Skip to main content

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.









Popular posts from this blog

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City. View of the Hudson River from the Keeper's House The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington. Recommended purchase - a map det

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima

A Morning Walk from Penn Station to Times Square

Penn Station to Times Square New York City entered a new phase of the reopening on Monday, but you would never know it from a morning walk in Midtown on the day after.  At 34th Street and 8th Avenue, an outsize reminder of the public health crisis from Montefiore Medical Center After running an errand near Penn Station, I decided to take a walk up to Times Square and Broadway before heading home from 59th Street and Columbus Circle.  34th Street looking east toward the Empire State Building I wasn’t altogether prepared for the sights and sounds of this time and this place. Like many other New Yorkers, I have rarely left my neighborhood for the past four months.  8th Avenue at W. 38th Street After exiting a quiet Penn Station near 8th Avenue and W. 33rd Street at what would normally be the end of rush hour, I found myself suddenly dropped into a city (mostly) bereft of crowds.  A few commuters near Port Authority and The New York Times building, 8th Avenue and W. 40th Street Yet, I had

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video , filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.” Approaching The Mall in Central Park  When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months. The Mall in Central Park I hadn’t v

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge:  "The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apr

The Season of Owls

 A walk in Inwood Hill Park. The days following the holidays and the first of the year make a good time to check in on life in the winter forest. I have a forest just down the street from me in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. There, a vast old growth forest still stands. A Barred Owl faces the setting sun in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. A few weeks ago, someone on a local Facebook page posted a snapshot of a Barred Owl, and I was keen to go looking for it in the park. I didn't find the owl on the first day, but the next day I saw it. A handful of birder enthusiasts were already on the scene and kindly pointed it out high up in the pines. What a beautiful creature!  A stand of White Pines provides the habitat for the Barred Owl. The owl is in this picture. I know, hard to see.  Since my first owl visit, everyday life during the otherwise dreary post-holiday doldrums has taken on a finer aura. I have returned several times, each taking a different path up to the o