Describe in detail how the symbol of food in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, propels the protagonist's descent into insanity.

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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One of the most striking images of food is the fig tree. The image comes from a story about a Jewish man and a Catholic nun. In the story, the man and the nun continue meeting to pick figs until they touch hands. After this, the nun stops coming. Esther compares this story with the relationship between her and Buddy. Later, Esther imagines the tree as a representation of all the possible paths her life might take. 

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 . . . 

In this image Esther conjures for herself, she is unable to decide which path/branch to take. Consequently, the figs die and drop to the ground. This symbolizes how she feels that no path is suitable for her, because just one path is limited. No path/branch will nourish her, in the sense of edible nourishment as well as being satisfied in life. In other words, just as one feels empty with hunger, Esther feels empty because she feels unable to choose just one path. 

It occurred to me that my vision of the fig tree and all the fat figs that withered and fell to earth might well have arisen from the profound void of an empty stomach. 

Consider the idea of "being fed" not just in terms of food, but analogously in terms of being instructed, taught, brainwashed. Women are fed (or force fed) very limited roles, only certain occupations, and they are certainly force fed (via the media and magazines in this case) how to look and behave. It is this idea of being fed certain ways of being that Esther grows increasingly more displeased with. This happens so much, that the result is a desire to withdraw from that world completely; thus, the drive towards death.

Compare this with her initial image of the fig tree representing her many opportunities in life. She imagines sitting under the tree, unable to choose because choosing one means losing all of the others. Unable to choose, she starves to death. With such limited options (able to choose only one), she remains forever hungry and without any satisfying path in life: physically and mentally starved. Isolated under the dying tree, this image is comparable to being isolated under the bell jar. 

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