Page 178. " 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 "
Admin. Building, McLean Hospital
Creative Commons AttributionAdmin. Building, McLean Hospital - Credit: John Phelan, Wikimedia Commons
Proctor House, McLean Hospital
Creative Commons AttributionProctor House, McLean Hospital - Credit: John Phelan, Wikimedia Commons
Olive Higgins Prouty, on whom the character of Philomena Guinea is based, helped Sylvia Plath after her suicide attempt by paying for her treatment at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, a prestigious and well-staffed private psychiatric unit which is affiliated to Massachusetts General Hospital.

Olive Higgins Prouty herself experienced some form of 'nervous breakdown' in her forties. In a letter to Sylvia Plath's mother* she commented that she felt 'better equipped to meet life'  because of this experience.

The poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, both of whom knew Sylvia Plath, also received psychiatric treatment at McLean at various points in their lives.

*Letters Home p.127.

Page 178. " I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air "
Cake platters and bell jar (left)
Creative Commons AttributionCake platters and bell jar (left) - Credit: Anthony Easton, Flickr

The idea of being confined within a bell jar is, of course, the novel's central metaphor for Esther Greenwood's experience of mental illness.

It is a particularly striking image, which conveys both the isolation and desolation of being imprisoned in a 'world of one's own', and the sense of stifling helplessness evoked by being unable to escape from that world.

In Jacqueline Rose's critical analysis* of the work of Sylvia Plath, she notes that one of the characters in the well known film, Barbary Coast (1935), says, 'I was born in a bell jar'.

*Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (Virago, 1992 paperback edition) p. 186

Page 179. " My name is Doctor Nolan. I am to be Esther's doctor "

Dr. Nolan is based on the psychiatrist Dr. Ruth Beuscher, who treated Sylvia Plath at McLean Hospital between September 1953 and January 1954.

Sylvia Plath also had psychotherapy with Dr. Beuscher during 1959 when she and her husband, Ted Hughes, were living in Boston.

Page 179. " This woman was a cross between Myrna Loy and my mother "
William Powell and Myrna Loy in 'The Great Ziegfeld' trailer
Public DomainWilliam Powell and Myrna Loy in 'The Great Ziegfeld' trailer - Credit: Trailer screenshot
Myrna Loy (1946)
Public DomainMyrna Loy (1946) - Credit: Trailer screenshot

Myrna Loy (1905-1993) was a Hollywood film actress whose career was at its height between 1934 and 1941. Some of her most successful films co-starred William Powell and Clark Gable.


Page 180. " She reminded me of a Girl Scout leader I'd had once "
Girl Scouts - 1920's
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeGirl Scouts - 1920's - Credit: arcx1972, Flickr
The Girl Scouts is an American all-girl youth organisation, founded in 1912, based on the scouting principles of Robert Baden-Powell.

In Britain and many other countries, the equivalent organisation is known as the Girl Guides.

Page 180. " she wore those flat brown leather shoes with fringed tongues lapping down over the front that are supposed to be so sporty "
Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike'Loafers' - Credit: Grabadonut, Flickr

What is being described here is a type of shoe often known in America as a 'loafer'.

Although 'loafers' were produced originally in Norway in the 1930's, their styling is based to some extent on that of the 'moccasin', the traditional footwear of the Native American Indian.


Quapaw beaded moccasins
Public DomainQuapaw beaded moccasins - Credit: Uyvsdi, Wikimedia Commons








Page 184. " 'Lucky you,' Valerie said, 'You're on insulin.' "

Patient being given glucose as part of Insulin Shock Therapy (Essex, England, 1943)
Public DomainPatient being given glucose as part of Insulin Shock Therapy (Essex, England, 1943) - Credit: Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection
In The Bell Jar Esther Greenwood is given a treatment known as 'Insulin shock therapy'.

This was a form of treatment for schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis which was developed in the 1930's and was widely used during the 1940's and 1950's, prior to the development of anti-psychotic medication.

The full-blown version of the treatment involved the administration by injection of large doses of insulin which would induce  a coma, although a  'modified' version, using sub-coma dosages was also used.

In America, the use of Insulin shock therapy had virtually died out by the 1970's, although it continued to be used in some parts of the world.

Nowadays it is generally considered to have been an ineffective, dangerous and inhumane form of treatment.  

Sylvia Plath received Insulin shock therapy during her stay at McLean Hospital. 

Click here to see a video about Insulin Shock Therapy.

Page 185. " 'I've had a lobotomy' "

Lobotomy (sometimes called leukotomy or leucotomy) is a form of brain surgery in which connections to and from the frontal lobes of the brain are cut.

It is a form of psychosurgery ( neurosurgery or surgery on the brain) designed to treat mental disorders. It has also been used to treat chronic pain.

Lobotomy as a form of treatment was widely used in the 1940's and 1950's, particularly in America, to treat schizophrenia and other disorders, especially those where the sufferer was violent or agitated.

Highly controversial from the outset, lobotomy has increasingly come to be seen as an extremely unacceptable treatment which  causes extensive and irreversible damage to an individual's personality and cognitive functioning.

This type of psychosurgery  had virtually ceased by the 1970's, although it is still in occasional use.

Watch this video to learn about the use of lobotomy by the surgeon Walter J. Freeman.

(BE AWARE that some of the scenes of surgery, and parts of the discussion about the use of lobotomy, are UPSETTING):

Page 188. " working for the chapter head of some fraternity, like the Masons, you know, but not the Masons "
Freemason's Hall, London (United Grand Lodge of England)
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeFreemason's Hall, London (United Grand Lodge of England) - Credit: David Hawgood, Wikimedia Commons

The word fraternity strictly means brotherhood, but is also the name given to organisations whose male members subscribe to a particular set of beliefs and practices (as in the college fraternities discussed earlier).

There are numerous fraternities in the United States, and they are an important aspect of its cultural life. Local branches are often known as chapters, and their meeting places as chapter houses.

The Masons (or Freemasons) are a worldwide organisation with just under 2 million members in the U.S.A.. Their local branches are known as 'Lodges', and their administrative centres as 'Grand Lodges'.

Page 194. " my former employer, the lady Christian Scientist "

In the summer of 1952, Sylvia Plath took a job as a 'mother's help' on Cape Cod with the Cantors, a family of Christian Scientists, and Mrs. Cantor visited Plath whilst she was at McLean Hospital.

Page 194. " and the English teacher I had in high school "

Sylvia Plath was visited at McLean Hospital by Wilbury Crockett, her former English teacher at Bradford Senior High School in Wellesley.

Page 195. " That afternoon my mother had brought me the roses "

Roses Still Life
Public DomainRoses Still Life - Credit: Robert Scott Duncanson
As Anne Stevenson notes, in Bitter Fame (p.48), this part of The Bell Jar is based on an incident that actually occurred when Mrs. Plath visited her daughter on her 21st. birthday, although the roses in question were yellow not red.

 According to her mother, yellow roses were Sylvia Plath's 'favourite flowers'. 

Page 198. " had gone to Vassar "
Thompson Memorial Library, Vassar College
GNU Free Documentation LicenseThompson Memorial Library, Vassar College - Credit: Jim Mills, Wikimedia Commons
Vassar is a liberal arts college, situated in the city of Poughkeepsie in New York State. It was founded in 1861 as a women-only college.

Before it began admitting male students in 1969, it was one of the group of prestigious women's colleges known as the 'Seven Sisters'