DEL Island Discs Episode Eight: Esther Greenwood

Welcome to Episode Eight of DEL Island Discs! Our presenter this week is Sybil Ruth and our castaway is Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. Sibyl Ruth graduated forty years ago, and as part of her English degree, she wrote a dissertation on Sylvia Plath.

It’s never easy to decide which eight tracks to take to a desert island and for Esther Greenwood, heroine of The Bell Jar, there is a particular challenge. It’s the soundtrack of our youth which makes the deepest impression on us. But for Esther her unhappiness, her preoccupation with achieving high grades meant that she couldn’t properly hear the music around her. Only later, as an optimistic young mother, would she have been able to look back on the music of this era and pick out some of its most enjoyable songs.

NB. You’ll note that Esther has not picked any miserable songs by 21st century indie bands and/or melancholy singer-songwriters. Despite a few progressive ideas, she was a creature of the 1940s and early 1950s.

1. Too Darn Hot – Broadway Cast.


For better or worse Esther’s adult life was shaped by one ‘queer sultry summer.’ Her New York hotel room was stifling, and by the time she got home to New England she was too depressed to change into suitable clothes and enjoy the fresh air. This was also a time of great frustration. Esther wanted to shed her virginity, but finding a suitable – or unsuitable – partner was not straightforward. So Cole Porter’s lyrics with their allusions to impotence and frustration would have been very apt.

2. Hound Dog – Big Mama Thornton


One of Esther’s many regrets is that she is ‘a terrible dancer’. While Doreen and lascivious ‘hound dog’ Lenny, the DJ jitterbug away at his impressive New York apartment – he’d have been playing the latest hits – she stands on the side-lines sipping vodka. But she relishes the air-conditioning and the glamour of the surroundings. Esther ‘wouldn’t have missed Lenny’s place for anything’

3. Kalinka (trad.)


Of all the men Esther encounters in New York, she will have the fondest memories of Constantin, a Russian simultaneous translator at the UN. When he invites her to his place afar dinner ‘to hear some balalaika’ records, she eagerly accepts his invitation, assuming that sex is on the agenda. It seems astonishing, given the rhythmic potency of the music, that no seduction took place. But their evening will have led to a lasting fondness for the balalaika.

4. Hernando’s Hideaway – Carol Haney


An especially unsatisfactory date ensues when Esther is set up with tango-loving Marco. When she protests, ‘I can’t dance’, he helpfully responds, ‘You don’t have to dance. I’ll do the dancing… Pretend you are drowning.’ The evening ends most unhappily, but Esther will have salvaged something from their encounter. At least she now knows that with a good lead, it’s possible to become submerged in dance music, to ‘blow and bend’ to its rhythm. Having freed herself from Marco’s clutches, Esther must have enjoyed the tango scene in The Pajama Game which opened on Broadway the following year.

5. Do I Worry- The Ink Spots


Esther is a worrier, a compulsive over-thinker. She’s unable to stop fretting about her future. And the person who worries her most is Buddy Willard. Initially he was useful. She gained status with her peers after he took her to the Yale Prom. But it’s scary that so many people expect her to marry someone she doesn’t respect – or even like. The soothing harmonies of the Ink Spots serve to validate her fears.

Am I frantic, ’cause we’ve lost the spark?
Is there panic when it starts turning dark?
And when evening shadows creep, do I lose any sleep over you?
Do I worry? You can bet your life I do

6. Massachusetts – Gene Krupa and his Orchestra feat. Anita O’Day


Esther may appear unenthusiastic about returning from New York – but this is because of having to spend the summer with her mother. Childhood places remain important to her, and even at her most depressed she gains benefit from exploring them. Once Esther’s had the chance to benefit from therapy, to establish herself elsewhere, it’s easy to imagine the rush of pleasure she will experience at the prospect of revisiting her home State

7. My Heart Belongs to Daddy (Bea Wain)


Who could be expected to love a mother, who keeps going on about the importance of a) virginity and b) shorthand typing? Esther’s refusal to conform to these expectations may be linked to having lost her father as a child. But she would approve of the partnership between the singer Bea Wain and her husband Andre Baruch. The couple presented a radio show together.

8. La Mer – Charles Trenet


Esther studied French at High School, and wishes to travel in Europe. Till she can get there, proximity to the ocean is best. Her happiest early memories involve ‘running along the hot white beaches. The sea a source of rebirth ‘The water had spat me up into the sun, and the world was sparkling all about me like blue and green and yellow semi-precious stones’. This record is probably Esther’s favourite out of the eight.

Esther’s luxury
For her luxury Esther who ‘loves food more than just about anything else,’ and whose favourite dishes are ‘full of butter and cheese and sour cream’ will choose a large American refrigerator.

Esther’s book
On the island she is going to take a break from literature. But Esther does need a project to which she can apply herself. So she’ll take along Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol.1. Julia Child’s complex recipes will occupy her till rescue comes.


Many thanks to Sibyl Ruth for being our guest presenter this week!

About English Literature at Reading

The Department of English Literature at Reading has been an internationally recognised centre for research and teaching in English Studies for over a hundred years. Our teaching system, with its emphasis on seminars and tutorial work, encourages our students to discuss ideas with tutors and other students in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. All of our students have access to dedicated study advisors; our academic placement scheme and 'professional track' programme provide invaluable preparation for subsequent careers.
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