Chapter Eleven

14 August 2023

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Doctor Gordon's waiting-room was hushed and beige.

The walls were beige, and the carpets were beige, and the upholstered chairs and sofas were beige. There were no mirrors or pictures, only certificates from different medical schools, with Doctor Gordon's name in Latin, hung about the walls. Pale green loopy ferns and spiked leaves of a much darker green filled the ceramic pots on the end-table and the coffee-table and the magazine-table.

At first I wondered why the room felt so safe. Then I realized it was because there were no windows.

The air-conditioning made me shiver.

I was still wearing Betsy's white blouse and dirndl skirt. They drooped a bit now, as I hadn't washed them in my three weeks at home. The sweaty cotton gave off a sour but friendly smell.

I hadn't washed my hair for three weeks, either.

I hadn't slept for seven nights.

My mother told me I must have slept, it was impossible not to sleep in all that time, but if I slept, it was with my eyes wide open, for I had followed the green, luminous course of the second hand and the minute hand and the hour hand of the bedside clock through their circles and semi-circles, every night for seven nights, without missing a second, or a minute, or an hour.

The reason I hadn't washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly.

I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.

It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.

It made me tired just to think of it.

I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.

Doctor Gordon twiddled a silver pencil.

'Your mother tells me you are upset.'

I curled in the cavernous leather chair and faced Doctor Gordon across an acre of highly polished desk.

Doctor Gordon waited. He tapped his pencil—tap, tap, tap—across the neat green field of his blotter.

His eyelashes were so long and thick they looked artificial. Black plastic reeds fringing two green, glacial pools.

Doctor Gordon's features were so perfect he was almost pretty.

I hated him the minute I walked in through the door.

I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying 'Ah!' in an encouraging way, as if he could see something I couldn't, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out.

Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn't sleep and why I couldn't read and why I couldn't eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end.

And then, I thought, he would help me, step by step, to be myself again.

But Doctor Gordon wasn't like that at all. He was young and good-looking, and I could see right away he was conceited.

Doctor Gordon had a photograph on his desk, in a silver frame, that half faced him and half faced my leather chair. It was a family photograph, and it showed a beautiful dark-haired woman, who could have been Doctor Gordon's sister, smiling out over the heads of two blond children.

I think one child was a boy and one was a girl, but it may have been that both children were boys or that both were girls, it is hard to tell when children are so small. I think there was also a dog in the picture, towards the bottom—a kind of airedale or a golden retriever—but it may have only been the pattern in the woman's skirt.

For some reason the photograph made me furious.

I didn't see why it should be turned half towards me unless Doctor Gordon was trying to show me right away that he was married to some glamorous woman and I'd better not get any funny ideas.

Then I thought, how could this Doctor Gordon help me anyway, with a beautiful wife and beautiful children and a beautiful dog haloing him like the angels on a Christmas card?

'Suppose you try and tell me what you think is wrong.'

I turned the words over suspiciously, like round, sea-polished pebbles that might suddenly put out a claw and change into something else.

What did I think was wrong?

That made it sound as if nothing was really wrong, I only thought it was wrong.

In a dull, flat voice—to show I was not beguiled by his good looks or his family photograph—I told Doctor Gordon about not sleeping and not eating and not reading. I didn't tell him about the handwriting, which bothered me most of all.

That morning I had tried to write a letter to Doreen, down in West Virginia, asking whether I could come and live with her and maybe get a job at her college waiting on table or something.

But when I took up my pen, my hand made big, jerky letters like those of a child, and the lines sloped down the page from left to right almost diagonally, as if they were loops of string lying on the paper, and someone had come along and blown them askew.

I knew I couldn't send a letter like that, so I tore it up in little pieces and put them in my pocket-book, next to my all-purpose compact, in case the psychiatrist asked to see them.

But of course Doctor Gordon didn't ask to see them, as I hadn't mentioned them, and I began to feel pleased at my cleverness. I thought I only need tell him what I wanted to, and that I could control the picture he had of me by hiding this and revealing that, all the while he thought he was so smart.

