| fig (feminine noun) | /fig/
I originally considered writing my master’s thesis on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. But rereading the novel and devouring research on the fragmented female identity, as portrayed in Plath’s novel, resonated too much and sent me spiraling. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, The Bell Jar chronicles the emotional breakdown of Esther Greenwood, an intelligent, highly-ambitious young woman living in the 1950s. The text was originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, because it is an autobiographical account of Plath’s struggle to reconcile society’s dualing ideas of femininity: the nurturing housewife and the successful career woman. Written at the height of the second-wave feminist movement, Plath believed that these two “personas” were mutually exclusive.
Using the image of a fetid fig tree, Plath outlines her dilemma as follows:
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. 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.”
Plath’s story saddened me, because I identified so closely with her inability to unite these supposedly “dichotomous” expectations of herself. Plath never succeeded in doing so, and she committed suicide at the age of 30.
I finally stepped away from my research and chose another topic. Sentimentalizing the work was breeding an unhealthy relationship, and I knew I couldn’t continue.
But I wonder, if a fig tree stood before me prophesying my future, what would I see? Perhaps one fig would be a renowned scholar and professor of comparative literature. Another would be a loving mother in a cottage in the French countryside. Or maybe a private school teacher in the mountains of Vermont, where I see myself sitting on a porch sipping sour beer and stroking my dog. One fig might be a travel writer whose feet have treaded the sands of Senegal and admired the hillside cabins of Poland and India and Peru.
But unlike Plath, I do find myself reaching toward one of these fruits. My fingers graze the surface, and as it snaps from its branch, my hands begin to shake. While these futures aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive possibilities, there are sacrifices to be made. And I find myself questioning my ability to choose. How do I know I’m not making a grave mistake?
And my isolated locale distorts my perception and amplifies my fears like a strange and horrible reflection in a funhouse mirror. I am alone in the mountains, my only companions the hot sun and the endless sky. I wonder if I’ll feel more confident once I’m in Paris. Or maybe I’ll find myself gazing out a window and wondering, “And if I had chosen the other fruit?”