The opening line of The Bell Jar gives a clear indication of the period in which the novel is set: the Rosenbergs were executed by electrocution on 19 June 1953. It is also the first indication that the novel is to be highly autobiographical: Sylvia Plath spent June 1953 in New York as guest editor on Mademoiselle, a monthly magazine for young women.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were American communists convicted in March 1951 of espionage – specifically, of passing information about the atomic bomb to the Russians. They were sentenced to death on 5 April 1951, although it was over two years before the sentence was carried out. In the intervening period, legal appeals were made against the conviction, as well as pleas for clemency from high-profile figures including Pope Pius XII and Pablo Picasso.
Death by electrocution, or 'the electric chair', is one of the most barbaric forms of state-sponsored execution. It has now been outlawed in most American states. Execution is now generally by lethal injection, although there are still some states where electrocution remains an option should the condemned person request it.
Madison Avenue is a long stretch of road, running north to south, situated in the borough of Manhattan in New York City.
Between its 57th Street and 85th Street is one of the most fashionable shopping areas in New York, where a whole range of up-market jewellers and boutiques are to be found, including Armani, Cartier, Dior, Givenchy and Gucci.
BLOOMINGDALE'S is an iconic New York department store situated at 1000 Third Avenue.
The 'Starlight Roof' was a night-club and dining area in the prestigious Art Deco style Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, and was a fasionable venue for New York Society between 1931 (when the hotel opened) and the 1950's. Its most notable feature was the retractable roof from which its name derives.
In The Bell Jar, the reference is to 'some Starlight Roof', and it may be that the experience described in The Bell Jar is based on a dance and dinner which Sylvia Plath and her fellow guest editors on Mademoiselle attended at 'St. Regis Roof' in June 1953*.
St. Regis Hotel is a smart New York City hotel which opened in 1904.
*referred to in: Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (Pocket Books, New York, 1977) p.115.
Here, the experience of the narrator of The Bell Jar reflects Sylvia Plath's own experience of winning a guest editorship with Mademoiselle magazine from June 1 - June 26, 1953 (although Plath was one of twenty guest-editors, not one of twelve)
Mademoiselle magazine was a fashion and beauty magazine for women, which was also renowned for publishing short stories by well known writers such as Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. It was first published in 1935 and ceased publication in 2001, at which point some of its staff, and some of its features, transferred to Glamour magazine.
In a letter to her mother* (dated May 13, 1953) Sylvia Plath lists those writers whom she would like to 'interview and be photographed with' during the period of her guest editorship. In her own words, they are 'J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye and tremendous stories); Shirley "The Lottery" Jackson; E.B. White of New Yorker fame; and Irwin Shaw.' After listing them, she goes on to say that she hopes 'one of those luminaries' would consent to be seen with her.
In the event, her hopes to meet these particular authors were not realised. However, she was able to meet the authors Santha Rama Rau and Vance Bourjaily. She was also able to interview the novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Bowen.
*Sylvia Plath Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-63, Ed. Aurelia Schober Plath (Faber, 1977) p.114.
The Amazon is the fictionalised version of the women-only Barbizon Hotel, situated on Lexington Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where Sylvia Plath and her fellow guest editors stayed in June 1953.
Opened in 1927, it was designed as a 'safe haven' for well-to-do women working in New York.
Readers may, of course, read what they will into Plath's choice of fictional name for the hotel: the Amazons feature in Greek and Classical mythology as a nation of all-female warriors!
The Katharine Gibbs secretarial school in New York was one of a chain of secretarial schools in North East America. The first of these was founded on Rhode Island in 1911, under the title 'The Providence School for Secretaries'.
In the 1980's the schools expanded their programs to include many aspects of business administration and computing, and began admitting men to their courses. However, during recent years the organisation has faced difficulties which have led to restructuring and closures.
The narrator's lack of experience outside her native New England matches that of Sylvia Plath at the time of her stay in New York in 1953.
Whilst working for Mademoiselle, Sylvia Plath had dealings with both Betsy Blackwell, the Editor-in-chief, and Cyrilly Abels, the Managing Editor, and there is some evidence that she amalgamated these experiences in the fictional account of her involvement with 'Jay Cee'.
'Sigma-Chi' is the name of a fraternity in the North American college system.
Fraternities are all-male organisations found on university campuses in the U.S.A.,which provide social activities, and may have their own premises known as 'chapter houses'. Membership generally involves some sort of ritual 'initiation ceremony'.
The female equivalents of such societies are known as sororities.
Fraternities and Sororities are generally given names which include either two or three letters of the Greek alphabet. They are, therefore, sometimes known as Greek letter organisations or Greek societies.
These organisations may also exist within the high school system. A short story by Sylvia Plath entitled 'Initiation' (published in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams) is based on her own high school experience of joining a sorority.
B.H. Wragge was an American clothing company, established in 1920. Between 1930 and 1950, it specialised in a style of 'separates' which was particularly popular with college students.
The significance of the initials 'P.Q' is not clear.
This is the nickname given by Doreen to Betsy from Kansas to convey both her bubbly personality and rural background.
Pollyanna is a popular children's novel by Eleanor H. Porter, first published in 1913, after which the term Pollyanna became a byword for any bright, cheery, optimistic, person.
A cowgirl is the female equivalent of a cowboy.
