Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams - Story Summaries
This page summarizes each story in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. The summaries follow the format of the British edition, which prints two more stories than the American edition. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams includes most, but not all, of the short stories Plath published.
For a complete list of know prose works by Plath, please see the Works Index page. These prose pieces are available at various archival repositories, primarily in the United States.
Part I. The more successful short stories and prose pieces.
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
Plath's unanimous best story! As a secretary for a Boston city hospital the "I" (we'll call her Sylvia as she is not named) of the story is working for Johnny Panic, maker and keeper of Dreams. Sylvia's typing all the dreams of the hospital's 33-year history to be made into one massive volume, the Bible of Dreams. There is not a dream Sylvia that can't remember reading. She is able to identify people by their dreams and knows that their dreams better shape them than their last names, jobs, etc. Enter Miss Milleravage, the secretary for the Observation Ward. Miss Milleravage is a devilish sort of character who finds Sylvia one night reading & typing stories for Johnny Panic's Bible of Dreams. She is lead to an unfamiliar part of the hospital and is confronted by orderlies and Doctor's and is given electro-therapy. But as this great shock is administered Johnny Panic comes to the rescue, "He forgets not his own."
Published posthumously, this candid essay was written for a British audience on the free public school education Americans receive. Plath also reveals the degrading horror of trying to be accepted into elitist groups of girls who are catty and chat away the day superficially. This exact theme runs through her 1952 short story Initiation.
The Day Mr. Prescott Died
Agnes and her mother travel through Boston to visit friends of the family who just lost their husband/father. Agnes does not feel sorry because Mr. Prescott was mean-spirited. Her mother scolds her for such unsympathetic behavior. At the house Agnes finds sympathy and is very helpful.
The Wishing Box
Agnes, jealous of her husbands' creative, colorful and adventurous dreams, swallows a bottle of sleeping pills to kill herself. A dark story.
An essay written in 1962 for the BBC. Plath quotes a tiny poem by Ezra Pound comparing the poet & poem relationship to that of packer and suitcase packed. It is a work expounding the differences between the novelist and the poet. The room the novelist has to work with, and the constraints & limitations to which the poet must adhere. The essay begins, "How I envy the novelist!" It moves from having the space to include toothbrushes into novels to the compact snow-globe world of the poem. The end paragraphs tidy up the relationship of poet & novelist very nicely,
"The door of the novel, like the door of the poem, also shuts. But not so fast, nor with such manic, unanswerable finality."
At the time it was written, Plath had published a volume of poetry, The Colossus, in 1960, and had written her novel The Bell Jar. Originally broadcast under the title "A Poet's View of Novel Writing" on 7 July 1962.
The Fifteen-Dollar Eagle
Carmey, the tattooist, gives a sailor a four-colored tattoo of an eagle for $15. In the shop watching her first tattooist is the narrator (unnamed), her man Ned Bean and Mr. Tomolillo, a short man replacing the springs in Carmey's instruments. A two-colored eagle is only $9.
The Daughters of Blossom Street
The Daughters of Blossom Street offers its readers a glimpse into Plath's life as a secretary for Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), located feet away from Beacon Hill. Blossom Street runs right through Beacon Hill and must have been very familiar to her. Blossom Street is a code name for the room/exit whereby the dead of the hospital leave for funerals. This is done to not upset the patients. This story is similar to "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams" because it is about her time at MGH, and like "Johnny Panic" it is an excellent story.
Under the threat and strike of a hurricane, the story relates the lives of several secretaries and a bonding that takes place during a weekly meeting. The body count rises and stops at two, making it one of Plath's most violent stories. The elderly character of Emily Russo, a fellow secretary, dies of cancer shortly after a visit by all the others. The death character is Billy Monihan. He is a mirror figure, a quintessential Plathian character. He is misunderstood at first and scoffed at by the ladies for being dumb and like an oaf. But when he dies, in the process of retrieving files from darkened rooms (from power loss), by falling down the stair well, his memory is changed and immortalized. His great effort is recognized and thus Billy Monihan is turned into a hero. This story also introduces one of Plath's most famous characters, Mrs. Tomolillo.
