The Bell Jar | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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The Bell Jar | Chapter 13 | Summary

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Summary

Esther makes two halfhearted suicide attempts, but she is stymied by her body's instinctive will to live. She tries to hang herself with the belt of a bathrobe but lacks a ceiling beam, and she tries drowning in the ocean again while on an outing with Jody and a boy named Cal, but her heartbeat will not allow it: "I am I am I am."

Esther's mother thinks Esther will feel better if she helps other people, so Esther signs up as a hospital volunteer. She is assigned to deliver flowers in the maternity ward. When she rearranges the bouquets, the patients complain and Esther flees the hospital.

Esther's father died when she was nine. Since her mother never bothered with a mourning period, Esther has never seen his grave or cried for his death. She now yearns to make it up to his memory and pays a visit to his grave site. When she finds his grave, she collapses to the ground and sobs.

The next day, Esther carries with her into the cellar a glass of water and a bottle of sleeping pills. The pills have been locked up in her mother's closet. This detail demonstrates Mrs. Greenwood's attempt to protect her daughter and challenges Esther's perception of her mother. Esther climbs into a crevice, covers the opening with old fireplace logs, swallows the sleeping pills, and passes out.

Analysis

Esther begins her day in the maternity ward and ends it in the graveyard—a symbolic transition of setting that mirrors the passage of life from birth to death. Nonetheless, readers may feel unprepared for Esther's serious suicide attempt at the end of a very eventful chapter. Plath allots more pages to Esther's beach picnic with Jody than to her overdose. However, the quickness of Esther's suicide attempt in contrast to her other contemplations mirrors the shift from reflection to action.

The birth and death imagery in the text may be read symbolically. What Esther seeks is the ability to kill the parts of her identity that she detests—indecision, self-doubt, depression, and hypocrisy—and to be reborn or transformed into a new, more authentic self-fulfilling woman. Suicide is an extreme means by which to attempt self-birth.

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