Ellen West

Frank Bidart

‘Ellen West’ by Frank Bidart is a long poem capturing the life-defining moments of Ellen West, a woman who was the signature case for existential analysis in the 19th century. The poem is narrated majorly by West herself, with her doctor Ludwig Binswanger intermittently rendering a clinical analysis of her behaviour.

Frank Bidart

Nationality: American

Frank Bidart is an acclaimed American poet with numerous poetry collections.

His work has earned him numerous accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Eating disorders are incredibly challenging to overcome

Themes: Death, Identity

Speaker: Ellen West and Dr. Ludwig Binswanger

Emotions Evoked: Anxiety, Depression, Hopelessness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'Ellen West' by Frank Bidart is a long persona poem documenting the life of Ellen West, a woman who suffered anorexia nervosa and an identity crisis. The poem is told from the perspective of Dr. Ludwig Binswanger.

Ellen West’ by Frank Bidart is a persona poem based on the English translation of the case study “Der Fall Ellen West” by Dr. Ludwig Binswanger. The poem follows the life and death of Ellen West, a woman who suffered from anorexia nervosa and an identity crisis. It is narrated from two perspectives: West’s and her doctor’s.


‘Ellen West’ by Frank Bidart is a long persona poem about the titular character, Ellen West, a woman who suffers from anorexia nervosa and an identity crisis.

Ellen West’ opens with West’s monologue. Without calling her medical condition by name, readers are able to deduce the disorder she suffers from the description of her physical appearance. Readers are also made privy to her struggles with food before she goes on to debate her gender identity. The doctor’s first clinical analysis follows West’s monologue; readers receive an objective account of West’s overall situation.

The poem onwards captures specific moments in West’s life which reveal when, how, and why her condition developed and persisted. An encounter at a restaurant tells readers of society’s contribution to her predicament. West’s perception of old age and her desire to “defeat Nature” tell why her condition persists. Readers also glimpse West’s stubborn, introverted, but observant personality in her stories.

‘Ellen West’ captures her love for grim literature as well. Furthermore, West’s stories are full of historical detail, referring to Maria Callas, the opera singer, and even her unnamed husband. As the poem progresses, West compares herself to the former and draws out the many ways they were similar. West uses Maria Callas’ fall from fame to gauge her own feelings if she ended her existence.

The doctor’s accounts serve as a countdown. With every record, West’s mental condition deteriorates. At the poem’s climax, West’s identity crisis reaches its peak, and she contemplates suicide. Finally, ‘Ellen West’ tumbles down to a grim resolution. West sends her friend a letter and commits suicide.

Ellen West’ was adapted into an opera performance composed by Ricky Ian Gordon. It premiered in 2019.


Ellen West’ is a free verse comprising 12 sections and 339 lines. Even as a free verse, its form is unconventional. Four of its sections are “found prose” extracted from Dr. Binswanger’s case study and quotes he made about West.

These prose sections intermittently appear between the eight sections of dramatic monologue rendered by West herself. The prose sections, like any prose, use punctuations and other writing conventions like line spacing as normal. However, the dramatic monologues do not. Most of the time, there are dashes, line spacings, semi-colons, commas, and so on in odd places. Bidart intentionally does this to represent West’s internal conflict.

Literary Devices

  • Allusion: Allusion is a dominant device in the poem. The poem refers to two main characters who once existed, one of which is the persona of the poem: Ellen West and Dr. Ludwig Binswanger. In addition, the poem references the opera soprano Maria Callas, West’s husband and friend. Real-life events like Callas’ singing in Tosca are also referred to. In fact, the entire poem is based on a series of incidents that actually happened.
  • Personification: The poet’s persona personifies “Nature” in section five of the poem. West sees “Nature” as an obstacle preventing her from achieving her goal of being thin, even at old age.
  • Metonymy: Metonymy appears in section one, where West refers to herself using the phrase “all profile/and effortless gestures.” This device enables readers to envision a skinny, fragile woman.
  • Metaphor: Different types of metaphors ranging from simple metaphors to extended metaphors are artfully woven into the poem. In section one, West uses a metaphor to describe her mental state right after using metonymy to reveal her physical condition. As readers envision a fragile woman, West says her “body is the image of her soul.” Notable metaphors also appear in section six. In this section, West compares the deterioration of Callas’ voice to her weight loss and directly calls Callas’ “soul” the “tapeworm” that consumed her.
  • Dramatic Monologue: Eight sections of the poem told from West’s perspective are dramatic monologues. Many also call ‘Ellen West’ as a whole a dramatic monologue due to these sections.
  • Rhetorical Question: a rhetorical question appears in section two, where West questions her gender identity. It also appears in the last section of the poem, where West wonders how her friend would react to news of her suicide.

