Page 27. " Lenny and I are going to Coney Island "

Coney Island is a peninsula in the Brooklyn area of New York City. During the early part of the 20th century, it was an important resort and amusement park area, although its popularity began to decline from the late 1940s onwards. It has, however, undergone recent regeneration projects.

 

Page 27. " and then go to Central Park "

Central Park is an area of parkland covering 843 acres, situated right at the heart of the borough of Manhattan in New York City.

Page 30. " She went straight from this office onto Time "
'Time' Magazine cover, January 1945
Public Domain'Time' Magazine cover, January 1945 - Credit: TIME Magazine
Time Magazine cover, July 1939
Public DomainTime Magazine cover, July 1939 - Credit: TIME Magazine

Time is a prestigious weekly news magazine which was established in 1923 and is still in circulation.

Its cover page is famous for its distinctive red border, and for the tradition of showing a picture of one person only.

Page 30. " My mother spoke German during her childhood in America and was stoned for it during the First World War by the children at school "
American 1st. World War poster
Public DomainAmerican 1st. World War poster - Credit: James Montgomery Flagg

This incident reflects the personal history of Sylvia Plath's mother, Aurelia. Brought up to speak German by her two Austrian-born parents, Aurelia Plath could not speak English when she started school, and she did indeed experience some persecution from the other children.

Her experience of prejudice and hostility was shared by many immigrants of German extraction in America during the First World War: the Red Cross barred individuals with German surnames from joining their organisation; in Minnesota, a minister of the church was tarred and feathered for praying in German with a dying woman; in Cincinnati, the public library was asked to remove all books written in German from its shelves; and in Iowa, the governor banned the speaking of any foreign language in public places or in schools.

On the whole, the German American community (including Sylvia Plath's grandparents) responded by making greater efforts to integrate into the English-speaking community. Many Germans also chose to americanise their surnames, changing, for example, Schwarz to Black; Müller to Miller; Zimmerman to Carpenter, and so on.

Page 30. " My German-speaking father, dead since I was nine, came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia "

Sylvia Plath's father, Otto Emil Plath, was also a native German speaker. Born in 1885 in the German town of Grabow, he emigrated to America in his 'teens.

He died on 5 November 1940 (following a leg amputation made necessary by the complications of untreated diabetes) just a week or so after Plath's eighth birthday.   

In this line from The Bell Jar, there is a hint, perhaps, of the passionate resentment which Sylvia Plath felt against her own father, which is so vehemently expressed in her poem 'Daddy', written in 1962. Interestingly, in the poem she says, 'I was ten when they buried you'.

Sylvia Plath reads 'Daddy':

Page 30. " My younger brother was at that moment on the Experiment in International Living in Berlin and speaking German like a native "

Sylvia Plath's younger brother Warren did spend some time in Germany in June 1956 (which was several years after the period covered in The Bell Jar). He was there when Plath married Ted Hughes in London.

The 'Experiment in International Living' program was launched in America in 1932, and now operates in 28 countries. The parent body for the nationally-based organisations is known as Federation EIL.

The purpose of the program  is to allow young people to gain experience of other cultures through extended  visits to foreign countries, with the emphasis on participants immersing themselves in the customs and language of the host culture.

Page 31. " except for a course in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and a seminar in advanced poetry-composition, I would spend my whole time writing on some obscure theme in the works of James Joyce "
Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeSmith College, Northampton, Massachusetts - Credit: MacAllen Brothers, Wikimedia Commons

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a Russian writer best known for his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina;

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Dostoevsky) (1821-1881) was also a Russian novelist, best known for two novels: Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

James Joyce (1882-1941) was an Irish novelist and poet. Amongst his best known works are the novels Ulysses, Dubliners, and Finnegans Wake.

In June 1953 Sylvia Plath was a student at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and was planning to write her senior year thesis on some aspect of the work of James Joyce.

She later changed her mind and wrote a thesis entitled 'The Magic Mirror' which dealt with the use of 'the double' in two novels by Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov and The Double.

Page 33. " I knew chemistry would be worse, because I'd seen a big chart of the ninety-odd elements hung up in the chemistry lab "

The periodic table of the elements - which The Bell Jar's narrator knew would drive her round the bend!

Periodic table of the elements
GNU Free Documentation LicensePeriodic table of the elements - Credit: Le Van Han Cédric, Wikimedia Commons

 

Page 34. " and wrote page after page of villanelles and sonnets "

A villanelle is a complex 19-line poetic form which follows strict rules regarding rhyme and the repetition of certain lines;

A sonnet is a 14-line poem which follows prescribed rules regarding rhyme and metre.