The whole time I was talking, Doctor Gordon bent his head as if he were praying, and the only noise apart from the dull, flat voice was the tap, tap, tap of Doctor Gordon's pencil at the same point on the green blotter, like a stalled walking-stick.

When I had finished, Doctor Gordon lifted his head.

'Where did you say you went to college?'

Baffled, I told him. I didn't see where college fitted in.

'Ah!' Doctor Gordon leaned back in his chair, staring into the air over my shoulder with a reminiscent smile.

I thought he was going to tell me his diagnosis, and that perhaps I had judged him too hastily and too unkindly. But he only said, 'I remember your college well. I was up there, during the war. They had a WAC station, didn't they? Or was it WAVES?'

I said I didn't know.

'Yes, a WAC station, I remember now. I was doctor for the lot, before I was sent overseas. My, they were a pretty bunch of girls.'

Doctor Gordon laughed.

Then, in one smooth move, he rose to his feet and strolled towards me round the corner of his desk. I wasn't sure what he meant to do, so I stood up as well.

Doctor Gordon reached for the hand that hung at my right side and shook it.

'See you next week, then.'

The full, bosomy elms made a tunnel of shade over the yellow and red brick fronts along Commonwealth Avenue, and a trolley-car was threading itself towards Boston down its slim, silver track. I waited for the trolley to pass, then crossed to the grey Chevrolet at the opposite curb.

I could see my mother's face, anxious and sallow as a slice of lemon, peering up at me through the windshield.

'Well, what did he say?'

I pulled the car door shut. It didn't catch. I pushed it out and drew it in again with a dull slam.

'He said he'll see me next week.'

My mother sighed.

Doctor Gordon cost twenty-five dollars an hour.

'Hi there, what's your name?'

'Elly Higginbottom.'

The sailor fell into step beside me, and I smiled.

I thought there must be as many sailors on the Common as there were pigeons. They seemed to come out of a dun-coloured recruiting house on the far side, with blue and white 'Join the Navy' posters stuck up on billboards round it and all over the inner walls.

'Where do you come from, Elly?'


I had never been to Chicago, but I knew one or two boys who went to Chicago University, and it seemed the sort of place where unconventional, mixed-up people would come from.

'You sure are a long way from home.'

The sailor put his arm around my waist, and for a long time we walked around the Common like that, the sailor stroking my hip through the green dirndl skirt, and me smiling mysteriously and trying not to say anything that would show I was from Boston and might at any moment meet Mrs Willard, or one of my mother's other friends, crossing the Common after tea on Beacon Hill or shopping in Filene's Basement.

I thought if I ever did get to Chicago, I might change my name to Elly Higginbottom for good. Then nobody would know I had thrown up a scholarship at a big eastern women's college and mucked up a month in New York and refused a perfectly solid medical student for a husband who would one day be a member of the A.M.A. and earn pots of money.

In Chicago, people would take me for what I was.

I would be simple Elly Higginbottom, the orphan. People would love me for my sweet, quiet nature. They wouldn't be after me to read books and write long papers on the twins in James Joyce. And one day I might just marry a virile, but tender, garage mechanic and have a big cowy family, like Dodo Conway.

If I happened to feel like it.

'What do you want to do when you get out of the Navy?' I asked the sailor suddenly.

It was the longest sentence I had said, and he seemed taken aback. He pushed his white cup-cake cap to one side and scratched his head.

'Well, I dunno, Elly,' he said. 'I might just go to college on the G.I. Bill.'

I paused. Then I said suggestively, 'You ever thought of opening a garage?'

'Nope,' said the sailor, 'Never have.'

I peered at him from the corner of my eye. He didn't look a day over sixteen.

'Do you know how old I am?' I said accusingly.

The sailor grinned at me. 'Nope, and I don't care either.'

It occurred to me that this sailor was really remarkably handsome. He looked Nordic and virginal. Now I was simple-minded it seemed I attracted clean, handsome people.

'Well, I'm thirty,' I said, and waited.

'Gee, Elly, you don't look it.' The sailor squeezed my hip.