Detailed Analysis

Section 1

Lines 1-8

I love sweets,—


would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream . . .

But my true self

is thin, all profile

and effortless gestures, the sort of blond

elegant girl whose

                                body is the image of her soul.

The opening lines of ‘Ellen West’ are rendered from West’s point of view. In these lines, Ellen West hints at her medical condition: anorexia. The contrast between lines 1-3 and 4-8 also introduces a bit of intrigue in the poem, considering it hints at West’s internal conflict. Lines 1-3 express her love for sweet things, but lines 4-8 tell readers she does not eat much of them. West acknowledging this contrast shows a level of self-awareness.

Though she does not name her condition directly, she describes symptoms that make guessing easy in these lines. Lines 1-5 are especially descriptive of anorexia nervosa; they corroborate its symptoms.

These opening lines immediately introduce gloomy undertones in the poem. From them, one can deduce ‘Ellen West’ would be uncomfortable at best and triggering at worst.

Lines 9-15

—My doctors tell me I must give up


meat, and thought it was a wife.

These lines give readers more insight into Ellen West’s life and character. Line 9 tells readers that West was already being treated at this point. Historical records add that Dr. Ludwig Binswanger and his team used this treatment.

Lines 10-12, however, confirm the conflict in West’s mind earlier hinted at. The “ideal” in line 10 refers to West’s strong desire to be thin. From the word “cannot” in line 12, readers realize that West lacks the ability to expel this desire to be thin or the irrational fear of putting on weight. This again confirms her medical condition. “WILL NOT,” however, captures West’s stubbornness. The real Ellen West was known to be headstrong.

The poem reveals she was married at the time of West’s treatment. Although she does not describe a particularly loving relationship, she expresses a sense of comfort in the fact that her husband sees her as human. Readers also glimpse West’s perspective on her weight, at least at the time of her wedding. Her disdain for fat appears in line 15, where she refers to herself as “meat.”

Section 2

Lines 16-22

Why am I a girl?

I ask my doctors, and they tell me they


I even feel like a girl.

The second section of ‘Ellen West’ focuses on West’s identity crisis. A major feature West questioned about her existence was her gender. One could say societal expectations and norms of the time heavily contributed to this. This is hinted at in line 20, where West mentions her gender has “implications.” Line 22 renders a tone of dissatisfaction. Even though she is one, West clearly does not like the idea of “feel(ing) like a girl.” It is easy to see that her dissatisfaction stems from the “implications” of being a girl.

Readers deduce that West had a “friendly” relationship with her doctors, considering line 17 mentions a second time she interacts with them normally.

Section 3

Lines 23-30

Now, at the beginning of Ellen’s thirty-second year, her


heart. She has thinned down to a skeleton, and weighs

only 92 pounds.

Section 3 of ‘Ellen West’ introduces Dr. Ludwig Binswanger’s point of view. Unlike West, the doctor pens down his narrative as prose. Moreover, his narrative is a factual account of West’s condition under his care. From his account, readers learn there is no progress in West’s treatment.

More so, it seems the doctor is more interested in observing West than treating her. This may be because West’s medical condition was one of the first ever to be documented in detail. According to historical records, this sparked the curiosity of psychiatrists, psychologists, and even literary personalities at the time. From Binswanger’s account, readers receive even further confirmation that West suffers from anorexia nervosa. Taking laxatives was one of how patients suffering from anorexia lost weight. However, West clearly abuses these medications.

Dr. Binswanger’s empathy and even ethics as a doctor are questionable in this account, as he does not record any attempt to stop her laxative abuse or improve her condition.

Section 4

Lines 31-36

About five years ago, I was in a restaurant,

eating alone


dinner invitations, so I could eat alone;

This section refocuses on West’s point of view and takes readers back to a time before her treatment began. Line 31 tells readers West was twenty-seven then. According to historical records, this was the year before she married, although West reveals this information between lines 33-34.

