The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
published 1963 chapter 1
Doreen singled me out right away. She made me feel I was that much sharper than the others, and she really was wonderfully funny. She used to sit next to me at the conference table, and when the visiting celebrities were talking she’d whisper witty sarcastic remarks to me under her breath.
Her college was so fashion-conscious, she said, that all the girls had pocket-book covers made out of the same material as their dresses, so each time they changed their clothes they had a matching pocket-book. This kind of detail impressed me. It suggested a whole life of marvellous, elaborate decadence that attracted me like a magnet…
[they are going out to a party]
Doreen looked terrific. She was wearing a strapless white lace dress zipped up over a snug corset affair that curved her in at the middle and bulged her out again spectacularly above and below, and her skin had a bronzy polish under the pale dusting-powder. She smelled strong as a whole perfume store…[She was] fiddling with her white lace pocket-book cover.
The narrator, Esther, is one of a group of college students doing what we would now call an internship in New York in 1953 – ‘the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs’, as the opening line of the book tells us. They are working at a teenage girls’ magazine, as Sylvia Plath did herself. Plath does a great job of giving us the atmosphere of the girls living and socializing together, bitching and forming alliances. Doreen calls one of the other girls ‘Pollyanna Cowgirl’, and Esther is torn between the sophistication of the one girl and the respectable values of the other. Doreen has a peach silk dressing-gown and see-through nylon and lace nightdresses, whereas everyone else has ‘starched cotton summer nighties and quilted housecoats, or maybe terry-towel robes that double as beachcoats.’
It is impossible for us to read Plath’s book without knowing that she attempted suicide when she was Esther’s age, and eventually succeeded not long after this book was first published. As one literary critic says, ‘perhaps it is not that she rejects society, but that she genuinely does not feel she can belong to it or understand it… Plath seems to have interrogated every situation she was in until she could not abide it any longer.’
Doreen wears a white dress, Esther a black one (and Esther has a black evening bag, so doesn’t need a special cover for it…); the black dress will feature on the blog later in the week.
The photo is of a wedding dress by the Italian designer de Cesare, and, like this blog entry, came from Perry Photography: you can see more of her pictures at Flickr.