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A Key to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and more

For the Arvon course on Sylvia Plath's Prose that I co-taught with Heather Clark in June 2023 in Yorkshire, I re-read The Bell Jar making note of the events Esther Greenwood experiences that source back to something lived by Sylvia Plath. For example, we know Plath resided at the Barbizon, which she morphed into the Amazon in the novel. The aim here was to develop, as it was, a "key" to The Bell Jar

This key as structured right now has three columns. The first column is the scene from the novel--a word, a phrase, a sentence, etc. The second column is the chapter and page number for reference, using the first Heinemann edition (a photocopy of it!). The third column, then, is information about the source: a reference to a letter, a journal, or some other "thing" (that's a technical term) that came out of a direct experience Sylvia Plath had. 

This project is something that I had long wanted to do and it helped me develop how I would present the novel to the students that signed up for the course. 

There were a couple of experiences I wanted to find for ages and both relate to Richard Norton/Buddy Willard. One I presented during the book launch for the paperback edition of the Bloomsbury Handbook to Sylvia Plath back in January (available on YouTube; watch the whole program, please, but my portion in particular starts around 44 minutes into the recording). And that was the source for the line in the novel that "TB is like living with a bomb in your lung." The origin for this is from a poem Richard Norton sent in a letter to Plath from 27 January 1953: 

Plath first used this line and image in her 1954 short story "In the Mountains." 

The other interesting piece took a little longer to locate and acquire. When Esther Greenwood visits Buddy Willard at the TB place, he hands her a publication with a poem entitled "Florida Dawn" printed on page 11. She thought it was dreadful, but told him otherwise. 

The source for this is Richard Norton's poem "Florida", written during his senior year spring break when he visited the sunshine state. The poem was published in The Spider's Web, a serial issued by Jonathan Edwards College at Yale. Norton mentioned it in his 19 May 1951 letter to Plath. Frustratingly, the poem was published on page 8, so now someone has to write about the significance of changing this from page 8 to page 11 and what that means.

While we are thinking about Richard Norton (Obituary), now seems to be a good time to let you know how he inspired Sylvia Plath's 1953 short story "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom", which was published for the first time as a standalone book in early 2019.

In his first letter to Plath from the Saranac Lake region in New York on 22 October 1952, where he underwent treatment for tuberculosis, Norton wrote about his train travel to get there from Wellesley/Boston: 

            "The thin blond boy sat by the train window. His nose was nearly always pressed to it, and in reward he saw hills and trees, ponds, rivers, freighters, bridges, house, factories, funny people, colors and shapes.

            "The engines hummed hour after hour, and about noon the boy took out a brown paper bag and ate four sandwiches carefully and thoughtfully. There were two changes to make, but the same kind of wrinkled, kindly conductor appeared on each of the new trains.

            "The land outside the window did a strange thing. It changed from mid fall to winter in about an hour. Snow appeared on the ground, at first in thin patches and later all around and about an inch thick. There were icicles on the rocks by the tracks. The trees comprised more and more evergreens.

            "So that the boy knew he was coming into a northern land. Mountains appeared, and some of the ponds were frozen over. It reminded the boy of places he had been as a young child, and he was very glad. He could not leave off studying the changing scene, even to read, and the ride ended after sunset with the boy staring back at the western sky -- trees silhouetted against it.

            "At the destination there was a large building in which they told the boy he could have a room...."  

Shortly after this in her journal Plath wrote on 14 November 1952, 

            "I had lost all perspective; I was wandering in a desperate purgatory (with a gray man in a gray boat in a gray river: an apathetic Charon dawdling upon a passionless phlegmatic River Styx...and a petulant Christ child bawling on the train...). The orange sun was a flat pasted disc on an smoky, acrid sky. Hell was the Grand Central subway on Sunday morning. And I was doomed to burn in ice, numb, cold, revolving in crystal, neutral, passive vacuums, void of sensation" (153).

Thus the main setting and scenery of her story "Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom" was set with the train ride, the nefariously colored sun, the changing landscape, and the isolation of a solitary ride.

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All links accessed 17 February and 24 March 2023.

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