These lines give readers more insight into West’s personality. She is described as an introvert, though with a peculiar habit of dining at restaurants. This detail further disproves the myth that anorexic people do not like food. In fact, West’s original notes reveal her strong cravings for food even though she feared getting fat.

Lines 37-46

I’d allow myself two pieces of bread, with


                                    when an attractive young man

and woman, both elegantly dressed,

sat next to me.

These lines reveal more facts about West’s personality. Not only is she an introvert but also a people watcher. According to historical records, West feared getting fat as a young adult. This explains the attention she gives her food choices between lines 37 and 39. Records also confirm West’s love for literature, specifically poetry. This explains her regularly handling a book in the restaurant.

Lines 47-54

She was beautiful—;

with sharp, clear features, a good


                   more beautiful.

These lines of ‘Ellen West’ continue narrating a notable moment in West’s life. Considering facts readers know of Ellen West so far, one can sense envy as West describes the elegant woman next to her in the restaurant. The first thing West notices about this woman is her leanness. This reveals West’s obsession with physique.

One can say this incident may have triggered West’s desire to be just as thin, or even thinner, years later.

Lines 55-64

And he,—

                   I couldn’t remember when I had seen a man


                                      were they lovers?

They didn’t wear wedding rings.

West’s envy is confirmed in these lines. Her desire to be the man’s lover is connected to who she perceives the woman who came with this unnamed man to be: lean and elegant. The descriptions of the couple may be biased or exaggerated, considering West’s disdain for her own figure. It could be that she simply considers every lean person more good-looking than she is.

These lines also tell readers how observant West is. In a few moments, she can analyze the couple’s appearance down to the absence of wedding rings on their fingers.

Lines 65-67

Their behavior was circumspect. They discussed


—How could I discover?

The amount of detail West goes into at this point is almost disturbing. She goes to the extent of eavesdropping to know if they are lovers. Here, readers may wonder why this incident at a restaurant is considered one of West’s life-defining moments. However, one can deduce that her desire to be thin was nurtured by her perception of people like the couple in question. Most likely, she thought she would have a life like theirs if she were thinner.

Lines 68-80

Then, when the first course


—Their behavior somehow sickened me;

the way each gladly

put the food the other had offered into his mouth—;

I knew what they were. I knew they slept together.

Line 77 is the clearest indication of envy. The fact that West admits to feeling this emotion to herself demonstrates emotional intelligence. Several years after West’s death, many psychologists and psychiatrists who studied her own notes about her ailment admit she was very aware of her mental and emotional state, even more than her doctors. Furthermore, West demonstrates powerful deduction skills in line 80, concluding the couple were friends with benefits just from how they fed each other.

Two words are stressed within these lines: “food” in line 79 and “gladly” in line 78. The former shows the disgust West felt not only for their behavior but also for the food they ate. Anorexic patients usually crave certain foods but show an almost irrational repulsion for other kinds.

Lines 81-85

An immense depression came over me . . .


I knew that to become a wife I would have to give up my ideal.

The closing lines of Section 4 reveal yet another one of West’s “ideal(s).” Earlier in the poem, West shares her idea to lose as much weight as possible and not gain any. The other “ideal” mentioned in these lines is her preference to dine and in fact, be alone. West seems to be caught in another mental conflict, hence her depression in line 81. On the one hand, she craves and hates the joy the couple next to her seems to share. On the other hand, she is not ready to experience the connection that brings that joy.

At this point, West had not begun treatment, so her depression had not been diagnosed. However, West demonstrates yet again self-awareness by recognizing the feelings stirred in her. Pity is stirred in the hearts of readers here at West’s extreme personality. It makes one wonder if West could have been saved if she was able to truly connect with someone.

Section 5

Lines 86-92

Even as a child,

I saw that the “natural” process of aging


And her mother.

                            I loathed “Nature.”

Section 5 of ‘Ellen West’ still focuses on West’s point of view. This time, West elaborates on the way the body changes as one aged. This gives readers insight into the fear that plagued West, the fear of adding weight. Line 86 also tells readers that this fear had always been there at the back of West’s mind, though historical records say this fear manifested in her young adult years.

Lines 93-97

At twelve, pancakes


weigh me, I wear weights secretly sewn into my belt.

