July 3, 2008

Places from The Bell Jar: Sylvia Plath's New York, and a Map

After her long night with her friend Doreen and Lenny the DJ, Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, decides to walk back home to her hotel, the Amazon, and pulls a New York street map out of her pocket. Calculating she was "exactly forty-three blocks by five blocks away" from her hotel, she sets out on foot uptown. (p. 15 Bantam Windstone paperback edition, 1981) If the Amazon is based on the Barbizon Hotel at Lexington and 63rd, then her starting point could have been around 20th and 8th Avenue (or, even possibly, uptown on the Upper West Side). I don't think Plath intended this to be precisely autobiographical. A walk from the Village to anywhere around Lexington and 63rd would make a nice hike, probably in the neighborhood of 3.5 miles. In a real life incident from June of 1953, Plath tried to track down poet Dylan Thomas outside his favorite bar, probably the White Horse Tavern on Hudson (marked on the map), and she could have walked back from there to the Barbizon (Amazon) Hotel.


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The most prominent New York places mentioned in The Bell Jar include the Amazon, as mentioned, plus the fashion magazine offices (in reality, Mademoiselle magazine, 575 Madison), the United Nations on the East River (1951, completed just two years prior to the summer of 1953, the time of the novel), and Bloomingdale's, the department store where Esther bought matching black patent leather shoes, belt, and purse. It occurs to me just now that she shouldn't be traipsing around Manhattan wearing black patent leather shoes in summertime, and so this reference on page 2 should foreshadow all the dark times ahead.

This ridiculous insight reminds me that I should like to address the high school and college students who are now reading this post and map and are thinking they have found something special to include in their term papers for the assignment on The Bell Jar.

Dear High School and College Students in Literature Classes Reading The Bell Jar,

Welcome! Let me introduce you to this website. Walking Off the Big Apple is a personal website devoted to New York arts and culture, one inspired by the flâneur tradition. "What does that word mean?," you may ask. Well, flâneur comes from the French verb flâner, meaning to stroll, and so a flâneur is the person that strolls. Because I am feminine, I am a flâneuse. Our strolling types enjoy a rich urban literary tradition that includes a high cultural moment in 19th century Paris. We like to cite poet Charles Baudelaire and sit down on occasion to drink absinthe. I see I have your attention now. The influential early 20th-century Marxist cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, a person you will read in graduate school, calls the flâneur a clever bourgeois dilettante, but then again, he was one of us.

I wrote about The Bell Jar for this website, because I read the book in high school, and at the time, I thought that if I went to a woman's college up East, I would move to New York after graduation and then try to kill myself. Fortunately, this did not occur. I am fine now.

If you would like credible insight into the poems and prose of Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), then I would suggest that you unplug yourself from the internet, visit a local institution called the library, and check out some books. You can come back here later and read more about New York and flânerie. I would like that. If you rely solely on internet sources for your paper, however, especially this one, your teacher may have issues, and the result could hurt your chances to get into Harvard summer school.

Sincerely,
WOTBA


Previous related posts:

Walking Off the Sultry Summer of 1953: The New York of the Bell Jar
Walking Off The Bell Jar: The Wicked City
Walking Off The Bell Jar: The United Nations, a Simultaneous Translator, and the World Beyond the 1950s
Walking Off The Bell Jar: The Long Walk

1 comment:

Robert Burdock said...

Hi Teri. I thought I'd drop by to say hello and to thank you for the kind words you left over at my blog (I thanked you over there too :o)). Although quiet, I've been following your NYC ramblings as close as ever.

I've actually been captivated by this 'Bell Jar' series. I'm currently in a personal challenge to read 50 'seminal' novels in a year (mainly to improve my own novel-writing skills) and the Bell Jar was a title lingering on my 'longlist'. However with all of this fresh 'background information' your providing, I'm moving the 'novel' (I'm aware it's largely autobiographical) onto my 50 list. So, thanks a lot for that Teri.
Anyway, take care and keep up the great work
Warmest Regards
Robert