Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511
In “Under a Glass Bell,” Anaïs Nin describes the lifestyle of Jeanne and her two brothers, Jean and Paul. The narrator, presumably Jean, first describes the family residence, a well-appointed French mansion where many generations have lived. The furnishings, while beautiful, are so fragile that the butlers are careful not to touch anything. The rooms are lighted by glass chandeliers that the narrator refers to as “blue icicle bushes.” Giving off an indirect light, these “icicle bushes” cast an aura that makes everything in the house appear to exist “under a glass bell”—the kind of glass bell often used to preserve bouquets of flowers.
Next, the narrator records a long monologue in which Jeanne, her face seeming to be “stemless,” tells of her relationship with her brothers and her mother. Speaking for her brothers as well as for herself, Jeanne insists that their relationships to one another are more important than their relationships to their spouses or their children, that all three scorn the demands of the real world in which their bodies age, and that the three need to live heroic lives, a present-day impossibility. That seeds of this unusual relationship were clearly planted by the mother becomes evident when Jeanne calls her mother the “true” queen of France, who retreated from daily existence by taking drugs and by having hallucinatory talks with Napoleon Bonaparte.
Then the narrator tells the story of Jeanne’s aborted affair with Prince Mahreb, a Georgian prince. Jeanne cannot respond to the prince because she believes that he is too ordinary. When the narrator sends her an exquisitely romantic Persian print, Jeanne, assuming that the print has come from the prince, renews the affair. Each day, for four days, the narrator sends Jeanne another Persian print, each one more romantic than the first. However, by the fifth day, Jeanne discovers that the prince has no imagination, and her face hangs down once more like a “stemless plant.”
The remainder of the story is framed by two incidents with Paul. Jeanne, finding Paul asleep in the garden, kisses his shadow. Returning to the house, she enters the room of mirrors. Jeanne is disturbed by the fact that the multiple images show that her silk dress is eaten away and that her brooch has lost its stones. Trying to peer into the truth of her soul, she sees instead the actress in herself, not her true self.
Frightened by her experience with the mirrors, she runs back to the garden where Paul is still sleeping. The narrator intimates that at this point Jeanne reaches a crossroads. She can smash the glass bell that separates her and her brothers from the rest of the world or she can elect to remain in her comfortable womblike existence. Predictably, Jeanne’s choice is the latter, and once more she kisses Paul’s shadow. When Paul awakens, Jeanne tells him fearfully that she has seen the image of her body as it lies in the tomb. At that precise moment, Jeanne’s guitar string breaks and she presumably dies.
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