These lines gradually transition from West’s preteen years back to her time at the hospital. Lines 93-95 corroborate historical records which mention when her fear of getting fat began (more like when it manifested). Given West’s documented stubbornness as a child, line 95 is unsurprising. Clearly, preteen West thought to rebel against “Nature” itself.

Lines 96-97 take readers back to the present and reveal the actions West takes to fool her doctors. The devotion West puts into manipulating the scales, secretly sewing weights into her belt, is disturbing. These irrational, almost childish actions stir even more pity in the hearts of readers and anger directed at the doctor’s.

Considering the use of present tense in these lines, the doctors weighed West regularly. One can blame either the doctors’ ignorance or apathy for not noticing anything suspicious.

Section 6

Lines 98-103

January 16. The patient is allowed to eat in her room, but comes


Salivary-glands are markedly enlarged on both sides.

This section opens with Dr. Binswanger’s point of view. Again, he accounts for her treatment from an observatory standpoint. Considering the entire poem is based off of Dr. Binswanger’s “Der Fall Ellen West,” it is safe to say these prose sections are identical to the real account. The German title translates to “The Case of Ellen West.”

With that in mind, line 102 confirms the ignorance of the doctor because a thorough “physical examination” should have revealed the weights sewn into West’s belt. The condition described in line 103 is a result of self-induced vomiting. It appears West also partook in purging, a subtype of anorexia nervosa.

Lines 104-108

January 21. Has been reading Faust again. In her diary,


only managing to beat their wings softly.”

These lines elaborate on Ellen West’s love for literature. “Faust” in line 104 alludes to the German play Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This is a tragic play in which the titular character Faust, dissatisfied with life, sells his soul to the devil to attain all the pleasures the world offers. One deduces West loved reading this play because of the similarities between her and the titular character. Both characters go to extraordinary lengths to fill the emptiness in their lives.

As with her body, West also views her poems with disdain. The quote between lines 107 and 108 is her direct description of her poems. Readers sense an inferiority complex in West.

Dr. Binswanger’s inadequate efforts to help West is the reason doctors like Carl Rogers, years later, accused him of treating West as an object instead of a patient. On the other hand, some say Binswanger’s observations, not treatment, were the point of existential analysis.

Lines 109-111

February 8. Agitation, quickly subsided again. Has


erotic component strikingly evident.

Observations in these lines focus on West’s interaction with other patients. Earlier in the poem, readers witness West’s simultaneous envy for and desire to be an elegant, lean lady. In a sense, one can say it is this particular feature West is attracted to in anyone, male or female. However, Dr. Binswanger’s point of view indirectly terms her as a homosexual for her closeness to a thin patient.

Lines 112-114

February 15. Vexation, and torment. Says that her mind


this. Has entirely, for the first time in years, stopped writing poetry.

Going by the dates in this section, one can tell that the doctor observed West approximately every week. From his account, readers also notice how her psychological warfare ate into her passion for literature. This feeling makes the poem universally relatable. Even though a reader may not suffer from anorexia nervosa, they can relate to the damaging effect mental health struggles can have on physical activity.

Section 7

Lines 115-121

Callas is my favorite singer, but I’ve only


had been, for years,

                                  deteriorating, half itself. . .

This section takes readers back to West’s point of view. “Callas” in line 115 refers to the great American-born Greek opera singer Maria Callas. She was a soprano. “Tosca” refers to Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, the name of the opera performance. Historical records confirm lines 119-121 which mention the deterioration of her voice. Callas’ performance in Tosca in 1965 was her last stage performance.

Lines 122-129

When her career began, of course, she was fat,


high spirits, too much health. . .

Maria Callas was one of the greatest opera singers in America. These lines confirm historical records which praise her vocal range and dramatic interpretations. It also includes a short but detailed biography of Callas’ career in earlier years. West draws a connection between Callas’ robustness then and her voice. In other words, West insinuates that weight loss killed the “spirits” of people like her and Callas. Again, this shows her level of self-awareness. West is not in denial about the damaging effects of her condition.

Lines 130-135

But soon she felt that she must lose weight,—


four months, she lost at least sixty pounds. . .

West goes on to elaborate on Callas’ speedy weight loss journey. This corroborates historical records but leaves out the fact that Callas felt pressured by a society that called her “heavy” to lose weight. It is clear that through this detailed analysis, Ellen West sees herself in Maria Callas. Like Faust, there are agreeable similarities; West and Callas felt pressured by both internal and external factors to lose weight.

