June 26, 2008

Walking Off The Bell Jar: The Wicked City

Esther Greenwood, the protagonist and narrator of Sylvia Plath's semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar (first published in 1963 in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas), doesn't care much for the New York of June of 1953. The budding writer has come to the city to work at a woman's fashion magazine, one of a dozen winners of a national essay competition. She, along with her fellow editors, lives in the Amazon, a proper boarding house for women in midtown Manhattan. She doesn't know what she's doing in the city. In the first chapter, she tells us all she can think about is the execution by electric chair of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, New York-born American citizens found guilty of spying for Russia, at the Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York.

The Bell JarThe New York of The Bell Jar is gray, rainy, and flat, a phantasmagoria, an acute visual metaphor for "the man in the grey flannel suit." The fresh air that arrives at night dissolves by morning, giving way to a hot urban jungle of blowing dust. Esther can't connect, finding little in common with the young women at the hotel, rich bored girls she disdains, or her fellow contest winners at the magazine. She can't find much to praise in Buddy Willard, her predestined boyfriend, recuperating from TB at a hospital upstate and a nagging source of guilt. Only Doreen, one of the magazine winners, a platinum blonde bombshell with intuition, can take her out of her self-absorption. All the bright colors have been leeched out of the city. Everything is grey, white, black, dusty, platinum. Esther hates Technicolor.

A waylaid taxi ride leads Esther and Doreen to cocktails with guys on the make and then a late night with a cowboy DJ guy named Lenny. They follow Lenny to his moderne apartment, more like a suburban ranch house outfitted with quality high fidelity. While Doreen and Lenny click, drink and intertwine, our heroine slumps down on the carpet, sipping vodka. "Dead water," she calls it. As she watches her two companions climb on one another and then start to bite, she slips out the door. Arriving at the street corner, she pulls her New York street map out of her purse, locates herself on the grid and then walks the "forty-three blocks by five blocks" back to the hotel.

When she gets back to her room, Esther takes a long bath, a scorching hot ritual cleansing, and gets into bed. She falls asleep but is awakened a short time later by an inebriated Doreen who collapses in her arms and then throws up a night of drinks. A later chapter features mass female vomiting resulting from an incident of bad crabmeat at a luncheon. These early chapters of The Bell Jar overflow with water, clear liquids, purification rituals, vodka, and purgation.

Esther's editor at the magazine, Jay Cee, a tough cookie wearing tailored lilac suits, knows her intern is out of it. Asking Esther what she wants to do, Esther surprises herself by replying, "I don't really know." Jay Cee says, "You'll never get anywhere like that." Leaving the office, she pats Esther on the shoulder and tells her, "Don't let the wicked city get you down."

The wicked city. So many of us know the symptoms - a long night of too many drinks that follow a day of too many expectations, the constant tug of living up to one's potential, a rain that derails original promising plans, the friends left back home and the ones impossible to locate here, the boss without sensitivity, a stellar resume that still lacks the necessary language, the mistaken confidence in a co-worker, the swollen feet, a talentless colleague that gets the better job, a ten-hour day and still no money for a nice dinner, the stalled subway and the heat and a body less than perfect. It's too hard. It's all too much. Maybe a long bath will wash off the city.

to be continued....

Images: (above) A window at the Barbizon Hotel, 63rd and Lexington, the Amazon depicted in the novel, and where Sylvia Plath lived with nineteen other guest editors in June of 1953. Later incarnated as the Melrose Hotel, the Barbizon has recently been renovated and turned into condo residences. Sorry, girls. June 25, 2008. (below) In 1953, young women could enjoy their flirtations with careers but were expected to get married and raise babies. This advertisement is on the facade of 575 Madison Avenue, the former home of Mademoiselle magazine and where Sylvia Plath worked as an intern after her junior year at Smith College. Image here is from June 25, 2008.

*According to Connie Ann Kirk's Sylvia Plath: A Biography (Greenwood Press, 2004), the late-night incident with the DJ is based on a similar episode from June of 2008 involving another guest editor, a student at Sweet Briar College, and Greenwich Village disc jockey Art Ford.

See previous post: Walking Off the Sultry Summer of 1953: The New York of The Bell Jar, and follow-ups:
Walking Off The Bell Jar: The United Nations, a Simultaneous Translator, and the World Beyond the 1950s and Walking Off The Bell Jar: The Long Walk.

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