"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."
A somber edition of Pencils in Literature: How long has it been since you've read Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar? I read it several times in high school, and for a long time considered it one of my favorite books, but I can't remember the last time I actually opened the cover. In any case, I had some dim memories of pencils in The Bell Jar -- after all, Esther Greenwood does start the novel working for a New York fashion magazine, a month-long gig secured by winning a prize for her writing. I thought there must be some pencils in the office, in her room, misplaced or shoved in pocketbooks.
But the most prominent pencil in the novel doesn't belong to Esther; it belongs to Doctor Gordon, the young, handsome psychiatrist whom Esther hopes will be able to see through even her own confusion and help her. Except that it seems he doesn't and can't, and she believes she can "control the picture" he has of her. He's no better than anyone else who's tried to save her. The excerpt above occurs in Chapter 11, when Esther goes to see him for the first time. During the course of the session, the pencil and its tapping increasingly preoccupy the patient:
"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."
Is the pencil tapping a thoughtless habit of Doctor Gordon? Or is it an attempt either to distract or to irritate Esther into being honest with him? If the former, Doctor Gordon is a careless doctor, and if the latter, he's manipulative, and it's hard to guess which case would be more repulsive to Esther. But by her next visit to the doctor, the pencil has become a weapon:
"Doctor Gordon cradled his pencil like a slim, silver bullet."
Faced with the pencil, Esther produces evidence in the form of scraps of paper, carefully preserved in her makeup compact. And that evidence, the thing that's supposed to at once expose and also fully describe her mental state, is her handwriting:
"That morning I had tried to write a litter 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."
She scatters the scraps on his desk--"What do you think of that"? she asks. But Doctor Gordon has no reaction to the terror of her handwriting, and asks only to speak to her mother. In this private meeting, he recommends that Esther visit his private hospital for electroshock therapy.
I won't tell you what happens after that, for those of you who haven't read it and for those who, like me, haven't read it in years. Either way, I recommending (re)visiting The Bell Jar. Tell me what your memories of the book are in the comments!
PS Check out some of Sylvia's drawings too.