This section is also relatable to anyone who feels the same way.

Lines 136-145

—The gossip in Milan was that Callas


revealing this extraordinarily

mercurial; fragile; masterly creature. . .

There was actual gossip that Maria Callas had consumed tapeworm pills when she speedily lost weight. Her biography disproved the gossip but revealed no clear explanation for her weight loss.

These lines take advantage of this gossip and transform them into a metaphor: a tapeworm as a soul. It takes readers back to the opening lines of the poem, where West says her thin body reflects her soul. In a similar manner, West makes readers aware that the factor behind Callas’ weight loss is the consuming desire in her soul. The fact that Callas desired an ideal weight is no secret in history books. Although no one can confirm this, speculations about Maria Callas’ life have led many to believe she also suffered from anorexia nervosa. This makes West and Callas more alike than ever.

Lines 146-152

—But irresistibly, nothing

stopped there; the huge voice


usually not there at all. . .

In Callas’ time, articles speculated the reason for the loss of her voice. They all traced it back to the moment she drastically lost weight although this remains a point of controversy till today. While some say the speedy weight loss was a major contributing factor, some attribute the loss of her voice to the neuromuscular disorder she suffered. In either case, West’s point of view is in line with history. This also proves her true admiration for Callas, considering how much West knows about her.

Lines 153-163

—No one knows why. Perhaps her mind,


seemed expressly designed to annihilate spirit. . .

These lines are no longer based on history but West’s opinions and deductions. It reads like West is projecting her thoughts on Callas, but in fact, West simply puts herself in Callas’ shoes to evaluate the situation Callas must have been in. Yet again, West proves her emotional intelligence. This stirs sadness in readers, watching West easily evaluate people’s situations but remain helpless in improving them.

West proposes two reasons Callas’ voice declines, one resulting from the “mind” and another resulting from the “spirit.” Lines 153-158 comprise the mind theory: Callas subconsciously reinvented her voice as it got worse. The remaining lines propose Callas’ “spirit,” meaning her energy, was destroyed by society’s expectations (the “suffocating customs”). Given earlier lines in the poem, the second theory is more likely.

Lines 164-171

—I know that in Tosca, in the second act,


“Art has repaid me LIKE THIS?”

These lines come back to history, capturing Callas’ final performance in Tosca. Without historical context, the lines, especially line 171, perfectly exemplify a statement an artist like Maria Callas, whose voice had been lost to art, would say. With that said, the insertion of line 171 is intentional on Bidart’s part. The emotion in these lines is also intentionally raw. The readers can feel the pain of Maria Callas as the character in the performance and as herself.

Lines 172-179

 I felt I was watching


of virtuosity without content. . .

These lines confirm the fact that has been hinted at severally throughout this section: West sees herself in Callas. This admiration of cum attraction to Callas is not due to deluded reasons. West has clearly shown how similar they are.

These lines also corroborate historical records. On July 5, 1965, Callas rendered her last performance with a voice that was almost gone.

Lines 180-193

—I wonder what she feels, now,


she probably would not do a trill in

exactly that way,—

                                   that the whole sound, atmosphere,

dramaturgy of her recordings

have just slightly become those of the past. . .

These lines comprise West’s reflection of Callas’ end and by extension, her end. Considering West sees herself in Callas, she ponders the end of her life through Callas’ life. Historically speaking, it is no secret that West was also obsessed with the concept of death. This is one of the metaphorical ways she analyzed the concept.

Lines 194-202

—Is it bitter? Does her soul


is not to have a body.

The closing lines of this section make West’s contemplation of death clearer. This is indicated by line 202: “to not have a body.” “History of Styles” is a reference to Maria Callas’ time as a fashion icon. It most likely names a magazine that dubs Callas’ style as distinguished as it was, as old.

Records show that West often thought of death as freedom. While the “material” thing that “could (not) satisfy” Callas was the fame that came with singing, for West, it was the leanness of her body. Ellen West would go on to commit suicide at the age of thirty-three.

Section 8

Lines 203-213

When I open my eyes in the morning, my great


is demeaning . . .

This section of ‘Ellen West’ delves into West’s identity crisis. These lines in particular portray her irrational fear of food and her simultaneous craving for it. This is typical of anorexic patients, further confirming the psychological nature of the condition.