'Yalies' are students from Yale University.
Yale University is a private research university in New Haven, Connecticut. It is one of the eight northeastern institutions known collectively as the 'Ivy League' colleges which are renowned for their academic excellence, selectivity as regards student admissions, and their social elitism. Originally a men-only college, it began admitting women in 1969.
Yale, founded in 1701, has numerous distinguished alumni, including five presidents of the United States, which gives added bite to Doreen's remark that 'Yalies' are 'so stoo-pit'!
At the St. Regis roof dance it was, in fact, 'Yalies' who were provided by the Mademoiselle team to act as escorts to Sylvia Plath and the other guest editors.
The character Buddy Willard (who is to be mercilessly slated later on in the text) is based on Dick Norton, whom Sylvia Plath knew from her high school days. The couple started 'dating' during her first year at college when Dick was a student at Yale, and continued to do so after he transferred to Harvard Medical School in 1951.
Cape Cod is a peninsula on the coast of Massachusetts, which is extremely popular as a holiday destination.
Both Sylvia Plath and Dick Norton took 'vacation jobs' on the Cape during the summer of 1952.
An Old-Fashioned is a cocktail that was first served at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1880s.
Its main ingredients are whiskey (preferably bourbon), sugar, and Angostura bitters. It is generally garnished with orange slices and a maraschino cherry, and traditionally served in a tumbler known as an 'Old-Fashioned glass'.
Here we have an excellent example of the narrator's terse, witty, sarcastic style.
The opposition to alcohol in society reached its peak during the period known as the Prohibition (1920-1933) when the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol for consumption was banned at a national level throughout the U.S.A.
Dubonnet is a wine-based aperitif, fortified with herbs, spices, and quinine, which originated in France.
It was created originally as a novel way of getting members of the French Foreign Legion to ingest quinine, a defence against malaria.
As the text suggests, it was considered quite a sophisticated drink in the 1950's and 60's. In later years its popularity declined, although it has recently undergone something of a retro revival.
It is a key ingredient in many cocktails.
In her biography* of Sylvia Plath, Anne Stevenson refers to an unpublished letter of 13 June 1953, written by Plath to her mother, mentioning that the taxi in which some of the guest editors were travelling to the ballet became stuck in traffic.
According to the letter, a man approached the taxi and said, "Too many pretty girls for one taxi. I'm Art Ford, the disc jockey. Come in for a talk." Some of the guest-editors did get out and join him in a café, and spent some time with him in Greenwich Village later that evening.
We do not know, of course, to what extent (if any) the character of Lenny Shepherd is based on Art Ford!
*Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (Penguin, 1990) p. 41.
An interview with Art Ford:
With a few small mistakes (or deliberate modifications), these lyrics are those of a song entitled 'Sunflower', recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1949, as are the lyrics quoted a few lines later. Recordings of 'Sunflower' were also made by other artists, including Dean Martin who sings a slightly different version of the lyrics.
Recordings of it were made by Jerry Colonna, Merle Travis and Roy Rogers.
The streets of New York City are arranged as a grid system, where streets run at right angles to each other.
The plan was devised by a commission set up in 1811 who proposed that New York be divided into 12 avenues running north to south, and 155 streets running east to west, thus creating almost 2,000 blocks. It was further decided that streets and blocks should be given numbers not names.
The location of the 'Amazon' (Barbizon) in the New York grid system:
This is a reference to the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. It is a group of four buildings, the largest of which, the Secretariat, was built between 1949 and 1950. The complex as a whole was completed in 1952.
The narrator's description of the building is very imaginative and very apt!
Dick Norton, the character on whom Buddy Willard was based, became ill with tuberculosis during his 2nd year as a medical student at Harvard.
A griffin is a mythical beast with the body and hind legs of a lion, and the head, wings and claws of an eagle.
Some old-fashioned cast iron bathtubs stand on four ornate legs of different designs (such as griffin legs). One of the most common designs for cast iron bathtub legs is the 'clawfoot' design.
Although most of the real-life individuals fictionalised in The Bell Jar are somewhat modified, the narrator's close family are very accurate replicas of Plath's own relatives.
Plath's maternal grandmother, whose married name was Aurelia Schober, was an Austrian immigrant to the United States. (Aurelia was also the name of Sylvia Plath's mother).
The magazine Ladies' Day is probably a fictionalisation of the American magazine Woman's Day which was first published in 1931, and is still published today. During the period in which The Bell Jar was set, it specialised in food and cookery articles, and other domestic issues.
Woman's Day was one of a group of seven American magazines, known collectively as the 'Seven Sisters', which were aimed at married women with children. Six of the 'Seven Sisters' group are still in existence.
Sylvia Plath's choice of name may also be influenced by the Ladies' Home Journal, the title of another magazine in the group.
In the 1950's 'Howard Johnson's' was a chain of restaurants throughout the United States.
The company was founded by Howard Deering Johnson who in 1925 opened a small drugstore in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he began serving ice cream.
A 'frappe' (derived from frappé) is the name given (mainly in the New England states) to a milkshake made with ice cream.
Sylvia Plath's maternal grandfather, Frank Schober (an Austrian immigrant, like his wife), obtained work in the Summer of 1942 as the maitre d'hôtel at the Brookline Country Club in an affluent suburb of Boston.