Then he glanced quickly from left to right. 'Listen, Elly, if we go round to those steps over there, under the monument, I can kiss you.'

At that moment I noticed a brown figure in sensible flat brown shoes striding across the Common in my direction. From the distance, I couldn't make out any features on the dime-sized face, but I knew it was Mrs Willard.

'Could you please tell me the way to the subway?' I said to the sailor in a loud voice.


'The subway that goes out to the Deer Island Prison?'

When Mrs Willard came up I would have to pretend I was only asking the sailor directions, and didn't really know him at all.

'Take your hands off me,' I said between my teeth.

'Say Elly, what's up?'

The woman approached and passed by without a look or a nod, and of course it wasn't Mrs Willard. Mrs Willard was at her cottage in the Adirondacks.

I fixed the woman's receding back with a vengeful stare.

'Say, Elly...'

'I thought it was somebody I knew,' I said. 'Some blasted lady from this orphan home in Chicago.'

The sailor put his arm around me again.

'You mean you got no mom and dad, Elly?'

'No.' I let out a tear that seemed ready. It made a little hot track down my cheek.

'Say Elly, don't cry. This lady, was she mean to you?'

'She was ... she was awful!'

The tears came in a rush, then, and while the sailor was holding me and patting them dry with a big, clean, white, linen handkerchief in the shelter of an American elm, I thought what an awful woman that lady in the brown suit had been, and how she, whether she knew it or not, was responsible for my taking the wrong turn here and the wrong path there and for everything bad that happened after that.

'Well, Esther, how do you feel this week?'

Doctor Gordon cradled his pencil like a slim, silver bullet.

'The same.'

'The same?' He quirked an eyebrow, as if he didn't believe it,

So I told him again, in the same dull, flat voice, only it was angrier this time, because he seemed so slow to understand, how I hadn't slept for fourteen nights and how I couldn't read or write or swallow very well.

Doctor Gordon seemed unimpressed.

I dug into my pocket-book and found the scraps of my letter to Doreen. I took them out and let them flutter on to Doctor Gordon's immaculate green blotter. They lay there, dumb as daisy petals in a summer meadow.

'What,' I said, 'do you think of that?'

I thought Doctor Gordon must immediately see how bad the handwriting was, but he only said, 'I think I would like to speak to your mother. Do you mind?'

'No.' But I didn't like the idea of Doctor Gordon talking to my mother one bit. I thought he might tell her I should be locked up. I picked up every scrap of my letter to Doreen, so Doctor Gordon couldn't piece them together and see I was planning to run away, and walked out of his office without another word.

I watched my mother grow smaller and smaller until she disappeared into the door of Doctor Gordon's office building. Then I watched her grow larger and larger as she came back to the car.

'Well?' I could tell she had been crying.

My mother didn't look at me. She started the car.

Then she said, as we glided under the cool, deep-sea shade of the elms, 'Doctor Gordon doesn't think you've improved at all. He thinks you should have some shock treatments at his private hospital in Walton.'

I felt a sharp stab of curiosity, as if I had just read a terrible newspaper headline about somebody else.

'Does he mean live there?'

'No,' my mother said, and her chin quivered.

I thought she must be lying.

'You tell me the truth,' I said, 'or I'll never speak to you again.'

'Don't I always tell you the truth?' my mother said, and burst into tears.


After two hours on a narrow ledge seven storeys above a concrete parking lot and gathered crowds, Mr George Pollucci let himself be helped to safety through a nearby window by Sgt. Will Kilmartin of the Charles Street police force.

I cracked open a peanut from the ten cent bag I had bought to feed the pigeons, and ate it. It tasted dead, like a bit of old tree bark.

I brought the newspaper close up to my eyes to get a better view of George Pollucci's face, spotlighted like a three-quarter moon against a vague background of brick and black sky. I felt he had something important to tell me, and that whatever it was might just be written on his face.

But the smudgy crags of George Pollucci's features melted away as I peered at them, and resolved themselves into a regular pattern of dark and light and medium grey dots.

The inky black newspaper paragraph didn't tell why Mr Pollucci was on the ledge, or what Sgt. Kilmartin did to him when he finally got him in through the window.