West herself understands this, but like any anorexic patient, she lacks the ability to cure herself of it. Line 213 shows she blames herself for this condition, thereby stirring the sympathy of readers. In those days, the treatment of anorexia nervosa was fairly new, and the condition itself was largely not understood. There were not many people to explain to West that it was not her fault.

Lines 214-225



and once weighed

one hundred and sixty-five pounds . . .

West explicitly states the first “ideal” in line 217. This is the same ideal the doctors asked her to give up earlier in the poem. The remaining lines, however, focus on West’s contemplation of a new “ideal”: death. The capitalization of “NOT” in line 220 indicates a certain stubbornness in trying not to lose an argument. Considering West attempted suicide two times before her death, either her doctors or family (more likely the latter) must have entered an argument trying to persuade her not to kill herself.

West has an objective view of death; this is shown in line 221, where she calls it a “given” in the same fashion the doctors called her gender a “given.” Lines 222-225 express West’s disdain for her body, showing she is extremely critical of herself. From anyone else’s point of view, the objectivity with which West contemplates death is tragic.

Lines 226-232

—But then I think, No. That’s too simple,—


made myself—

                         discovered who and what Ellen can be . . .

These lines continue West’s internal debate, focusing on the need to know herself. This desire to know herself is the only thing trumping the desire to commit suicide. Although stated in a different way, West reveals a universal truth between lines 229 and 232: the choices we make and the actions we take determine the people we become.

Lines 233-239

—But then again I think, NO. This is anterior


                                                   with ink.

Lines 233-236 backtrack on West’s previous thought. This thought process is typical of someone having an existential crisis. They often give meaning to who they are only to retract that meaning on the grounds that it is inadequate. West finally expresses the futility of feeding herself between lines 237 and 239. The resignation in these last lines is a premonition for West’s suicide. In a sense, one may call this section the climax of the poem.

Section 9

Lines 240-246

March 30. Result of the consultation: Both gentlemen agree


to give in to the patient’s demand for discharge.

The ninth section of ‘Ellen West’ is told from Dr. Ludwig Binswanger’s point of view. The data shows that Ellen West has been in the hospital for approximately three months. In this paragraph, the doctor reveals his deductions, all of which he himself discredits as false. In the end, West’s “consultation” with Dr. Binswanger does not yield any positive results.

Until today, many psychologists and psychiatrists criticize Dr. Binswanger for his treatment of Ellen West. They either criticize that he left West to her own devices or that he did not observe her long enough. West’s condition, however, did not have an adequate form of therapy at the time.

Section 10

Lines 247-256

The train-ride yesterday

was far worse than I expected . . .


desire to be not what they were:—

This section follows West’s narrative after she’s been discharged from the hospital. Told from West’s perspective, these lines show her increasing dissatisfaction with being alive. This is indicated by the lack of detail in her descriptions of people. Compared with the descriptions of the couple in the restaurant, the “ordinary… student, a woman (and) her child” do not sound interesting.

This reflects a paradigm shift in West’s perspective; line 256 confirms this shift. West is no longer interested in observing people or being a part of them. Overall, this change in tone and outlook suggests the poem is coming to a close.

Lines 257-265

the student was short,

and carried his body as if forcing


small; a dwarf, and helpless . . .

With these lines, one would imagine West as someone who cannot resist her tendency to observe people after all. Even though West initially dismisses the people on the train as “ordinary,” her old habits die hard. She goes on to describe their mannerisms in detail. One could relate this backtracking to the psychological battle West faces in the poem’s climax. It is indicative of West’s tendency to go back and forth between thoughts and actions. It is also, unfortunately, indicative of the contradiction her condition poses: simultaneously craving food while being repulsed by it.

Lines 266-278

—I was hungry. I had insisted that my husband


My husband saw me staring

down at the piece . . .

These lines reveal the contradiction anorexia nervosa poses. Ellen West craves food and is hungry but still will not eat. In addition, these lines paint a picture of the man Ellen West married. According to historical records, this man was her cousin.

Lines 279-289

—I didn’t move; how I wanted


I didn’t move.

The focus of these lines is on West’s husband. Readers gain insight into his character and his interaction with Ellen West. He is depicted as equally astute, being able to assess situations and understand his wife’s cravings.

