Reaching for the Fig Tree

Fig tree and fruit

Photo taken from Unslash

My time with Slyvia Plath

I read Sylvia Plath often and ravenous, an activity more akin to a vulture compulsively tearing apart its prey than simply reading a book. Every time I open one of her works however, I am struck by how much I discover something new, a line that feels just right, or a phrase I have read over and over, yet has matured with me and only now makes sense. 

When I read Plath, I am taken aback at her skill to put into words feelings and emotions that I previously believed were individual to me. It feels like she has reached inside of my own brain and plagiarized my thoughts and wishes, then stated them much more eloquently than I could ever hope. 

Girlhood and womanhood are much more complex than most could comprehend and are next to impossible to describe in a way that justifies their struggles. Yet Plath does so with incredible talent and for me, feels more like a confidant, or an extension of my own mind, more than a girl with a pen.

I frequently feel like my emotions can be too big, too knotted to understand and struggle against the desire to be smaller, more agreeable- to give up space for other more “important” people to occupy. It is obvious to me that Plath felt this often as well, and I am reminded of a scene from The Bell Jar that encompasses this feeling for me in a scarily accurate way. 

The main character Esther Greenwood (a stand-in for the author) is preparing for a photoshoot, to celebrate her time as a guest editor for a magazine. She is given a paper rose to hold, but when she is told to smile, cannot do so and instead breaks down crying- not knowing why she is reacting in this way. 

I can hardly count on both hands how many times this exact scenario has occurred in my life. I should be happy, I have every reason to be proud of myself and my accomplishments, yet the only thing I can do is let the tears fall freely and violently. There is no outward reason to do so, but there is no way of stopping it.

The Bell Jar is a masterpiece (hot take, I know) and feels more like an experience the reader must participate in, rather than a literary work. There were times while reading I could do nothing but clutch the novel to my chest, simply in awe of Plath’s ability to capture the raw emotional truths of Being Female. 

Those intensely crazy experiences we have all had: feeling disconnected from your peers, wanting to create but not knowing if we have anything to say, and after accomplishing what we have set out to do, still remaining unfulfilled. All of which is faced under a stifling veil of sadness, which may often retreat to the corners of our consciousness, but never fully disappear. 

It is romanticized in our culture to always be striving for more and never being content with what we have at any moment. We must always be reaching for the next thing to be happy and feel like there is something wrong when we feel inadequate. 

You begin to wrestle with the harsh reality that your dreams are just too small, that you may never be good enough and there will never be enough time. There is a loneliness that accompanies these feelings as well, the loneliness that makes Plath such an important figure in my own life. 

Her writing takes these emotions and gives them life beyond your own mind, suggesting that no, you are not the only one to experience these intense peaks and valleys and you are far from the last. 

Plath’s allegory of the fig tree is one of her many writings that encapsulates the feelings of being stuck and knowing that you want to do something but having no idea what it is. 

“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 said.

It's a classic for a reason and speaks just as well to a 21st century audience as it did in the 1950s. Especially now, when every bit of information and opportunity is a simple search away. I have found myself feeling so stagnant and frustrated at the fact that I’m not productive enough, I don’t write enough or that I am isolating myself from the experiences I should be having. 

But writings like this put a “face” to these struggles and remind readers that they are capable, and they can pick one fig with the knowledge there are many others waiting to be harvested. Things must come in their own time and, while that in itself is intensely frustrating, I am glad that there are writers like Sylvia Plath, who have raised me from girlhood to womanhood and don’t show any signs of leaving.