21 June 2020

Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar: Esther and Doreen and Men and Bloody Cheeks

When I read The Bell Jar it is my hope to see something new. To make a connection within the novel itself or perhaps some connection to Plath's own lived life and experiences.

In this particular read in June 2020, I was giddy when I noticed the parallels between Doreen's first meeting with Lenny Shepherd and Esther Greenwood's decidedly different first meeting with Marco. In fact, Esther's "I felt myself melting into the shadows like the negative of a person I'd never seen before in my life" feels like foreshadowing. So, let us begin...

Doreen is dressed in white. She is so white "she looked silver". Esther dresses in black.

Lenny approaches Doreen (and Esther) in the cab; Esther is brought to Marco by Doreen.

Lenny's skeevy friends laugh from their safe distance under the awning of a bar. Laughter is heard through the door when Esther arrives to meet Marco; and someone laughs when Marco suggests he might "perform some small service ... worthy of a diamond."

Lenny slid his arm hand around Doreen's arm in a flirtatious gesture; Marco intentionally and forcefully grips Esther's arm hard enough to leave bruising impressions.

There are drinks involved. Lenny asks what Esther wants; Marco orders for her.

There is dancing. Lenny and Doreen jitterbug (even between songs). They dance willingly and as unit. Marco and Esther tango, though Esther does not believe she is a full participant in the movements. She is, after all, told to "pretend you are drowning" (advice she tries to take later in the novel). Heck, maybe Esther should have danced with Frankie?

When dancing, Lenny gets Doreen up on his shoulder and her breasts surge out of her dress. Esther has her shantung sheath torn off her by Marco who bites it away, exposing her "bare skin".

Doreen's drink flies through the air as she and Lenny get a little more aggressive and intimate. Marco chucks Esther's drink intentionally and then forces her to the dance floor.

Doreen presumably has sex with Lenny and returns super drunk; Marco attempts to engage in coitus with Esther but she fights him off.

Lastly, Lenny ran over a jack rabbit; Marco is a jackass.

It is possible there are more similarities (or I should say differences!) than what is in this blog post. But, all said, the scenes are generally similar though each Guest Editor obviously has quite an opposite experience with their respective counterparts.

Bloody Cheeks*

When Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes she was drunk, very drunk. Famously, as we all know, they were at a party, there was dancing. There was biting, too, and when Hughesdescribed as "big, dark"left the room "blood was running down his face" (Unabridged Journals 211, 212).

When Esther Greenwood met the "tall, but dark" Peruvian Marco they went to a dance at a country club "somewhere in the wealthy suburbs of New York" (The Bell Jar 110, 113). There was alcoholEsther had four daiquirisbut she does not appear to have been too drunk.

I think there are several parallels between the night of 25 February 1956 and what Plath does just over five years later in Chapter Nine of The Bell Jar. Plath draws blood from Hughes with her teeth. Esther Greenwood smashes Marco in the nose with her fist; but in a slight reversal of the story, it is Esther's cheeks that are "stained" with Marco's blood (The Bell Jar 115).

There are many things about the scene with Marco, in fact, that remind me of Plath and Hughes' first meeting. The violence is one, although that first meeting with Hughes was all about instinct and passion (and alcohol and poetry). In The Bell Jar it is turned around: it is not violent passion between Esther and Marco, but the violence of rage and fear and hate and control. These I think are all similar emotions.

The scene in the novel is based on a dance held on Saturday 20 June 1953 in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, New York, most probably at the Forest Hills Country Club.** At the dance a Peruvian delegate from the United Nations (Jose La Valle) got a little cheeky with her. The name of the delegate and location of the dance can be found at the Lilly Library .(See "Guest Editor Schedule" with annotations by Plath in Plath Mss. II, Box 12, Folder 7: Mademoiselle Materials as well as in Plath's 1953 calendar. For more on the dance, Elizabeth Winder's Pain Parties Work (2013) is the most authoritative resource.)

Another way in which the scene reminds me of Plath's first meeting with Hughes is with Marco's diamond stickpin. Famously, Plath recited a line of Hughes' poem "The Casualty" when they first met, the line "most dear unscratchable diamond" being particularly memorable. Some of the words in this Hughes poem litter the scene in the novel, like "smashed," "snake," and "handkerchief." It is possible there are more examples and ways in which the scene in the novel reflects or relates to the poem.

Esther keeps Marco's bloody streaks on her face "like the relic of a dead lover" (119). Not a one-to-one parallel, but consider these lines from another Hughes poem written much later, this time the Birthday Letters poem "St. Botolph's":

"You meant to knock me out
And the swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks
That was to brand my face for the next month.
The me beneath it for good." (15)

Hughes here is writing back both to Plath's novel and to the memory of their first meeting, remembering the "swelling ring-moat" relic bestowed to him by his dead lover.

One other thing sticks out and it is one of those strange harbinger things at which Plath was eerily adept. Toward the end of The Bell Jar, Buddy Willard comes to visit Esther Greenwood at the hospital where she is recovering. He asks her, in a beautifully funny way, "Do you think there's something in me that drives women crazy" (252)? He mentions that first Esther tried to kill herself, then Joan. And the "strange harbinger" thing about this involves Plath and Assia Wevill in relation to Ted Hughes... First Plath went, and then Wevill... Art imitating life imitating art...

*This part of this blog post was drafted in January 2012.
**This was the day after the Rosenberg's were executed.
Citations from The Bell Jar from the Heinemann, 1963 edition.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

Really interesting correllations Peter, especially for me and the 'Birthday Letters'/Falcon Yard meeting connection.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.