Lines 290-300

—At last, he bent down, and



In these lines, West’s husband embodies the reader’s emotions. It is hard not to feel immense sadness watching one’s family member suffer from a disease. Lines 296-297 show “his eyes were red,” meaning he most likely was about to cry. Anyone would. However, West’s self-deprecation from Section 8 reappears in lines 298-300. West projects the “disappointment” in herself on her husband.

The action in itself is human and relatable. Her husband’s inclination to look away and hide his tears is probably because he knew his wife would misunderstand. Clearly, West’s medical condition has torn a rift in what might have been a happy marriage. This knowledge makes the poem even more solemn.

Section 11

Lines 301-313

On the third day of being home she is as if transformed.

At breakfast she eats butter and sugar, at noon she eats

so much that—for the first time in thirteen years!—she is


ing she is dead. “She looked as she had never looked in

life—calm and happy and peaceful.”

If ‘Ellen West’ were prose, this section would be considered the resolution. It is told from the doctor’s point of view and describes in detail how Ellen West spent the last day of her life before poisoning herself in April. The quote between lines 312 and 313 is from the real Dr. Ludwig Binswanger, who still wrote about West after she was discharged. Readers do not find an expected happy ending, and the poem overall ends on a gloomy note.

Section 12

Lines 314-321

Dearest.—I remember how


when I was not yet truly thin.

In typical prose fashion, this section is akin to an epilogue. As earlier indicated in the poem’s resolution, this section is the letter West wrote to the female patient she befriended in the hospital. One may well regard it as a suicide note.

West never regarded her writings as good. However, the letter alone shows Ellen West’s potential as a great storyteller. This lost potential is more than enough to move readers to tears.

Lines 322-327

You and, yes, my husband,—


But something in me refuses it.

This part of West’s letter acknowledges the efforts of her husband and her unnamed friend to connect with her. Using an extended metaphor drawn from West’s childhood, West reveals to readers that despite her mental health struggles, there were moments in her life when she truly felt at peace.

These moments were created courtesy of her husband and the female patient. Yet, unfortunately, line 327 indicates that these few peaceful moments were not enough to keep her alive. In the end, readers are reminded of Section 4, specifically West’s sadness at the fact that her extreme introversion would never allow her to truly connect with anyone.

Lines 328-333

—How eager I have been


which often seemed to me sterile and unreal,

heightens my hunger.

These lines make it clear that West tried to connect with the people who loved her despite her extreme introversion. It makes the whole situation even more pitiful, considering she put in more effort than her team of doctors to restore herself. However, it was not enough. This is a loud and universal message about the complexity of mental issues. Only in recent decades have we as a society begun to truly understand and effectively treat conditions such as West’s.

Lines 334-339

I am crippled. I disappoint you.


before this letter?

Your Ellen.

The closing lines of ‘Ellen West’ are sober. They are the most peaceful lines from West in this poem. For the first and last time, Ellen West is truly calm. This is either indicative of West’s resignation to death or her relationship with this unnamed friend or both. Either way, she remains self-critical to the end (shown in line 334) but ironically ends the titular poem with a question (excluding the complimentary close).

This is Bidart’s effective way of cementing ‘Ellen West’ and the emotions it stirred in the hearts of readers. In a sense, one is subconsciously made to continue the poem with their own thoughts.


When and where was ‘Ellen West’ published?

Ellen West’ was published in In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990 in the year 1990. This collection is composed of three books: Golden State, The Book of the Body, and The Sacrifice.

What is the overall tone and mood of the poem?

Overall, both the tone and mood of the poem are sober. From the first section, one already knows to expect the worst at the end of ‘Ellen West.’ However, there are moments during West’s monologues when she expresses anger, disdain, hopelessness, and envy. In contrast, the doctor maintains a monotone, evidently stoic and objective throughout the poem.

What are the themes of ‘Ellen West‘?

The major themes are West’s eating disorder and identity crisis which are a result of her mental state. Other themes like depression, fear, hopelessness, and death stem from the highlighted medical condition West suffers. Despite these gloomy themes, the end of ‘Ellen West’ marks the theme of friendship and connection in West’s letter to her close friend.

Why did Frank Bidart write ‘Ellen West’?

The death of Bidart’s mother is believed to be the inspiration behind ‘Ellen West.’ Bidart wrote the poem in an effort to forget his own grief after losing his mother. Then he found he related to West’s suicidal thoughts as well, hence his decision to write a poem with West as its persona. ‘Ellen West’ was published a year after his mother’s death.