'Context' is an essay commissioned by the London Magazine. It is very short and introduces any reader into a polished view of poetry in 1962. It is powerful and elegant. The ending of the essay is an example of Plath's prose writing at its best. She says,
"Surely the great use of poetry is its pleasure-- not its influence as religious or political propaganda. Certain poems and lines of poetry seem as solid and miraculous to me as church altars or the coronation of queens must seem to people who revere quite different images. I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far--among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime."
The Fifty-ninth Bear
Sadie and Norton are in Yellowstone Park for a cross-country vacation. They are counting bears as a game to see who could guess most accurately. Sadie's guess is 59, Henry's 71. When they do encounter the 59th bear it is at night, and the bear is ravaging their car and food supply. Norton goes out of the tent with a flashlight to shoo it away but is killed by the bear. A similar event did occur on the Hughes's trip but Ted did not, obviously, get himself slaughtered.
Esther attends Evensong at her small country church. She is accompanied with Rose and Mrs. Nolan, two of the villagers living near Esther's thatched-manor house. After the service all the women and the rector retire to a well-lighted room for tea and cakes. This is a meeting of the Mother's Union. When Mrs. Nolan is found to be a divorcee she leaves knowing she is not welcome there.
Commissioned by the BBC, Sylvia Plath wrote this essay for a series entitled, Writers on Themselves, in January 1963. This creative autobiographical piece is a very glossed and poetic rendering of her childhood in Winthrop, Mass. Nonetheless, it stands as one of the best pieces in the book, lends deep insight into the world in which she both lived and was able to create. Plath discusses the early realization of the separateness of the world that came with the birth of her younger brother, the Matthew Arnold's poem, "Forsaken Merman," and the great hurricane of 1939 (which, in actuality, hit Massachusetts in 1938). The beauty of the language and the images mirrors the poems Plath was writing and would write before her suicide. To read more about "Ocean 1212-W", please see These Ghostly Archives and These Ghostly Archives, Redux.
An essay written on the condition of living in London during the horribly cold 1962/63 winter. This is a very telling piece from the last four weeks of Plath's life. Though she wrote some perfect, beautiful poems during this time up to within six days of her death, this prose piece one of few surviving gems, highlight Plath's ability to write in a variety of genres.
Part II. Other stories.
"It was a denial of individuality." Millicent has gone through five days of social torture as part of her initiation into a popular, powerful group of high school girls. She realizes in the end that the way of life these girls are living is not acceptable to her. At the end of the story, with egg drying in her hair, she emerges from a darkened basement as her true self. This is a fine early story about being a poet if you want to be a poet--hearing the song of the heather birds if your ears are tuned right.
Sunday at the Mintons
Elizabeth Minton has returned home to live with her older brother, Henry. Henry is very stiff, mathematical. He is very concerned with directions and punctuality; Elizabeth is not. On a routine walk along the ocean Elizabeth drops her broach pin into the rocky shoreline. The tide is coming in fast and strong and Elizabeth is worried the waves will sweep her pin away. She imagines Henry going onto the rocks to save the pin and a great wave crashing and sweeping him away.
This story was originally published in Mademoiselle, August 1952. It won Sylvia Plath the Guest Editorship in New York, June 1953 and led to her breakdown and first suicide attempt.
Superman and Paula Brown's New Snowsuit
This story is a small sketch of one day in Winthrop. Geographically accurate, Plath creates a tension common to all children; 'the she did it, not me' type. The narrator is remembering the day the Great War began with the hindsight/buffer of 13 years. The end of the story presents something most believable. The mother confronts the daughter on the veracity of the claim that the daughter pushed Paula Brown, dressed in her new snowsuit, into a patch of mud. But of course she didn't do it.
In the Mountains
A wonderful little story relating a visit to the Adirondacks by a girl to see her boyfriend. Over the six months apart Isobel has grown distant from her previous strong emotions, Austin, so bored, just the opposite. The story is similar in many ways to the famous seen in Plath's novel The Bell Jar where Esther visits Buddy Willard at his TB Sanitarium and breaks her leg. This story is different in that Austin, the budding doctor, really tries to convince Isobel that 'things' will return to normal once he is released, in another six months time. Isobel is not so sure, and though it's not written, the stress Isobel is feeling leaps off the page as real and clear as doubt can be.
