‘Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit’ by Sylvia Plath


The year the war began I was in the fifth grade at the Annie F. Warren Grammar School in Winthrop, and that was the winter I won the prize for drawing the best Civil Defence signs…

More lost innocence and more feet of clay are dealt with in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit.’ A young girl growing up opposite an airport spends her nights dreaming that she can fly, like Superman “in his shiny blue suit with his cape whistling in the wind, looking remarkably like my Uncle Frank who was living with Mother and me.” But when she is blamed for something she didn’t do (pushing over her schoolmate Paula Brown and spoiling Paula’s brand new snowsuit) she is dismayed to discover that her inherent assumptions regarding ideals such as fairness and rightfulness are really quite useless when put up against the actual cruelty of other children and the fallibility of adult judgement:

The silver airplanes and the blue capes all dissolved and vanished, wiped away like the crude drawings of a child in colored chalk from the colossal blackboard of the dark.

First published in Smith Review, 1955. Collected in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Other Prose Writings, Faber & Faber 1977

‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’ by Sylvia Plath

‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’ is a delirious short story, about the nine to five job of “a dream connoisseur. Not a dream-stopper, a dream-explainer… but an unsordid collector of dreams,” a rogue secretary, who devotes her spare-time “to none other than Johnny Panic himself.”  Set in a psychiatric clinic, this darkly comic, oneiric and well-pitched tale, delves into the secretary’s dream records, her capture by the Clinic director and concludes with a terrible finale, featuring Johnny Panic himself, “the air crackling with his blue-tongued lightning-haloed angels.”

Written 1958; first published posthumously in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Faber and Faber, 1977

‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’ by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s work seems to attract those who interpret her poems and prose solely in terms of what they might reveal about her troubled life. She is rarely thought of as comedic. But  what I like about ‘Johnny Panic’ is its edgy noir humour. The narrator – like all good authors? – is a collector of stories. She believes the fantastical dreams she transcribes in her hospital job are as true as any daytime narrative. In dreams Johnny Panic may speak freely.Well, from where I sit, I figure the world is run by one thing and this one thing only. Panic with a dog-face, devil-face, hag-face, whore-face, panic in capital letters with no face at al. It’s the same Johnny Panic, awake or asleep.But unfortunately the heroine’s determination to consult the work of her predecessors lands her in a risky situation.

First published in Atlantic Monthly, 1968. Collected in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Other Prose Writing, Faber, 1977. Available online here