Compare and contrast the two scenes in which Esther undergoes electroshock therapy (pp. 136-139 and pp. 203-05). How do gender dynamics affect Esther’s experiences?

Gender dynamics affect Esther's experiences of electroshock therapy because they control her two doctors's approaches, and therefore the treatment's success. Her male doctor, Dr. Gordon, fails in his treatment and makes Esther feel as though she is being punished. This is a direct consequence of his self-absorption and lack of care. The female Dr. Nolan, however, is a maternal figure who ensures that the therapy is administered correctly. As a result, Esther's second treatment is much more successful.

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Gender is an important concept when attempting to analyse The Bell Jar. The protagonist, Esther, is plagued with thoughts and anxieties about expectations of womanhood, and women’s lack of freedom in comparison to men’s. Her experiences of electroshock therapy, now called electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), mirror those of Sylvia Plath herself.

The literary critic Phyllis Chelster has argued that electroshock therapy in The Bell Jar represents patriarchal oppression, citing Esther’s first experience with Dr. Gordon, the male doctor, and her immediate reaction “I wondered what a terrible thing it was that I had done.” Although Esther’s initial round of electroshock therapy is unsuccessful and drives her to attempt suicide, the female Dr. Nolan’s approach is much more successful. Esther credits these latter sessions with lifting her depression: “The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.”

It is heavily suggested that Esther’s vastly different experiences with electroshock therapy are due to the doctor-patient dynamics she encounters. Dr. Gordon is a condescending man who fails to listen to Esther; therefore, he does not gain her trust. He subjects her to treatments which make her feel as though she is being punished rather than helped.

In many ways, Dr. Gordon is set up as a symbol of the patriarchy. He is an attractive family man who is so self-absorbed that he cares little for the wellbeing of others. It is telling that during the later therapy with Dr. Nolan, Esther immediately falls asleep—which is what should happen in a successful session. Dr. Nolan's treatment of Esther contrasts to Dr. Gordon’s treatment, which violently “bent down and took hold of [her] and shook [her] like the end of the world.”

Esther trusts Dr. Nolan implicitly: so much so, that she feels an overwhelming sense of betrayal at not being warned that she would be receiving electroshock therapy once again. However, Dr. Nolan’s kind and caring nature makes Esther feel more safe. She promises to stay with Esther throughout the procedure, giving her arm “an encouraging squeeze”. She is referred to as acting “like an old friend” and “like a mother;” the positive impact of this round of treatments only strengthens Esther’s positive relationship with and trust in Dr. Nolan.

It is valid to argue that the more equal relationship between Esther and Dr. Nolan is due to the more balanced gender dynamic between two women, especially as her "maternal" characteristics are emphasised by Plath. Fundamentally, Dr. Gordon cares much more about himself than Esther. His lack of care is strongly linked in the novel to his status as a man.

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