One of the most powerful images from fiction that I can recall is that of Esther Greenwood’s imagined fig tree in The Bell Jar. I had one interpretation of the fig tree that I carried with me from the age of sixteen and throughout college; now in my mid-twenties, I find myself thinking differently about it. But I’ll get to all of this later.
First, let’s go back to my 10th grade American fiction class, where the image of the fig tree first planted itself in the corners of my mind.
We were reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as the female antidote to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. We were told that the protagonists in each story, Esther Greenwood and Holden Caulfield, represent the excesses of youth. Both characters are on the cusp of adulthood, burning with energy, navigating existential crises, and struggling to adapt to the demands of entering a new age cohort.
I raced through The Bell Jar in excitement. Finally, we were reading a book in the voice of a woman! Most of the books we read before were by male authors, and centered on male protagonists.
Yet I could not identify with many aspects of Esther’s character, with her fatalism, dark worldview, and consistent cynicism. I later learned that these attributes were due in part to the mental illness that Esther struggled with, and how this intersected with societal expectations for how she should behave as a young woman.
Despite our differences, I found that Esther and I shared a fundamental dilemma: We were both relatively ambitious and bright young women, but somehow tormented by uncertainty. Moreover, neither of us had yet developed strong coping skills for dealing with the ambiguities of adult life.
This predicament crystallized in my consciousness once I stumbled upon the fig tree on page forty. Esther had been running through a list of things that she could become, what she should do for a living now that she is ‘grown up.’ The list takes form in her imagination as the fig tree that I mentioned earlier. Esther reflects:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
We know as readers by this point that Esther is talented and probably capable of becoming any one of these things. Yet the act of choosing which one to become feels impossible, and the thought of it alone fills her with despair. She is paralyzed rather than enlivened by all the options. She illustrates this impasse with the following image:
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
This last sentence, about all the figs rotting beside her because she could not choose just one of them, pierced my heart. I remember having a visceral reaction, having to put the book down so I could collect myself. Is this what will become of me? All this potential, and nothing to show for it in the end but a pile of rancid fruit? I took the fig tree as a cautionary tale, and made it my mission to not end up like Esther. I would choose a fig, really commit to it. I would make something, one thing, of myself — and learn to forget all the other things I could have become.
Since reading The Bell Jar, I have been presented with many figs in my own life. I have tried my best to imagine myself in different lives, and to choose the one that aligns most with my values, ambitions, needs, desires. There have been many moments of confidence: this is the path for me! And in equal measure, there have been moments of doubt and reluctantly admitting to myself: maybe I don’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life. In other words, there have already been a handful of false starts. Moments where I reach for a fig, and while I can feel its warmth in my enclosed palm, I retract my hand instead of plucking the fruit from the branch.
But these days I feel differently about the allegorical fig tree. My eyes are a little sharper now, and I can see that it was never anything more than a distortion of Esther’s imagination. You see, the problem with her fig tree is that you can have more than one fig. The choices were never as mutually exclusive as Esther presented them.
You can take a fruit or two or three from the tree, and there are a finite number of figs you can consume before the harvest ends. Admittedly, many figs will rot due to your limited capacity. But they will fertilize the ground beneath them, and the tree will bear fruit next year. And if you find at this time that you are still hungry for figs, you can reach again for more.
If you’ve had your fill of figs, you can just sit beneath the tree and enjoy its shade, watch as others come to enjoy the bounty. Maybe you’ll gather a basket of figs, not for yourself, but to make a pot of jam, to fill little jars with it and distribute this sweet nourishment to your loved ones.
All I am trying to say, by way of metaphor, is that opportunities come and go, and we make choices that have consequences, but many of them are not completely permanent. Yes, Esther was onto something, to the extent that we only have so much energy and time to truly focus on a path or two at any given moment. But there will often be unexpected diversions along the path, chances to explore territory that we hadn’t considered drawing on the map. Our values might evolve as we mature; our needs, desires, and ambitions might change completely.
Life for many of us will be long, or at least we live as though it will be long, and in one lifetime you can see people working office jobs, then becoming teachers, then doing art. Maybe they spend many rich years doing each of these things. Or maybe they are doing all three of these things at once. You can see people choosing a career and then adopting hobbies that don’t necessarily match that vocation, so their identity becomes more complex than just what they do for a living.
Maybe some try many different ways of living, and settle on a way that is a synergy of those trials, and eventually they reach a place where things remain stable and they focus instead on helping the next generation to find their place. And there are some people who from the beginning only reached for one way of life, and they are happy once they attain it, the heroes of Esther’s allegory of the fig tree.