For Whom the Bell Jar Extols

Edward Gorey's Fantod in a Bell Jar

Shortly after 9/11 I began to see bell jars, as I wandered about town. Curious little domes, sprouting up like so many glassy mushrooms, with increasing frequency, as decorative accessories flaunted in smart shops and well-appointed interiors. Today, from an aesthetic point of view, a potted hothouse flower, e.g. a Jack in the Pulpit or a curiosity, e.g. an Egyptian mummy's severed finger -- well, more simply put, these days a table top decoration seems nearly naked without a bell jar at hand to trap it there.


A bell jar is the paradigmatic opposition of a snow globe's self-contained whorling, glitter-and-glycerin nor'easter. The bell jar, quite obviously, protects its fragile contents from the outside world's harsh realities.

Conversely, Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel established what's-caught-within-the-bell-jar as a notorious metaphor for the claustrophobia of clinical depression. " the person in The Bell Jar, blank and stopped up as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream."


Good, or bad, the blown glass dome is hardly a fad. Why? For starters, the bell jar was a ubiquitious accessory in late 19th century interiors, employed to protect the horror vacui of Victoriana -- fussy and more-often-than-not peculiar table top decorations from unsightly, greasy accumulations of dust motes and soot e.g. bouquets of flowers made from wax, or seashells, or human hair; beadwork baskets of fruit; taxidermy squirrels resurrected in lifelike poses, etc. And, I suspect, this late 19th century fascination with bell jars was, more importantly, a subconscious attempt to preserve what's held most dear, as result of the War Between the States' catastrophic losses.

For centuries, the bell jar has also been called a "garden cloche", serving out-of-doors to protect an early spring plant from a late frost, and to its hasten maturity. A terra cotta bell jar will transform rhubarb, a deadly brute of a clump, into a palatable cluster of sweet, delicate pink stems ready to be baked in a pie.

A "cloche" made of fur felt or other haberdashery stuffs becomes a woman's close-fitting brimless hat (From French: bell, from Medieval Latin clocca) typical of the 1920s and 1930s. The cloche hat is hardly au courant as a fashion accessory, but remains an enduring symbol of the Jazz Age flapper. As are rolled stockings and bootleg liquor; wearing aigrettes and smoking cigarettes; the liberation from the wasp waist and monobosom of the Gibson Girl silhouette that preceded her; vamping and syphilis.

But I digress.

Beyond the realms of decoration, and horticulture, bell jars are also frequently used in the classroom to illustrate the effect of a vacuum chamber. If Sylvia Plath had chosen to remain amongst the living, she would certainly have learned to appreciate the irony of the following science experiment in relationship to her prose, a demonstration that the propagation of sound is mediated by the air:

1. A ringing alarm clock is placed under the bell jar.

2. As the air is pumped out of it, the shrill noise of the alarm clock fades...

There. Evidence.

Setting an alarm clock is futile within the confines of a bell jar, where life becomes a ceaseless "bad dream". If you have the misfortune of getting stuck, muster the courage to lift the bell jar off of your head and use it to nurture flora, instead.

The online shop at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's exquisitely self-designed house and garden museum, offers up a handsome looking terra cotta bell jar for your own garden.

Or try for a glass bell jar, to wear on your head to the next literary-themed costume party.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia - Mutter Museum exhibits ghastly fluid-preserved anatomical and pathological specimens; alas, no pickled fantods are to be found.

The Bell Jar was first published in 1963 under a pseudonym because Sylvia Plath
questioned the novel's literary value and did not believe it to be a "serious work".

Walker Evans, Woman Wearing Cloche Hat and Stole,
New York City, 1928-30 Metropolitan Museum of Art