Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

When Nin could not get her stories published, she printed them herself on a treadle press. Nevertheless, Nin considered the thirteen stories collected in Under a Glass Bell, and Other Stories (1944) to represent her best work. Each piece presents characters who are isolated from normal human existence by some kind of protective enclosure. The isolation is presented as alluringly peaceful on one hand and terrifyingly devoid of life on the other.

Although two other stories in the collection, “Hejda” and “Birth,” are more frequently anthologized, “Under a Glass Bell” presents Nin’s protective enclosure motif most clearly. Jeanne and her two brothers are symbolically imprisoned in their family mansion where giant chandeliers or “icicle bushes” cast a blue film over the furnishings that Nin compares to a “glass bell.”

However, the isolation is more psychological than physical. It is the three siblings’ feelings of superiority that isolate them from other human beings. They see themselves as more sensitive, more creative, and more appreciative of creativity than other people. As a result, they cannot love their spouses, their children, and certainly not Jeanne’s Georgian prince. Turning to one another for affection and inspiration, they develop a psychological romantic triangle, the most obvious attachment being that of Jean for Jeanne when Jean courts his sister by anonymously sending her the series of romantic prints.

Jeanne, having received some insight into the nature of her existence while she is in the room of mirrors, returns to the garden where she has the opportunity to free herself from the “glass bell” that encases her life. Choosing safety, she once more kisses Paul’s shadow and dies, her death being implied by the snapping of her guitar string.

Nin suggests, then, that life cannot be lived in a vacuum, no matter how attractive the inside or sordid the outside.