All the Dead Dears
A story about dead loved ones! Plath wrote a poem of the same title with nearly the same theme. I think this story is much easier to read than the poem. The setting is in Haworth; a small town in West Yorkshire famed for its residents the Brontë's. The language Plath uses in this story is very "English," or how any American would think the English actually speak. This story is haunting and not just because it deals with ghosts. There are several little scenes talking about dead loved ones, but the hanging of Lucas is the longest, most involved and most interesting!
Day of Success
Ellen, a jealous, suspicious wife, delays telling her husband Jacob about the acceptance of his play to be produced in the West End of London. The day passes with Jacob away talking with the pretty red-haired producer over drinks and Ellen left home to tend their new born child. Ellen takes tea with Nancy, wife of a famous playwright, which succeeds in only making her thoughts worse. She undresses, takes a bath and feels much better. Jacob returns home jubilant with news of a house for sale in Cornwall.
Part III. Excerpts from notebooks.
Sylvia Plath was a voracious writer of her journals. The four pieces in this section were selected - at random and from what I can tell - and also left out of the 1982 edition of The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Her journal writing changed pace as she matured as a poet. She wrote magnificent character sketches as can be read in 'Rose and Percy B,' for example. Also, 'Charlie Pollard and the Beekeepers' from June 1962, is a direct link to her wonderful Bee sequence that appear in the Ariel poems. This also illustrates that although the poems are simply brilliant, sometimes the journals helped Plath to collect (or re-collect) thoughts, scenes and in some cases, word for word experiences for her poem making.
Part IV. Stories from the Lilly Library.
Day in June
On a perfect June day two girls go canoeing and meet two boys whilst on the water. One of the girls says she has no money and the boy pays for their time with the canoe. It is discovered that she lied and the day ends sourly in silence.
The Green Rock
Susan and David return to their childhood home near the sea to visit their Aunt after five years away. Whilst on the way there, Susan daydreams about what it was like...playing along the beach and making pretend that the green rock that jutted out of the sand was their castle, mountain or sailboat. On actually being there, seeing their old home repainted and the beach & rock much smaller, they become disappointed.
Among the Bumblebees
Alice is her father's favorite child and she adores him more, thinking he is a god. They have a secret form of communication and are very close. He is power and she wants power. She is very mean to her pale, sickly little brother Warren and will do anything to turn her Daddy off of him. She is happy with him and then he gets sick and dies.
Tongues of Stone
The darkest story I've known! This is a piece that takes place in a mental institution. "The girl" is recovering from a suicide attempt and sees the world as a dark, foreboding place where she is not welcome. She is given insulin in hopes of 'a reaction.' The climax of the story occurs when she has a reaction and knows she is on the road to recovery. A scene like this is also in The Bell Jar.
That Widow Mangada
Sally and Mark, two Americans, holiday in Spain for the summer to write and relax. On entering Villavienta they meet Widow Mangada who offers them a room in her beachfront house with a balcony overlooking the ocean. Sally finds the widow intrusive and out to get her, in a way. With the relationship failing between landlady and tenants, Sally and Mark find a more affordable place ten minutes walk away. The widow disappears.
Stone Boy with Dolphin
A fictionalization of her first encounter with Ted Hughes. Very nice for the detail that did not find its way in to Plath's emotionally flooded Journals. The title comes from an actual statue at Newnham College, Cambridge.
Above the Oxbow
A boy and a girl walk up a mountain to see a famous New England tri-state view. A State Park employee asks that they pay the fee necessary for either parking on the grounds or walking on the ground. The girl becomes outraged at this and storms off crying. The boy, much calmer (perhaps English) pays the employee and chases after the girl.
Named after a popular comic book character, this story takes place during World War II. Sadie bites Leroy in the leg as a means of self-defense from tickling. The children are relatively quick to forgive the incident but the neighborhood turns against her and her family. They blame Sadie's behavior on the fact that her father is German and does not go to Church. Sadie's father is asked by the government to go west to a 'camp' for Germans. Sadie stops believing in God because of this.
Sweetie Pie and the Gutter Men
Two college acquaintances get together for an afternoon of children minding and lemonade drinking. Myra, most closely related to Plath's own voice and experience, tells a story about sneaking into a hospital dressed as a doctor to see a birth. She complains about the medicines doctors use to take away the pain of natural childbirth so that women will be willing to do the whole thing again. This particular scene is practice for The Bell Jar.