The trouble about jumping was that if you didn't pick the right number of storeys, you might still be alive when you hit bottom. I thought seven storeys must be a safe distance.

I folded the paper and wedged it between the slats of the park bench. It was what my mother called a scandal sheet, full of the local murders and suicides and beatings and robbings, and just about every page had a half-naked lady on it with her breasts surging over the edge of her dress and her legs arranged so you could see to her stocking tops.

I didn't know why I had never bought any of these papers before. They were the only things I could read. The little paragraphs between the pictures ended before the letters had a chance to get cocky and wiggle about. At home, all I ever saw was the Christian Science Monitor, which appeared on the doorstep at five o'clock every day but Sunday and treated suicides and sex crimes and aeroplane crashes as if they didn't happen.

A big white swan full of little children approached my bench, then turned round a bosky islet covered with ducks and paddled back under the dark arch of the bridge. Everything I looked at seemed bright and extremely tiny.

I saw, as if through the keyhole of a door I couldn't open, myself and my younger brother, knee-high and holding rabbit-eared balloons, climb aboard a swanboat and fight for a seat at the edge, over the peanut-shell-paved water. My mouth tasted of cleanness and peppermint. If we were good at the dentist's, my mother always bought us a swanboat ride.

I circled the Public Garden—over the bridge and under the blue-green monuments, past the American flag flower-bed and the entrance where you could have your picture taken in an orange-and-white striped canvas booth for twenty-five cents—reading the names of the trees.

My favourite tree was the Weeping Scholar Tree. I thought it must come from Japan. They understood things of the spirit in Japan.

They disembowelled themselves when anything went wrong.

I tried to imagine how they would go about it. They must have an extremely sharp knife. No, probably two extremely sharp knives. Then they would sit down, cross-legged, a knife in either hand. Then they would cross their hands and point a knife at each side of their stomach. They would have to be naked, or the knife would get stuck in their clothes.

Then in one quick flash, before they had time to think twice, they would jab the knives in and zip them round, one on the upper crescent and one on the lower crescent, making a full circle. Then their stomach skin would come loose, like a plate, and their insides would fall out, and they would die.

It must take a lot of courage to die like that.

My trouble was I hated the sight of blood.

I thought I might stay in the park all night.

The next morning Dodo Conway was driving my mother and me to Walton, and if I was to run away before it was too late, now was the time. I looked in my pocket-book and counted out a dollar bill and seventy-nine cents in dimes and nickels and pennies.

I had no idea how much it would cost to get to Chicago, and I didn't dare go to the bank and draw out all my money, because I thought Doctor Gordon might well have warned the bank clerk to intercept me if I made any obvious move.

Hitch-hiking occurred to me, but I had no idea which of all the routes out of Boston led to Chicago. It's easy enough to find directions on a map, but I had very little knowledge of directions when I was smack in the middle of somewhere. Every time I wanted to figure what was east or what was west it seemed to be noon, or cloudy, which was no help at all, or night-time, and except for the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia's Chair, I was hopeless at stars, a failing which always disheartened Buddy Willard.

I decided to walk to the bus terminal and inquire about the fares to Chicago. Then I might go to the bank and withdraw precisely that amount, which would not cause so much suspicion.

I had just strolled in through the glass doors of the terminal and was browsing over the rack of coloured tour leaflets and schedules, when I realized that the bank in my home town would be closed, as it was already mid-afternoon, and I couldn't get any money out till the next day.

My appointment at Walton was for ten o'clock.

At that moment, the loudspeaker crackled into life and started announcing the stops of a bus getting ready to leave in the parking lot outside. The voice on the loudspeaker went bockle bockle bockle, the way they do, so you can't understand a word, and then, in the middle of all the static, I heard a familiar name clear as A on the piano in the middle of all the tuning instruments of an orchestra.

It was a stop two blocks from my house.

I hurried out into the hot, dusty, end-of-July afternoon, sweating and sandy-mouthed, as if late for a difficult interview, and boarded the red bus, whose motor was already running.

