By Kejana Ayala |
Stepping into the White Horse is like stepping into the past. After being bombarded by antique white horses, from the marble-headed figurines to the engravings on the windows and light fixtures, you are then caressed by the original wood and design that imbues this neighborhood watering hole with a classical literary atmosphere. A shelter for writers since 1880, this establishment pays homage to Dylan Thomas, its most famous patron, with framed literary awards named in his honor, as well as portraits and photos throughout the bar and backrooms. Although much time has passed since then, the White Horse Tavern still serves as a bubble to shield patrons momentarily from the noise and racing crowds of the city, and this barrier from the rest of the world was probably what another famous writer, Sylvia Plath, found solace in during her first visit to New York City, which she relates in The Bell Jar.
The Bell Jar, Plath’s first and only novel, illustrates a college student’s descent into madness and depression as a result of 1950s society’s expectations, especially towards women. The book opens with Esther Greenwood taking part in an internship for a women’s magazine in New York City. She experiences and then rejects the life of the city, feeling unable to fully connect with it. The overwhelming work at the magazine is her last thread of reality since the pressure just barely holds her together. After she returns home to New England, Esther realizes her inability to write about her paltry life experiences and the limited careers for women—a wife or typist. Thus, she decides to attempt suicide and nearly succeeds. When she is admitted to an asylum and is given birth control, she reestablishes her grip on her sanity and finally breathes the same air as the people around her.
This novel, especially its descriptions of New York City life, parallels Plath’s own experiences in the city. From getting sick in taxis to throwing new clothes out the window, Plath recounts her time in the city during her internship with Mademoiselle magazine in 1953, the summer before Dylan Thomas’ death. The Red Scare and the execution of the Rosenbergs haunted the media, and the news sickened Plath, who pitied anyone facing electrocution. Her only distraction was being a writer and meeting her literary hero, Dylan Thomas, but their meeting was not meant to be. Despite waiting at his hotel and at the White Horse Tavern, Plath never bumped into Thomas, her fascination since high school. Upon her return home to Wellesley, Massachusetts, she experienced her protagonist’s disappointment of being rejected from a writing seminar and suffering from writer’s block. As notable biographer Anne Stevenson describes, “She started to write fiction in that dreamlike state of disconnectedness experienced by people deprived of oxygen to the brain…but as day passed into day without anything having been accomplished, she began in panic to watch words twist awry on the page” (Stevenson 44). Cut off from imagination and hope, Plath slashed her legs to test herself, seeing if she dared to attempt suicide, and she kept attempting until she finally was admitted to a hospital. Meanwhile, Thomas drank himself to death that fall, and just like his poem, he did “not go gentle.”
Listen to Dylan Thomas recite “Do not go gentle into that good night”
Sometimes the words writers bleed onto the page aren’t the first wounds in the battle of creativity. Both angels and demons must be confronted time and again before writers are able to express an inkling of their turmoil. Thomas and Plath are writers who fought their demons as creativity became a life force to the extreme. Although they never met, they shared a sense of alienation and oppression from the world as they failed to tread the supposed path to happiness. Though they sought release from their anguish, trying to drink or cut their suffering away, they still wrote. In their Heathcliff-like states, they gathered their frantic fragments of inspiration and strung them together to create poetry that is still cherished today. Plath exhausted all her energies in The Bell Jar, in which she still lives through her alter ego, Esther, as readers live vicariously through her experience of being lost in the city and disconnected from the world.
When I visited the White Horse Tavern at midday, I couldn’t help but imagine myself in Plath’s shoes. She visited the pub to chase her hero while I was chasing my own. The modern aspects of the ATM, flat screen, and modern clothing didn’t shatter the connection I was hoping to make, for at that moment I had found a reprieve from the world, a lifted bell jar, that gave me room to breathe and break free from the noise of the city. Nestled in a wooden bench, I jotted down the flickers of stories and characters as quickly as my own frantic energy would allow, but for the majority of my visit, I took solace in the scene and felt my existence melt along with it—or as Plath once wrote, “I am, I am, I am” (Plath 243).
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.
Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, Print.
Kejana Ayala is a creative writing major and aspiring screenwriter and author who expects to graduate from Lehman College in 2017. An avid reader and devotee of Peter Pan, she hopes to one day experience and write about “an awfully big adventure.”