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Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar – a glimpse of 50s New York

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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So, I am back home after a fabulous few days in New York, and thankfully I did manage to read the two books I took with me, so am happy to report my findings.

Today, we’ll look at The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath…

Along with countless others I think this was a fabulous novel, and it wasn’t as depressing as I thought it might have been. In fact, there was a wry humour I hadn’t been expecting.

The novel is semi-autobiographical, giving us the story of college student Esther Greenwood as she takes up a month-long guest editorship of a women’s magazine in New York, and detailing her failing mental health after her return home. While I knew the book mirrored Plath’s own life, I hadn’t realised quite how much so. This article  and this describe some of the many facets of the novel which match Plath’s own experience.

I loved some of her analogies and observations, such as “My secret hope of spending the afternoon alone in Central Park died in the glass egg-beater of Ladies’ Day’s revolving doors.” (p38) and “the tropical, stale heat the sidewalks had been sucking up all day hit me in the face like a last insult” (p16), and while some people appear to be uncomfortable with discussing humour in a novel about mental health, I found myself loving the dark comedy Plath gives us.

Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a red-blooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry somebody who wasn’t pure either. Then when he started making my life miserable I could make his miserable as well” (p77) and “Usually after a good puke you feel better right away. We hugged each other and then said good-bye and went off to opposite ends of the hall to lie down in our own rooms. There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.” (p41) are two great examples.

BUT – much as I enjoyed this book, I don’t understand why it is on several lists as a quintessential New York novel. Only half of the book is set there and while we certainly do see bits and pieces of the city, it is not as large a character as I would expect of a novel appearing in lists such as these.

Literary Musings – Top Ten Novels Set In New York City
Huffington Post – 20 Books That Will Make You Fall In Love With New York City All Over Again

Having said that, I certainly enjoyed the bits I did see, and could even relate to some of Esther’s dilemmas about the city.

I could have called down and asked for a breakfast tray in my room, I guess, but then I would have to tip the person who brought it up, and I never know how much to tip. I’d had some very unsettling experiences trying to tip people in New York.” (p49)

Let’s not forget I am Australian, the child of a country in which tipping is highly unusual and I too find myself a little paralysed by New York’s tipping culture. I am always wary of tipping too much or too little – a problem my sister solved on this most recent trip, by just asking people if she was supposed to tip them and how much! Simple!

If you do want to use The Bell Jar to help you explore New York, there are a couple of places you could visit.

The Amazon Hotel

It wasn’t a proper hotel – I mean a hotel where there are both men and women mixed about here and there on the same floor. This hotel – the Amazon – was for women only, and they were mostly girls my age with wealthy parents who wanted to be sure their daughters would be living where men couldn’t get at them and deceive them.” (p4)

Barbizon-hotelThe Barbizon – Image courtesy of Dmadeo via Wikimedia Commons

While the Amazon Hotel has never existed, the Barbizon at 140 E. 63rd St  certainly did, and it is where Plath lived during her month in New York in 1953. Just as she describes, it was a female-only hotel until 1981 and had strict rules on how the women dressed and behaved. There is a long list of famous women who stayed there over the years, including Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Liza Minelli and Grace Kelly. The hotel was renovated in 2002, becoming The Melrose Hotel, and then just three years later, it was turned into apartments. Such a shame – it would have been great to have been able to stay there today. The video below is actually a promotional film by the company involved in the window restoration of the building, but it does gives us a bit of a look around.

The United Nations Building

Constantin drove me to the UN in his old green convertible with cracked, comfortable brown leather seats and the top down… And while  Constantin and I sat in one of those hushed, plush auditoriums in the UN, next to a stern, muscular Russian girl with no make-up who was a simultaneous interpreter, like Constantin I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old.” (p70)

United Nations HeadquartersHeadquarters of the United Nations – Image courtesy of David Jones via Flickr Creative Commons

You may not be given your own private viewing of the headquarters of the United Nations with a good-looking simultaneous translator, but there are guided tours available. It’s an opportunity for a behind the scenes look at the place where delegates from around the world tackle some of the trickiest political problems on the planet.

The UN complex would have been very new when Esther visited with Constantin, the buildings designed by an international team of architects including Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer were only completed in 1952. The complex is on the banks of the East River, on 1st Avenue, between 42nd and 48th street. It is actually built on international territory, and you can get a stamp in your passport when you visit. Don’t just turn up though, or you will be disappointed. You will need to book tickets in advance.

Plath’s New York

If you’d like to discover a few other places related to Plath’s (and Esther’s) time in New York then you can use this map as a guide.

It was put together by Teri Tynes from Walking Off the Big Apple, a blog dedicated to strolling around New York. She has several other theme-inspired walks on there as well and the site is a fabulous resource for visitors and residents of the city alike.

As much as I don’t feel this novel really belongs on a list of the top ten books set in New York, I’m not sorry to have read it on this trip. I do however wish I’d had a chance to go and have a look at the Barbizon and wander past 575 Madison Avenue, the address of Mademoiselle magazine where Plath did her own placement. It will have to go on the list for next time.

Luckily though – I did manage to accidentally run into the famous Strand bookshop near Union Square – one of the many on my bookshop bucket list!

IMG_0704The Strand Bookstore – New York City – image by Suzi Butcher

Next time we’ll have a look at the other novel I read on this trip – The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

See you then,


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