Is Ellen West the real name of the character in the poem?

Though Ellen West is verifiably a woman who once existed, her name is a pseudonym given by Dr. Binswanger in his case study. This was most likely done to protect her identity. Her real name was never discovered.

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Ellen West

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Frank Bidart (poems)

Frank Bidart

This is one of Bidart's better-known poems. The poem was made more popular courtesy of Ricky Ian Gordon's opera adaptation in 2019. With the rise in mental health awareness and the increasing knowledge on how to treat eating disorders, Bidart's 'Ellen West' may soon well become one of Frank Bidart's classics.
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20th Century

This poem was welcomed for its originality in twentieth-century America. The literary society marveled at Bidart's ability to capture emotion so delicate, complex, and private. It was also a welcome change to write about mental health issues.
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This poem is popular in twentieth-century American literary society not only due to its historical detail but also its originality. The poem is one of a kind with its dramatic monologue and the ability to handle the theme of eating disorders expertly. It continues to be remembered today through its opera adaptation by Ricky Ian Gordon.
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Though not a major theme, death sets the mood toward the end of the poem. West first contemplates the idea of suicide in section six through her thoughts on Callas. These suicidal thoughts are then directed toward herself in section eight. She acts on them in the final sections of the poem, ending 'Ellen West' on a gloomy note.
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West suffers an identity crisis, specifically about her gender. Section two hints at the probability that this is due to society's definition of a girl. Thoughts on her identity as a person then reappear intermittently in the poem, culminating in section eight, where she says her identity was not truly defined by her.
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The entire poem depicts West's anxious thoughts about her gender and food. Dr. Binswanger also records this anxiety. Eventually, this anxiety is transferred to the heart of readers at the climax, where West debates suicide.
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Depression is evident in section four of the poem. This incident at the restaurant pushes her into depression for two reasons. It reminds her of her inability to truly connect with people and the idea that her ideal to be as thin as the lady next to her might not be possible.
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Hopelessness is evident throughout 'Ellen West.' As the poem progresses and more of West's thoughts are revealed, it becomes increasingly obvious that there is no hope for the poet's persona. If there was any hope before the poem's climax, it is completely dashed with West's suicide.
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Body Image

This poem focuses on the poet's persona, Ellen West, and her distorted view of her body image. It is this view that nurtures her desire to be thin and, later on, not to have a body. Throughout the poem, West's thoughts, especially about people she admired, involved some description of their physique. She also regularly shames her own.
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The conflict referred to in 'Ellen West' is an internal conflict for the most part. Throughout the poem, West battles her cravings for food to preserve her "ideal" to be thin. This is highlighted in section 10 when she debates picking a slice of orange from the floor despite telling her husband not to bring food. Though not the focus of the poem, this section also highlights family conflict using the same incident.
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Eating Disorders

Many literary personalities would agree that 'Ellen West' is one of the best poems dealing with the topic of eating disorders. Bidart's idea of making 'Ellen West' a persona poem using a real persona demonstrates originality. Moreover, Bidart explores this very delicate theme in depth and with accuracy. Courtesy of this, today, many are able to understand and even relate to the topic.
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Mental Illness

Researchers say eating disorders have more to do with one's mental state than with food. In this sense, one would agree that mental illness is the main topic of 'Ellen West.' This is proven by the series of mental debates West has regarding food and her damaging idea of not eating. In some sections of the poem, anxiety disorders and depression, both of which are mental disorders, are also highlighted.
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This topic is only explored in later sections of the poem. West's contemplation of suicide is most evident in the poem's climax (section eight); she debates in her mind if it is better not to have a body.
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Free Verse

This poem demonstrates its uniqueness among free verse poems courtesy of its unconventional structure. The poem is arranged in sections, not stanzas, with dramatic monologues interspersed by "found prose." Beyond lacking a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, it also lacks predictability in its sequence of thought. This is representative of the crisis the poet's persona suffers.
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Anastasia Ifinedo Poetry Expert
Anastasia Ifinedo is an officially published poet. You can find her poems in the anthologies, "Mrs Latimer Had A Fat Cat" by Cozy Cat Press and "The Little is Much" by Earnest Writes Community, among others. A former poet for the Invincible Quill Magazine and a reviewer of poems on several writing platforms, she has helped—and continues to help—many poets like her hone their craft.

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