7.01.2008

Walking Off The Bell Jar: The United Nations, a Simultaneous Translator, and the World Beyond the 1950s

Esther Greenwood, the young collegian protagonist of Sylvia Plath's semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, tells us that when she lived at the Amazon (the thinly-disguised Barbizon Hotel at 63rd and Lexington) in June of 1953 she could see the United Nations from her window.

The modernist symbol of international peace would have been an exciting recent addition to the New York skyline in 1953. Just two years prior, the U.N. relocated from its first headquarters in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens to its new location on the East River. Two months before Plath arrived in New York, the UN General Assembly voted to appoint Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld as the Secretary-General.

At the tender age of nineteen, Esther is introduced for the first time to the big world outside herself in the person of Constantin, a simultaneous translator at the U.N. When he takes her to a General Session and she watches him work alongside a woman who serves as a Russian translator, Esther starts focusing on her inadequacies. She compiles lists of things she can't do, a further revelation into her tired and depressed mind. Afterwards, he takes her to a Greek restaurant and introduces her to new foods beyond the American hamburger. When they go back to his apartment, they sit out on his terrace overlooking the East River, and he plays balalaika records. Of all the episodes with young men in The Bell Jar, many of them fraught with sexual aggression and violence, the evening with Constantin stands in contrast for its missed potential.

Reading The Bell Jar, I want to reach back into the summer of 1953 just to push Esther into a different direction, give her alternative role models within a society that set different standards for men and women. I can think of several. In 1953, retiring movie star Greta Garbo bought a spacious apartment in the Campanile apartment building at 450 East 52nd Street, just to the north of the UN Complex, and with views of the East River. The fictional Mame Dennis of Patrick Dennis' 1955 memoir lived nearby on Beekman Place. These women are, of course, older, wiser, and much, much wealthier. Younger women artists of Esther's age moved to the Village in the 1950s to become artists, but they, like Esther, had to deal with the fact that they weren't taken as seriously as the young men.

I do know that what bothered Esther, and her creator, went deeper, tore into the psyche. A psychiatric profession armed with several forms of anti-depressant medication could have helped her, but that was in the future. The long passages in the novel about her experiences with electro-shock therapy are truly painful to read.

Multiple revolutions separated Sylvia Plath's world from the time I reached my junior year in college decades later. I did not share Esther Greenwood's underlying condition of depression (I've been an Auntie Mame from the time I could walk), but I benefited enormously from the activist members of the generation of the 1960s, especially those in the women's movement, who smashed the glass of other bell jars.

Coming up next: Esther Greenwood doesn't get into a fiction class at Harvard and goes for a long walk.

Some events from 1953:

June 19 - Execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
July 12 - The New York Times publishes an article titled "The Weather is Really Changing."
July 27 - The Korean War armistace is signed.
August 18 - Kinsey report is issued.
August 19 -The CIA helps to overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and installs the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
September 12 - Jacqueline Bouvier marries John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Part of a series about Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar. See related posts:
Walking Off The Bell Jar: The Long Walk
Walking Off The Bell Jar: The Wicked City
Walking Off the Sultry Summer of 1953: The New York of the Bell Jar

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