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Plath’s fig tree: The Bell Jar’s 60th anniversary – JP St Georges College

Described as “A near-perfect work of art” by Joyce Carol Oates, Esther Greenwood’s account of a year spent in a metaphorical bell jar is beautiful as it is witty and disturbing. The first time I read this book, raw and realistic, I was instantly connected with Plath’s writing. Despite the novel being only 228 pages, the bell jar explores themes of mental health, social expectations of women, personal ambition and female sexuality; making it a progressive piece of literature for its time. 

The Bell Jar follows the coming-of-age story of Esther Greenwood, a young college student who dreams of becoming a poet. When she is chosen for a summer internship as a guest editor of a ladies’ magazine, her life begins to break apart as she struggles with her identity and the norms of 1950s society.

“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.” For Esther, the fig tree becomes a symbol of various paths that she may choose in life. She imagines that each fig represents a different life, but she may only choose one fig. Because she is unable to choose just one life, she instead chooses none, and the figs rot and fall to the ground.

Almost every young person can relate to the fig tree: that horrible, suffocating feeling of indecision, the sense that every choice you make for the future means giving up on ten other choices. The knowledge that you can only move forward, and that if you choose the wrong “fig,” the right fig might fall and rot before you get to it. Plath’s fig tree analogy also serves as a reminder to young women that marriage and motherhood are not integral parts of female life and that women can take control of their own destinies. 

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