The Bell Jar: Novel Summary: Chapters 15-16
Thanks to the intervention of Philomena Guinea, Esther is taken out of the cramped city hospital to a more spacious private hospital that had golf courses and gardens. She has her own room. Her new doctor is a woman, Dr. Nolan. The doctor at first promises Esther that she will not receive any shock treatments, but then adds that if she does, she will be told about it beforehand, and it will not be anything like the ones she had before, which had not been done properly. Esther's new treatment involves regular insulin injections. She also gets fat.
Another patient, named Valerie, reveals to Esther that she has had a lobotomy and as a result, no longer feels angry. She likes being in the hospital. Esther also spends time with Miss Norris, a severely disturbed patient who never speaks. Esther is then surprised to discover that an old acquaintance Joan, who once dated Buddy Willard, has been admitted to the hospital and is in the neighboring room. Joan explained that she had felt suicidal and had seen a psychiatrist, who recommended group therapy, an idea which she detested and rejected. She went home and read about Esther's case in the newspapers-Esther's disappearance and dramatic discovery had made the news-and decided to fly to New York and kill herself. But her parents found her and took her home.
Esther receives many visits from well-wishers who try to cheer her up, but she dislikes seeing anyone. When her mother brings roses, Esther dumps them in a wastebasket. It turns out that the roses were a birthday gift, but Esther did not even know it was her birthday. She is relieved when Dr. Nolan tells her that she is not to receive any visitors for a while.
These chapters show the extent of Esther's illness, but also point the way to her recovery. The previous chapter showed that Esther was considered a difficult patient, and the presence of the patient named Valerie in the psychiatric ward is an ominous reminder of what might happen to Esther if she continues to be disruptive. Valerie has been lobotomized, which means that some of the nerves in the frontal lobe of her brain have been deliberately destroyed in an operation. The performing of lobotomies was a common treatment in mental hospitals in America in the 1950s, since it resulted in patients becoming more placid and manageable. Esther notes Valerie's "perpetual marble calm." The procedure was discredited, however, in the early 1960s, when it was realized that it did more harm than good. As with electric shock treatments, it was used more to control than to cure.
Esther is also exposed to the seriously ill Miss Norris, with whom she appears to have some empathy. But as far as other people are concerned, Esther is still locked in her own world and unable to feel much emotional connection with others. She dislikes having visitors, for example, and she is completely oblivious to the suffering of her mother. When her mother brings her roses on her birthday, she says, "Save them for my funeral," an immensely cruel remark. In the meantime, however, Dr. Nolan is carefully winning her trust, emerging as a kind of surrogate mother to Esther. Dr. Nolan seems to understand her and does not condemn her, even when she blurts out that she hates her mother. Esther expects the doctor to rebuke her for this outburst, but instead, Dr. Nolan smiles at her as if pleased. Perhaps Dr. Nolan is encouraged that Esther is now speaking openly about her feelings, instead of hiding behind a wall of apathy.