary



Esther's mother brings her to Doctor Gordon's private facility for her first electroconvulsive treatment. Though the first floor looks like a normal house, Esther notices that most of the people there are motionless. Upstairs, things look more clinical, and the windows are barred. Esther is fully conscious for her treatment, which feels exactly like an extended electric shock and accomplishes nothing. It reminds her of the time she electrocuted herself when moving her father's lamp. She vows never to come back for another treatment, which Mrs. Greenwood interprets to mean that Esther feels better.

Later, Esther experiments with suicide by cutting her leg with a razor but abandons this plan. She takes a bus to the beach by the Deer Island prison. She sits there for hours thinking about drowning herself in the ocean. At dusk, she finds the ocean water is so cold that she cannot make herself walk into it.


Esther's instinct to live struggles against the seductive attractions of suicide.

It seems easy to open a vein in the bathtub, but Esther knows that the part of herself she wants to kill is "deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at" than her "defenseless" wrists. In the ocean, the chill that grips her ankles creates a "mortal ache," but her flesh "[winces], in cowardice, from such a death."

It is significant that Esther connects the electroconvulsive treatment with a memory of being shocked by her father's lamp when she tried to move it from her mother's bedside to her desk. The shock disembodies Esther's "spirit," something that makes her feel "terrible," much the same effect that Esther's father's death has on her.

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