I handed my fare to the driver, and silently, on gloved hinges, the door folded shut at my back. 

The Bell Jar
The Bell Jar addresses the question of socially acceptable identity. It examines Esther's "quest to forge her own identity, to be herself rather than what others expect her to be." Esther is expected to become a housewife, and a self-sufficient woman, without the options to achieve independence.

Chapter One

11 August 2023

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, a


Chapter Two

11 August 2023

I wouldn't have missed Lenny's place for anything. It was built exactly like the inside of a ranch, only in the middle of a New York apartment house. He'd had a few partitions knocked down to make th


Chapter Three

11 August 2023

Arrayed on the Ladies' Day banquet table were yellow-green avocado pear halves stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise, and platters of rare roast beef and cold chicken, and every so often a cut-glass bo


Chapter Four

11 August 2023

I don't know just why my successful evasion of chemistry should have floated into my mind there in Jay Cee's office. All the time she talked to me, I saw Mr Manzi standing on thin air in back of Jay


Chapter Five

11 August 2023

At seven the next morning the telephone rang. Slowly I swam up from the bottom of a black sleep. I already had a telegram from Jay Cee stuck in my mirror, telling me not to bother to come into work b


Chapter Six

12 August 2023

I had kept begging Buddy to show me some really interesting hospital sights, so one Friday I cut all my classes and came down for a long week-end and he gave me the works. I started out by dressing i


Chapter Seven

12 August 2023

Of course, Constantin was much too short, but in his own way he was handsome, with light brown hair and dark blue eyes and a lively, challenging expression. He could almost have been an American, he w


Chapter Eight

12 August 2023

Mr Willard drove me up to the Adirondacks. It was the day after Christmas and a grey sky bellied over us, fat with snow. I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day afte


Chapter Nine

12 August 2023

'I'm so glad they're going to die.' Hilda arched her cat-limbs in a yawn, buried her head in her arms on the conference table and went back to sleep. A wisp of bilious green straw perched on her brow


Chapter Ten

12 August 2023

The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian. I dropped the compact into my pocket-book and stared out of the train window. Like a colossal junkyard, the swamps and back lots of Connecticut flash


Chapter Eleven

14 August 2023

Doctor Gordon's waiting-room was hushed and beige. The walls were beige, and the carpets were beige, and the upholstered chairs and sofas were beige. There were no mirrors or pictures, only certifica


Chapter Twelve

14 August 2023

Doctor Gordon's private hospital crowned a grassy rise at the end of a long, secluded drive that had been whitened with broken quahog shells. The yellow clapboard walls of the large house, with its en


Chapter Thirteen

14 August 2023

'Of course his mother killed him.' I looked at the mouth of the boy Jody had wanted me to meet. His lips were thick and pink and a baby face nestled under the silk of white-blond hair. His name was C


Chapter Fourteen

14 August 2023

It was completely dark. I felt the darkness, but nothing else, and my head rose, feeling it, like the head of a worm. Someone was moaning. Then a great, hard weight smashed against my cheek like a st


Chapter Fifteen

14 August 2023

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 thinki


Chapter Sixteen

15 August 2023

Joan's room, with its closet and bureau and table and chair and white blanket with the big blue C on it, was a mirror image of my own. It occurred to me that Joan, hearing where I was, had engaged a r


Chapter Seventeen

15 August 2023

'You're a lucky girl today.' The young nurse cleared my breakfast tray away and left me wrapped in my white blanket like a passenger taking the sea air on the deck of a ship. 'Why am I lucky?' 'Wel


Chapter Eighteen

15 August 2023

'Esther.' 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


Chapter Nineteen

15 August 2023

'I'm going to be a psychiatrist.' Joan spoke with her usual breathy enthusiasm. We were drinking apple cider in the Belsize lounge. 'Oh,' I said dryly, 'that's nice.' 'I've had a long talk with Doc


Chapter Twenty

15 August 2023

A fresh fall of snow blanketed the asylum grounds—not a Christmas sprinkle, but a man-high January deluge, the sort that snuffs out schools and offices and churches, and leaves, for a day or more, a p