The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Philomena Guinea’s black Cadillac eased through the tight, five o’clock traffic like a ceremonial car. Soon it would cross one of the brief bridges that arched the Charles, and I would, without thinking, open the door and plunge out through the stream of traffic to the rail of the bridge. One jump and the water would be over my head.

Idly I twisted a Kleenex to small, pill-sized pellets between my fingers and watched my chance. I sat in the middle of the back seat of the Cadillac, my mother on one side of me, and my brother on the other, both leaning slightly forward, like diagonal bars, one across each car door.

In front of me I could see the Spam-colored expanse of the chauffeur’s neck, sandwiched between a blue cap and the shoulders of a blue jacket and, next to him, like a frail, exotic bird, the silver hair and emerald-feathered hat of Philomena Guinea, the famous novelist.

I wasn’t quite sure why Mrs. Guinea had turned up. All I knew was that she had interested herself in my case and that at one time, at the peak of her career, she had been in an asylum as well.

My mother said that Mrs. Guinea had sent her a telegram from the Bahamas, where she read about me in a Boston paper. Mrs. Guinea had telegrammed, “Is there a boy in the case?”

If there was a boy in the case, Mrs. Guinea couldn’t, of course, have anything to do with it.

But my mother had telegrammed back, “No, it is Esther’s writing. She thinks she will never write again.”

So Mrs. Guinea had flown back to Boston and taken me out of the cramped city hospital ward, and now she was driving me to a private hospital that had grounds and golf courses and gardens, like a country club, where she would pay for me, as if I had a scholarship, until the doctors she knew of there had made me well.

My mother told me I should be grateful. She said I had used up almost all her money, and if it weren’t for Mrs. Guinea she didn’t know where I’d be. I knew where I’d be though. I’d be in the big state hospital in the country, cheek by jowl to this private place.

I knew I should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea, only I couldn’t feel a thing. If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

Blue sky opened its dome above the river, and the river was dotted with sails. I readied myself, but immediately my mother and my brother each laid one hand on a door handle. The tires hummed briefly over the grill of the bridge. Water, sails, blue sky and suspended gulls flashed by like an improbable postcard, and we were across.

I sank back in the gray, plush seat and closed my eyes. The air of the bell jar wadded round me and I couldn’t stir.

I had my own room again.

It reminded me of the room in Doctor Gordon’s hospital — a bed, a bureau, a closet, a table and chair. A window with a screen, but no bars. My room was on the first floor, and the window, a short distance above the pine-needle-padded ground, overlooked a wooded yard ringed by a red brick wall. If I jumped I wouldn’t even bruise my knees. The inner surface of the tall wall seemed smooth as glass.

The journey over the bridge had unnerved me. I had missed a perfectly good chance. The river water passed me by like an untouched drink. I suspected that even if my mother and brother had not been there I would have made no move to jump.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath chapter 15

This passage is concerned with a suicidal, mentally ill protagonist and presents her as being both mentally and physically trapped. Esther’s depression, and consequential mental imprisonment, is explored through the allusion to the bell jar. This enveloping image depicts the protagonist’s sense of isolation in addition to her distorted vision of reality, and acts as a motif for her depression. The encasing within the jar also presents the lack of control given to an institutionalised mentally ill person, as the action of segregation and captivity is out of her control and leaves Esther ‘stewing in [her] own sour air’. The idea of separation is furthered in the presentation of physical imprisonment as Esther is restrained by her family and psychiatric hospitals as a safety precaution. The mother and brother prohibit Esther’s movement within the car, ‘leaning slightly forward, like diagonal bars’; thus preventing her from committing suicide or inflicting harm on society. The hospital room is also conveyed as a means to prevent this occurrence as the protagonist states: ‘If I jumped I wouldn’t even bruise my knees’. The extract thus focuses on images of restrictive space, highlighting the confinement felt by the protagonist whilst accentuating her physical segregation due to her mental state. This consequently leads to feelings of claustrophobia and imprisonment which reverberate throughout the extract.

Lucy Lourenco

Comments are closed.