‘I saw myself sitting in the crotch of the 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.’
-Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, p. 73.
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is full of interesting symbolism and imagery. The most iconic image, however, is the fig tree that torments protagonist Esther. She first encounters it in a story about the relationship between a Jewish man and a Catholic nun. Esther returns to the image later as she considers what career path to take and spirals into panic about her future:
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple pig, 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 off-beat 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. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of the 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. 1
In this passage, Esther worries about the different opportunities available and believes that if she picks one she cannot pursue the others. Society forces women to choose one path because they are unable to be both career driven and a mother figure. The fig tree is contradictory, however, because it could be perceived as a positive image due to the limitless possibilities that life can give. On the other hand, Esther finds the amount of choices overwhelming as she believes that she can only have one. The conflicting nature of the fig tree represents Esther’s inner turmoil between conforming to the expected role of a young woman in New York and her desire to be an individual. Perloff suggests that during this period ‘female roles are no longer clearly defined, women are confronted by such a bewildering variety of seeming possibilities that choice itself becomes all but impossible.’2 Perloff’s statement sympathises with Esther’s struggles and it is often a common dilemma that young women have, even during the present day. Each branch represents a different choice. Therefore, the fig tree can represent how society – and Esther herself – enforces pressures upon young women to restrict themselves to one path in their lives.
Although the fig tree highlights the struggle of young women in society, it is Esther’s inability to decide on a career path or future that shows her unstable mindset. The fig tree paralyses Esther and forces her to watch herself starve to death which foreshadows her later suicide attempt, offering a warning to the reader of the seriousness of her unhealthy mentality and inability to decide. Esther witness her actions from afar which suggests a detachment from her mind, implying her mind is not at one. The disassociation could indicate she does not feel attached to the aspects of herself that are mentally unwell or is in denial. Stephanie Tsank proposes that ‘Esther’s inability to make decisions about her future has to do with her negative perception of self and her belief that she is unqualified to make such a decision’.3 Tsank’s view focuses on Esther’s internal struggle which is more crucial to understanding how her illness dangerously impacts her thought process compared to society’s influence. As Perloff suggested, many women were confronted with the restrictions of womanhood, yet not all of them suffered with mental health problems. This raises the strong possibility that mental illness can be attributed as much to the individual mindset and personality as to societal influences.
The symbolism of a fig itself expands on Esther’s inner turmoil. Esther describes the fig as ‘fat’ and ‘purple’ which implies an exotic, sensual fruit due to its Mediterranean origin.4 The colour purple is often associated with royalty, luxury, and wealth which suggests the choices are initially met with pleasure due to the vast amount of opportunities. Furthermore, figs are full of rich flavour suggesting that the positive associations imply Esther is initially inspired by the prosperity. The end of the passage shows the figs wrinkle and turn black, losing their richness, which symbolises the consequences of Esther’s indecisiveness and the loss of all options. This change represents Esther’s transformation as she sinks deeper into depression further on in the novel. The inside of a fig evokes sensual imagery and has links to fertility and female genitalia. In Greek, the word for fig (sykon) is the same word for vulva which directly links the two, providing the reader with an image of sexuality.5 These associations can be applied to Esther as her virginity is another personal choice and shows her struggle to find a sexual identity. She never experiences healthy relationships with men or strong enough relationships with women to discuss these issues. The fig tree is also biblically significant as Adam and Eve covered themselves with leaves from this tree to hide their shame and sin after eating the forbidden fruit. Therefore, by linking these religious associations to Esther’s indecisiveness, the suggestion is that Esther feels shameful towards her confusion. Although the pressures of society can influence Esther’s attitude towards her future, the symbolism and meanings of figs demonstrate that it is her own inner struggle, turmoil, and anxiety that causes her to have such a distressing view of her future.
Featured Image: Front cover of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005)
1) Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (London: Faber & Faber, 2005), p. 73. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.
2) Marjorie G. Perloff, ‘”A Ritual for Being Born Twice”: Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’’, Contemporary Literature, 13.4 (1972), 507-522 (p.515)
3) Stephanie Tsank, ‘The Bell Jar: A Psychological Case Study’, Plath Profiles: An International Journal of Studies on Sylvia Plath, 3 (2010), 166-177 (p. 175).
4) The Columbia Encyclopaedia, 6th ed., ‘fig’, The Columbia University Press [n.d.] <https://www.encyclopedia.com/plants-and-animals/plants/plants/fig >
5) ‘sycophant (n.)’, Online Etymology Dictionary [n.d.] <https://www.etymonline.com/word/sycophant>
Written by Sophie Shepherd
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