Listen to Dylan Thomas, said to be one of Sylvia Plath's favourite poets, reading his villanelle  'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night':

 

Page 35. " The man had just sold six short stories to the New Yorker "
Copies of 'The New Yorker'
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeCopies of 'The New Yorker' - Credit: Daniel Spils, Flickr
The New Yorker is an American magazine, established in 1920.

It contains articles on political and cultural issues, and is also well known for its short stories, poems, and literary reviews.

As a young woman, one of Sylvia Plath's aspirations was to see her work published in magazines like The New Yorker.

Page 36. " My mother had taught shorthand and typing to support us ever since my father died "
Secretaries at work, New York City (1937)
Public DomainSecretaries at work, New York City (1937) - Credit: unknown

Following her husband's death in 1940, Sylvia Plath's mother was obliged to go out to work to support her family. After a period teaching at the local high school, she obtained a job organising courses for the training of Medical Secretaries at a Boston college. She herself had taken a course in typing and shorthand at the same college prior to training as a teacher. 

Page 37. " I had the scholarship of Philomena Guinea, a wealthy novelist who went to my college in the early nineteen-hundreds "

Philomena Guinea is the fictional representation of Olive Higgins Prouty, the novelist whose $850 scholarship Sylvia Plath held at Smith College.

Page 37. " and had her first novel made into a silent film with Bette Davis, as well as a radio serial that was still running "
Anne Elstner and Vivian Smolen - actors in the radio serial, 'Stella Dallas'
Public DomainAnne Elstner and Vivian Smolen - actors in the radio serial, 'Stella Dallas' - Credit: National Broadcasting Company
Olive Higgins Prouty
Public DomainOlive Higgins Prouty - Credit: unknown

 Olive Higgins Prouty (1882-1974) was highly successful as an author. Her novel Stella Dallas became a bestseller in 1922, and was made into a film both in 1925 and in 1937, the 1937 version starring Barbara Stanwyck in the leading role. Stella Dallas was subsequently serialised on the radio (1937-1955).

Another of her novels, Now, Voyager (1941), was also made into a film in 1942, starring Bette Davies.

Sylvia Plath has, therefore (deliberately or accidentally) got some of her facts wrong in The Bell Jar.

Olive Higgins Prouty lived in a mansion in Brookline, a wealthy suburb of Boston, not far from the country club where Sylvia Plath's grandfather worked.

 

                                                                

 

Page 37. " I had read one of Mrs. Guinea's books in the town library - the college library didn't stock them for some reason "
Belle Bennett (Stella Dallas in the 1925 film)
Public DomainBelle Bennett (Stella Dallas in the 1925 film) - Credit: Photoplay magazine

Here the narrator, in her wittily sarcastic way, is suggesting that Philomena Guinea's books, whilst popular, were not renowned for their literary merit. We may probably assume that this is also Plath's view on the writing of Olive Higgins Prouty.

For an example of Olive Higgins Prouty's writing, try The Fifth Wheel (1916)

Page 38. " a nice blonde girl who looked like June Allyson "

Screenshot of June Allyson (1953)
Public DomainScreenshot of June Allyson (1953) - Credit: Trailer screenshot
June Allyson (1917-2006) was a popular American film and television actress in the 1940's and 1950's.

Page 38. " a sexy black-haired girl who looked like Elizabeth Taylor "

Elizabeth Taylor, born in 1932, made her first film when she was 9 years old, and worked consistently right through to the 1980s.

She is also renowned for getting married 8 times to 7 husbands!

    

Page 39. " in dresses like something out of Gone With the Wind "

Gone With the Wind is a 1939 film, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, which has achieved iconic status in the world of cinema.

It is based on the book of the same name by Margaret Mitchell, and is set in the American South in and around the period of the American Civil War.

      

Page 47. " 'Is that Miss Esther Greenwood?' "
Esther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim
Public DomainEsther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim - Credit: Arent de Gelder

Up to this point, the narrator has been nameless (apart from being briefly given the false name, Elly Higginbottom, when she and Doreen spend the evening with Lenny Shepherd).

In biographies, 'Greenwood' is given as the maiden name of Sylvia Plath's maternal grandmother although, as she was born in Austria, 'Greenwood' is presumably the americanisation of a German surname.

The name 'Greenwood'* may also have been chosen to convey a sense of youth, immaturity, and naivety, reflecting the narrator's lack of experience in certain areas of life. 'Greenwood' is also an old English name for a forest.

The name 'Esther' may have specific personal associations for Sylvia Plath, or she may have had in mind the biblical Esther, who was responsible for the deliverance of the Jewish people.

(* 'green wood' is freshly felled wood which is still 'sappy')